When I was in the fifth grade, my class took a field trip to a hundred-year-old one room schoolhouse. We marveled at how desks were arranged in an evenly-spaced matrix, drew on a dusty blackboard at the front and flipped through readers that were primarily used as a learning tool at the time. Yet the classroom we returned to at the end of the day was not that different, nor are classrooms I visit across Michigan today. Students still are often made to sit so they can focus on the instructor at the front of the room. Only recently have chalkboards or whiteboards been supplemented with interactive smartboards, many of which are used only as expensive whiteboards. Textbooks, pencils, and paper are still the primary tools used by many students.
Yet as Thomas Friedman (2013) points out, the world is becoming rapidly hyper-connected, which in turn accelerates the speed at which business and modes of communication change. Content knowledge quickly becomes outdated, an idea I’m keenly aware of as someone who once worked in the computer field. Friedman proposed that in order to be successful in a rapidly-changing world, we must look beyond I.Q. to value a passion quotient (P.Q.) and curiosity quotient (C.Q.) at the individual level. Only then can we continuously grow and reinvent ourselves to keep up with advances. This is not a new idea; we value the ability to read so that not only can we be fully engaged in society, but so we can be lifelong learners. What frames the challenge today is the great number of new technologies that our students must be literate in, and the speed and reach of these changes.
As educators, we need to consider how we are developing our students’ P.Q. and C.Q. I would challenge Friedman’s notion that these ideas come solely from an individual’s initiative, as I believe they can be nurtured in a educational environment through exploration of students’ interests, supportive class culture, and modelling by educators. However, many students are naturally inquisitive at a young age, with “Why?” being a popular refrain, yet that curiosity is squashed early in a student’s time in school. Without curiosity, students will not ask questions and remain passive acquirers of knowledge. Passion for a topic can be contagious, transferred from teacher to student, but educators may not have opportunities to express their passions in a rigid curriculum. Without passion, learning stops once students leave the classroom.
Fortunately, with the staggering array of tools available to us, there are ways to support the pedagogues needed to foster curiosity and passion in students. Inquiry in its simplest form begins with a question, and students can pursue self-guided inquiry by using mentors through social media and Web resources. The use of hash tags on Twitter or user-created forums bring people together around a common interest, feeding into a passion that might otherwise be developed in relative isolation. It is the tools that result from these rapid changes that will allow us to keep pace.
I feel fortunate to be in position where my curiosity can roam and I can spend days or weeks exploring ideas for upcoming programs, using many aspects of my learning network, including meeting with artists and scientists, checking out books from distant libraries, and scouring the web for ideas. After a period of immersion, a passion for a topic can start to develop. One such instance was developing a camp for middle school students on electronics, robots, musical instruments, and anything else that would appeal to the “geek” student. I initially thought we would just put together pre-made kits, but as I explored activity ideas by reading Make magazine, looking at many Instructables, and finding books like Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred, I realized kits would be the antithesis of what I would hope to achieve. Campers would need to be involved in the design and build process from start to finish, not fitting Part A to Slot B. Then not only would they be creating something meaningful, it would be their own. This realization opened many avenues of learning that I could pursue: How do I learn to solder? What types of solar-powered robots can be built from simple materials? How could we create sounds through electronics? My personal curiosity would guide the topics we could cover, and through the intense interest I would develop for some of these topics, particularly electronics and physical computing, I could model what it means to be a passionate learner.
Since I want to use this passion for more than summer camps, my ideal classroom is what I think of as a create space. Inspired by hacker spaces, art studios, and vocational shops, this will be a place where students’ ideas are valued. Students will be encouraged to collaborate through the arrangement of stools and tables which can be pushed together or separated as need be. Materials and tools will be readily accessible by students; at the start of the camp or workshops, students will be trained on the use of these tools so they know how to use them responsibly. Manufacturing tools such as multiple 3D printers and a laser cutter will also be available. A full size 3D scanner made with a Microsoft Kinect will be used in conjunction with the 3D printers. Scientific and art supplies will be available. If students are to be able to create, they need resources available to them in addition to content knowledge. I’d also like the space to be an area for testing cutting edge technology, such as using Oculus Rifts to explore being immersed in an experience. This space will support Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math (or STEAM) in an organic way. Through the process of creation, students will draw from each of those fields in an organic way, so all will need to be taught together to develop trans-disciplinary skills.
I purposefully constrained the dimensions of the room to fit the size of the Learning Labs we have at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, since I hope that it could someday soon be a realistic model for a STEAM classroom. A guided walkthrough can be found here.
Thomas, F. (2013, January 29). It’s P.Q. and C.Q. as Much as I.Q.. . Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/opinion/friedman-its-pq-and-cq-as-much-as-iq.html