Have I ever told you how lucky I am? Over the last week, I’ve gone from a Design Thinking for School Innovation course to our school’s Arts Week where I got to hang out with some incredible people that pushed my thinking and helped me to make some key realizations. I got hang with Zach Lieberman of the School for Poetic Computation. This is a guy who I don’t think is aware that the word impossible is in the English language. He has a mindset of simply figuring out how to make things work. And I’m not talking unclogging a stuck drain of getting your car rolling again when it craps out on the side of the road. Zach makes shoes talk. He paints with the data collected from your running shoes. He helps a graffiti artist with ALS make art again using only eye movement. And he figures out how to bring people together to learn and make in exciting ways that push their thinking and creativity.
More than any one thing that he’s done, I think what excited me most about the time I spent with him was that is the way he thinks. I look at a problem and see the hurdles that are between me and solving that problem. I think that Zach must be aware of the hurdles, but he sees them as opportunities to learn or at least he runs right at them and learns what he needs to to eliminate the hurdles. I’m not sure how much he knew about infra-red technology and how it can be used to track eye movement. I suspect that his art school background gave him a deeper understanding of the techniques, tools and materials that TEMPTONE used when he was capable of making his art unaided. But Zach seems to be the kind of person who simply sees the problem and solves it. He gets it done regardless of how much he has to learn and what challenges face him along the way. The question is never, “Can we make this happen?” It is always, “How can we make this happen?” And the solutions often happen at an exciting intersection of art, technology, science and humanity.
I also got to hang out with one of my favourite ex-students, Derek Gaw of Makerlabs here in Vancouver. Derek and his crew moved a bunch of his gear into our school’s Learning Commons for the week to inspire and raise awareness of different ways for students manifest their ideas. The use of Laser Cutters, CNC Routers, Vinyl Cutters and 3D printers open up ways of exploring, prototyping and modelling design and ideas that students might have. But for me, the more interesting part of Derek’s approach this week was to see how he would go back and forth between tools to create something. I asked him early in the week what the best tool for designing in 3D was. I was disappointed in his answer as he rattled off a dozen or more pieces of software, pausing at each for an explanation of what he used them for: “This one is great for curves. This one does boxes really well.” I’m not averse to learning new software, but learning a dozen new pieces of software is a bit daunting, even for me.
But as the week went on, and we took advantage of gaps in his schedule to work on other projects that I had going, I started to see how different pieces of software, and different pieces of hardware, really do combine to do some amazing things. While trying to replicate a visiting ceramic artists work for 3D printing (he had some specific reasons for requesting this), we jumped back and forth from 3D scanners, to a 3D design tool, to a 2D drawing tool, back to the 3D design tool and we will need to go through a few more pieces of software before we are able to actually press print on the printer. Derek’s knowledge of the strengths of each tool allowed him to see a workflow that not only achieved the result we wanted, but probably made the process possible in the first place.
What this week has also caused me to think about is the relationship between learning tools and using tools to accomplish goals. Too often, our teaching is focused on learning the tool to the exclusion of how you apply that knowledge in the real world. There are projects and exercises that you work through to learn how the tool works and what you need to do to control it. But rarely do we make the explicit step between here’s how to use the tool and how are you going to apply this knowledge in the real world. I know that I’ve taken a bunch of coding courses. Some have been in class situations and others have been online on my own. I think that I should be an amazing programmer now given the amount of course work that I’ve done. But I freeze like a deer in the headlights when it comes to actually applying that knowledge in my own projects. I’ve taken a Laser Cutting course, but I still get nervous around the machine and certainly don’t think of the myriad ways of using that machine to accomplish some amazing goals.
What is lost in our learning experiences when we teach tools, but don’t let students learn to use tools? Do we over-structure learning and not let students simply play? Are we afraid of not accomplishing some curriculum? Are we not wanting students to fail? Is it somehow too risky to let student explore on their own? Do we assume that students will naturally extend the concepts learned in the bird-house making kit to other, more creative applications of the skills that they’ve learned? How do we make the jump from learning to use a tool to learning to use it to create? I think that that many students need scaffolding (or at least designated time) to make that jump.
Clearly, neither Derek or Zach sit down and ask themselves what they are going to make with tool x today. They see a problem or a project that needs doing and they figure out how they are going to do it. They might use tool x in the process, but they let the needs of their project dictate how they are going to accomplish it. They don’t, typically, ask themselves how they might use tool x to solve their problem. Like an artist with their paintbrush, I’m sure that the tool set and the thought process really become one.