The thinking behind our first Polygon Door maker labs.
Many years experience introducing young adults from different backgrounds and disciplines to code and coding (programming) has taught us that no-one learns to code well without a reason for coding in the first place.
That is perhaps something we should have already known intuitively as educators but the fact is that we have often started at first principles and tried to work our way up – this is largely the way coding is taught at an institutional level.
In fact this is how pedagogy is structured at an institutional level more generally – not just in coding but throughout the curriculum.
The root of the problem is one of motivation – it’s not rocket science – and its that recognition that sees us get all tied up in knots of motivational abstraction.
We need to learn maths in order to pass exams, to learn english in order to be literate, to learn to code in order to keep up with the jones’, or be future-ready, or to be employable in the digital economy, or to have control over our digital environments (none of which is very true).
At the university level I’m not sure this has ever worked very well. University students are often so entrained in this institutional mode of learning they are already asking the wrong questions when they arrive at a course, ‘what do I have to do to pass?’ – as if passing was the main aim.
Even the best students play this game in spite of their intuition telling them that the real game is in usable, applicable, skills and knowledge.
All experience educators know this to be true – once again – it’s not rocket science. That said it is very hard for an educator in an institutional setting to do things differently.
We are already locked into structures that demand abstract measures of outcomes (assessments) and into a structure and economy of course delivery that demands we perpetuate the transmission model of education; we will transmit our expert knowledge to you the student. Experienced educators know that this is not how learning works.
The real assessment of knowledge is what it empowers you to do. The only way you are are going to value that knowledge as useful is by testing its usefulness (a ridiculous tautology but bear with me). The more useful it is the more motivation you’ll have to extend that knowledge.
If you have a whole class of people exploring, extending and sharing their knowledge by using it in many different ways, through autonomous experimentation guided by expert learners (people skilled at identifying what you need to learn and how you might learn it), then you create a perfect educational storm.
The usability of that knowledge is amplified by the number of students. Motivation becomes continually re-grounded and regenerated in the very fabric of its constitution. Moreover it is not only the knowledge or the ‘knowing’ that has value – the student realises the value of their singular engagement and exploration of potential because others start to value its expression.
That is to say the student becomes valuable not in an abstract sense as a client or customer but as an expert learner – what we all really want in life, first and foremost is to be valued, to be useful. This is a very powerful motivator and at its core it is the very recipe for a vital community. A community of concrete value.
What has this got to do with coding, technology and Polygon Door? Much of the motivation for Polygon Door was born out of frustration for the way learning and teaching media and technology was being developed and executed.
We wanted to move away from an education system that seemed to continually send us students that weren’t really motivated to learn for learning’s sake – but were rather there in class for some other more abstract reason. Those students weren’t generally there to use the knowledge/code/technique/lesson for something other than (various degrees of) passing. We wanted to participate in a vital network and community of ‘expert learners’.
With all this in mind we’ve structured our first courses with some general principles – and for the time being you’ll find them continually perpetuated across courses. We aren’t suggesting we’ve nailed it – but we do think these simple pedagogical principles or guidelines might lay the groundwork for doing learning differently -at least at the level at which we have launched (aimed at kids) ;
1) Each student in each class should walk away with something they have made in hand – a concrete object that stands as proof of concept and which is an expression of their singular engagement with the material.
2) Each student should walk away empowered with the knowledge, expertise, and material to continue exploring and extending the knowledge base to which they have been introduced in extension of the object.
3) Each student should be connected to a network of peers that encourages and values their potential to explore and extend each others discover knowledge.
We begin with these principles. In the first instance this is pretty simple. Students will learn to draw in a software language called Processing, they’ll learn the potential of handing over some creative agency to a machine – and they’ll experience the magic that comes from that generative relation between body and computer/code.
They will produce a t-shirt printed on the spot that stands as a concrete artefact of their own making – an output that they can own (literally and figuratively) that is completely unique.
They will take the code that produced their unique design home with all the knowledge they need to continue to modify and explore its potential.
They’ll also become part of a network of young makers and agile guides in which new ideas can be posted and integrated as the basis for further making and exploring – well- let us call it what it is – more thinking, a thinking by doing – a thinking by doing together so that in the end we are learning not from the teacher at the front of a classroom but from the very real, very motivating, demonstration of use, and exploration of potential, that is all around us in a lab packed full of expert learners.