While on a recent trip to the states I visited a school called The Willows in Los Angeles. Gary Stager had recommend this school as being one that is leading the way in maker education. I was delighted to be met by three grade 5 (year 7 students) who excitedly informed me of what they were doing in class. The girls walked me into the STEM room where students were planning their next projects.
The design thinking process is used to plan and prototype their designs. The girls explained that they could work on their own or work collaboratively using the resources that were available. What I liked was that everyone was doing something unique and different. Students first had to write a plan and draw what they wanted to make. Then they got materials and made prototypes of their designs, finally they could print, build, create and make their designs. The best moment was hearing one boy shout for joy when his design finally worked after repeated attempts, fails and iterations. What I noticed was that their teacher Amy Dugre, skillfully knew what information to give them and what to make them figure out on their own. She worked as a guide, asking clever questions to get the students to think for themselves. One question that came up several times was “who does [this design] benefit?” This some will recognise as the empathy aspect of design thinking. Empathetic or ethical thinking was very evident school wide, an example of this was the project called Our House. This project was student driven with the older students guiding and mentoring the younger ones. Students had to design a house and all the contents in it along with a list of expected behaviours and dispositions expected of the residents. High up on the list was how important it was to the students that they all treated each other with care and kindness – this is the world they want. Students made all the components in the house covering most curriculum areas as they created their house. I love the idea of students of all ages, teachers from all departments and the wider community coming together to learn, The Willows do this through their School-Wide Theme projects.
One of the initiatives I loved at this school was ‘learning lunches’. There are four learning lunches a month with the aim being to spark further research or growth. Week one involves a talk or video with week two being a follow up of sharing what staff learnt and what was tried in the classrooms. These lunches were always tied to the curriculum and had a ‘purpose’.
Making as a mindset:
One of the things that was most obvious (and most important in my view) was that making was a mindset for the teachers in this school. When we went into the music room the teacher had made the artwork on the walls and all the props in the room. The caretaker had redesigned a sand sifter to make it work more efficiently – even the science teacher had a very hands-on approach. The picture shows the material provided for students to recreate strands of DNA. When I asked Amy about integrating maker into the school, she explained that change takes time and had started with having the teachers come along when she took the students for technology class. This way the teachers were learning as well.
One example of maker that I particularly liked was one where students used Logo to program a computer to make repeating patters. The students then 3d printed their objects and later used them in Art class as part of a project that involved joining them together to produce an installation. This interdisciplinary approach is business as usual for this school, you can read more about the approach here.
At the Willows they do a thing called looping. Looping is a philosophy that keeps students with the same teacher for two years. This allows teachers to really get to know their students and what their needs are.
A strong emphasis on students driving projects, self-regulation and agency that students had.
Everything had a purpose, technology is used out of a need linked to the curriculum, likewise for professional development.
Importance of empathy and ethics in our everyday learning.
Maker tools are nice, but mindset is key to transformational learning.
Keeping students with teachers long enough to allow for a deep understanding of learner’s needs.
Skilled, passionate teachers are a school’s best asset ( actually I already knew that, but it’s always worth reiterating whenever I can).
A huge thanks to everyone at The Willows school for having me and a special thanks to Amy for the time and care she gave me whilst I was there.
P.S: The Bell. They don’t have one. It was such a pleasant experience to talk to teachers and students without the intrusion of the archaic school bell telling everyone when to start and stop learning! – I hope more schools follow suit…