Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Writing Wednesday: What are our Kids Learning?

It's Spring Vacation in our area, so local area schools are shuttered for the week. Which means I'm not accomplishing a whole lot of writing (or "real" work, for that matter.) That doesn't mean my kids don't have homework and projects to finish.

In fact, one of my kids had a rather involved science project, making a model, a diagram and a written explanation. Ah ha, you're thinking, she's going to talk about high school writing projects.

Um, no.

Actually, I'm going to talk about making models, and how letting kids figure it out on their own helps them engage more of their creative skills as well as their oral communication skills (which will in turn help their written communication skills, but that's for another blog post.)

So the assignment was to create a model of a DNA molecule.

The students were explicitly forbidden from using a model kit, and told not to use Styrofoam balls. Extra points are being given for being creative, and thinking outside the box, although the models have to be sturdy enough to travel to and from school and be handled. They can lay flat, sit up or hang. Go.

I let my child figure it out. I asked them to go through our craft supplies to see if there was anything they could use, or to make a list for the craft store since we were going into town today. They got all excited about it yesterday afternoon when they came up with an idea, contingent upon me giving up part of an older brother's collection...
...of PEZ dispensers. What you see here are the ones left standing. Another thirty plus were sacrificed, losing their heads to the science gods...
Golf balls proved a bit heavy for the endeavor, but they came up with the idea of ping pong balls. Luckily, the local 7Eleven keeps them in stock for the bar across the street where they hold weekly beer pong tournaments. (No, I wish I were making that up.)

Add hot glue and we're good to go. Except when I say "We" I don't mean me. I didn't help, except to give my permission to use the PEZ dispensers. I didn't even express an opinion about the weight of the golf balls. I let it all get puzzled out naturally. I helped passively, by holding pieces while the glue dried, but I did not even touch the glue gun. Not once.

The result? A very cool model that my child is proud of. That they did all on their own. Thought through, worked out the kinks, solved the issues, found a ride to 7Eleven on own (I was working) and - most importantly - understands what each part of the model represents, including the color coding in a very specific order. So the write up should be easy, because they get it. They built it.

Some ask what the point of these kind of projects is. It looks like more fun than work. They should be busy learning vocabulary, practicing spelling, doing sheets of math problems, learning the order of the periodic table, learning to write cursive... and any host of other rote learning skills we learned as young teens.

But planning and problem solving are critical. Learning to think and solve complex problems on your own and in groups is ever more important in our complex world. We have computers that spell check for us, calculators that solve equations for us, and search engines to look up facts and dates. What students really need to learn is critical thinking. Open ended projects like this are invaluable to helping them push the boundaries of their creativity.

And making cool looking models is fun.

What do you think? If you were the superintendent, what would your priorities be?


  1. Hey there, Katie! Long time, no talk!

    The science teacher in me totally LOVES your post. Our students need to have opportunities to be creative and think on their own.

    And the DNA model totally rocks! Tell your child great job! I hope a good grade is gotten from this hard work.

    1. Thanks, Pete! Andy is pretty sure it was the best one turned in today :-)
      But the opinion could be a bit biased, just like my own...


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