Tag Archives: Systems thinking

Making and Learning

Instead of thinking about teaching on Tuesday, I spent my day thinking about learning.  On the plane Tuesday morning I sat next to a young family who had vacationed in San Diego to go to Legoland with their two young boys…and got stuck Monday night because of the domino effect of the weather in the midwest and east coast.  For being pretty tired, the boys were great.  The littlest guy (maybe 3 or 4) was playing a game on his DS system.  Whenever he got “stuck,” he would hand the game system up to his older brother (who was maybe 5) in the seat in front of him and ask for help.  Brother would play the troublesome spot and then hand the game back and little guy would go on with his play.  After his brother tired of helping, mom would help…and coach as she did so.

At the same time I was reading Invent to Learn, a book about the maker movement and the value of engaging learners in meaningful activity to maximize learning.  It begins with the theory behind making as learning…including information about Piaget, Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, the Reggio Emilia system, and folks at MIT, including Seymore Papert.  The book emphasizes what they call the constructionist (rather than the constructivist) theory of learning.  Their argument is that through the concrete construction of meaningful projects, learners gain rich, layered skills that serve them in school and beyond.  They also emphasize the value of play.

I landed in Oakland and made it on time for my 9:00 meeting at the National Writing Project offices in Berkeley with a small group of like-minded educators interested in the maker movement, interested in the intersections of literacy and science and STEM-related learning, interested in meaningful learning, both in and out of schools, for young people in their community. We gathered to consider ways schools and writing projects might collaborate with other organizations to further these goals.

I wrote about my experience in Boston with paper circuitry here, and today we met with Jen Dick and David Cook to continue to build our relationship and thinking about the ways writing and circuitry enhance each other and might support student learning in and out of schools.  We began by talking about our own experiences with paper circuitry and the benefits and barriers to bringing it to our own contexts.  Lou had managed to secure some LED stickers from Jie in Boston and returned to his high school class in Northern California where he introduced his students to the paper circuitry project.  He described the success and excitement his students experienced and what he learned from both his students and his own children who also tried out the process.

We took our circuitry learning a step further and programmed mini controllers to make our LED lights blink on and off at intervals we selected.



We also learned about some other exciting new developments on the horizon for merging the science of circuits, technology with programming, and writing.  I still find myself thinking mostly about what students learn when they make a plan and then need to troubleshoot and iterate to get it to work the way they intend.  Systems thinking is a powerful tool that we employ throughout our lives across subject matter and circumstances.

Jie, the designer of the LED stickers, also Skyped with us after we worked with the circuits and we all thought together about how these stickers impact the experience of working with the circuits..and with the the experience of the creating of writing and imagery with the lights.  I appreciate Jie’s attention to the aesthetic experience of composing writing and art and how it is enhanced or impeded by the circuits rather than putting the circuits themselves at the front of the project.  By considering the work as a whole…light and drawing and writing…she reminds us that it is the integration of these elements that create the meaningful result.

The morning ended with the group thinking about how we might put these LED stickers to use back in our classrooms and at our writing project sites.  There was much more to the day…but that will have to be another post.

And I am left thinking about learning.  Those little boys on the plane, the book I was reading, my experience programming to create a blinking light all remind me that the best of learning is meaningful, active and interactive, and collaborative.  Even though I understand the basics of circuitry, sitting next to Peter and examining his working circuit informed my thinking…and since I ran out of time before completing my mini project, I will finish it on my own, at home. I’m confident that I know how to make it work and if I do run into a problem, Peter and my others colleagues are just a tweet or email away.  If you want to see Peter’s finished mini project, see his Vine here.

I can’t wait to share my experiences with my students and with my colleagues.  I look forward to exploring all the ways that writing can enhance and expand this circuitry work along with how the circuitry and lights can add another dimension to the writing.

An Unexpected Appearance

I’ve been on the lookout for unexpected since I saw the Weekly Photo Challenge over at the Daily Post.  But when you are looking for the unexpected, somehow it just doesn’t show up.

With a day off from work today, I decided it was time to tackle that pile of odds and ends that ended up in an unused room because of some work we had done on the house…and we have some new urgency to get it dealt with since we are doing some more work on the house.  This is the pile that ends up in a cupboard somewhere because you can’t quite part with it, but you really don’t know what to do with it either.

Anyway, I picked up a green bound book that I thought was an old address book (back before we kept our contacts on our phones or computers).  When I flipped it open I discovered it was an old photo album.  Most of the pictures were of my husband when he was a baby with a few other odds and ends tucked into the pages.  And then what I thought was a postcard fell out.

It was that perfect postcard size that is so often used for advertising.  It had that “old school” look that modern apps work so hard to achieve.  But upon closer examination I discovered it was a picture of me!


This is a picture of the photograph taken with my iPhone, so you lose the actual size and some of the background off to the sides.

This unexpected photo brings back so many memories…most of them good ones.  I worked for McDonalds for more than 12 years before I went into teaching.  I learned so many skills and practices through my management experiences that have helped me as an educator.

It’s kind of scary to read those menu board prices (hamburgers 39 cents!) and realize that I was quite competent at calibrating that soda machine behind the counter (back in the day before serve yourself soda machines).  I inventoried and ordered all the raw product, scheduled employees for their shifts, kept ledgers of all the sales, hired, fired and trained employees (mostly teenagers a few years younger than I was), and so much more…

While it wasn’t rocket science or engineering, I did lots of systems thinking in my work at McDonalds.  There were many interconnecting components to consider each and every day…and sometimes I had to suffer the consequences when the decision I made didn’t have the intended result.

I like the way the unexpected spurs thinking.  This old photo has me thinking about so many things…my McDonald’s experiences, the changes in photography, wondering what happened to my old friend I used to work with and haven’t seen in years, and even the changes in fast food and the restaurant business.

My youngest son and his wife are coming home tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with us.  I think I’ll leave the photo out for him to see…

Systems Thinking

In addition to learning about circuits in the Hacking Your Notebook session, that I described here, at the NWP Annual Meeting in Boston, I also had the opportunity to participate in a three-hour workshop about e-textiles where we made puppets.  This session also involved the basics of circuitry and using a small battery to light up LEDs.

But Melissa and Kylie framed their session in the theory of systems thinking, which has continued to occupy my mind and thoughts ever since I left the session.  They talked about the ways we often simplify explanations in our society by turning to a binary cause and effect model.  Here’s an example of the cause and effect model: if we elect a new president, then the economy will turn around.  Actually, there are many other factors that impact the end result…and in fact, who is president may not even be the most important factor.

Our educational system (and our government) seems to spend a lot of time in the simple cause and effect model, rather than helping our students think more deeply about systems and the ways there are multiple factors, interconnections, and possibilities at work in the outcomes we see.  So the making of puppets in this workshop was about more than learning how circuits work or developing language and writing related to the puppet, it was also a way to think about systems and the problem solving and iteration that it takes to understand and make changes to the overall system.

So…with systems in mind, we proceeded to explore circuits with a watch battery, LED lights, and wired alligator clips.  Because of my work with circuits the day before, this part was super easy!  And then they asked us to explore how a switch would work.  It didn’t take much to figure out how to touch the switches to each to open and close the circuit, lighting the LED, and then separating them to turn off the light.

Our goal was to make a puppet that had a light (or two) that would light when you turn on the switch (or make a connection that closes the circuit and turns on the light).  We had two pieces of felt cut out in a puppet pattern, a battery holder, a LED light, and two switches (small pieces of conductive material) along with a host of buttons, ribbons, fabric, yarn, and other materials to use to decorate the puppet.

We began by making a plan.  Tracing our puppet on paper, we drew a diagram of where we would sew our battery holder, LED light(s), and switches, labeling the +/- poles and drawing in the stitches we would sew in with conductive thread.  Having our model in front of us to plan was a perfect step.  We could test and physically trace how the connections should flow as we drew the diagram.

Like in yesterday’s post, there were trickier plans I could have tried, but I opted for a simple plan that I knew I could complete in the time allotted.  And then I got to work.


As people worked through their plans and settled into sewing their circuit the room hushed and you could see the intensity of engagement.


For some the sewing was the hardest part, for others it was working through the circuitry, and for others it was totally about creating the puppet character they had in mind.  Here’s my end result…his heart lights up when his hands touch.


There are definitely some things I would do differently the next time I make a puppet.  I learned after I had sewn my circuit in that putting the hands together covered the light…you can see a glow, but it isn’t the effect I had in my head.  Other people were working on pirates and butterflies, some with eyes that lit, some with noses that lit.

And my takeaway has much more to do with systems thinking than it has to do with circuits. I find that I have a better grasp of how to explain some of the approaches I use in my classroom.  Like why design is so important to student learning, why mistakes are valuable to learning…if you take the time to work through what you did and figure out a better outcome, and why students need space to create their own plans and work through the spaces where things are not working the way they intend.

It also has me thinking about other learning opportunities.  I learned to sew as a child, and making clothes and other project definitely involves some systems thinking.  You have to think fabric, including weight, texture, stretch…  Even using a pattern, you have to think about how to lay out the pattern to make best use of the fabric, work with the grain, match the design if the fabric has one…

I’m worried when we make things in the classroom too “neat” that we are working harder and learning more than our students.  That’s one of the things I love best (and hate the most) about teaching writing.  When it’s at its best, it’s messy.  I can have an overall plan in mind for the outcome, but my students benefit from getting “just right” instruction along the way.  And not all my students need the same instruction…and some benefit from learning by watching and listening to their classmates.

After all, the classroom is another system.  When you tweak one aspect, there are many working parts that are impacted.  As an educator it’s important to problem solve and iterate.  It is impossible to make a year-long (or even week-long) plan that won’t change if you are really paying attention to the needs of your students.  We can help break things down for our students, but they also need to figure out how to examine the pieces of a system for themselves in order to understand how the parts interact with the whole.  After all, our students today will be the leaders of tomorrow!

What do you do in the classroom to help your students understand and work through the complexities of systems?