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I'm Not Really Sure They're Learning Anything

I'm Not Really Sure They're Learning Anything

For the last week and a half my back patio has looked like this…

…and it is driving me insane. I can’t stand it when things are out of place and as you can see there are a LOT of things out of place here, but I am trying (actively and purposefully willing myself) to let it go because…my kids are building an airplane.

Yep. An airplane. They have drawn diagrams, written shopping lists for the materials they need, assigned themselves and their friends duties aboard the plane and given themselves a mission: assisting NASA with the first maned Mars landing. Their plane will be flown to a NASA launch site, attached to one of NASA’s rockets, flown into the orbit of the red planet where it will descend and land. The entire project is to be designed, constructed and piloted by a crew of five whose ages range from three to seven years.

They’ve spent significant time trying to decide if their plane should use an engine powered by charcoal and wood chips or take advantage of the thrust created from a Diet Coke and Mentos reaction or a baking soda and vinegar mixture. In order to decide they’ve tested each configuration numerous times. It’s a good thing it’s cold outside or else the bees would have invaded our backyard. Right now, it’s just (haha “just”) a sticky mess that reeks of vinegar.

After what was probably the third trip to the store to drop another cool $20 on more Diet Coke and Mentos, I looked at my husband said, “At some point we’re going to have to get this under control.” His response, “Yeah…and I’m not really sure they’re learning anything,” got me thinking. The mess is certainly getting out of control and if we keep funding their experiments we will probably have spent enough to buy an actual build-your-own, remote-controlled model airplane kit, but something about all the time they are spending out there did seem valuable. There may not be any physical evidence of learning-I’d definitely say we have a “process not product” situation on our hands here-but I think they are honing in on some pretty valuable skills.

Brainstorming-When the boys first decided they wanted to build an airplane they asked if we could go to Home Depot to shop for supplies. I suggested they draw up some plans and make a list of what they needed. They filled page after page with diagrams of rockets and engines and crew members’ locations on the aircraft. They have gathered scientific equipment to take on their plane, including a camera to document their actions and findings. It is an incredible display of imagination. They are being-dare I say it-creative! Leaders in fields across all disciplines are screaming, practically begging for innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers. Educators around the globe are trying to figure out how to teach creativity and it’s happening spontaneously (albeit very messily) in my backyard.

Working Together (Read: Not currently arguing with each other. And yes, this is in the kitchen.)

Cooperation and Communication-My kids argue a lot. Like a lot. Traditional sibling rivalry combined with completely opposite personalities make for some explosive moments in our house, but during the time they are outside working on that airplane they communicate effectively. They cooperate with one another. They listen to one another. They negotiate and compromise. They share ideas freely and reserve judgement. These are excellent social skills to practice and I’m a big fan because it means things are relatively peaceful during construction and experimentation and let’s be honest, you really can’t place a value on peace and quiet.

Experimental Prototype

Problem Solving-To test their engines, the boys strapped a bottle with wood chips to one of their foam gliders and took video of their attempts. With each failed flight they learned something new. Trial one: Not enough tape to hold the bottle on. Trial two: The match is melting the foam on the glider. Trial three: The match is being smothered once inside the bottle Trial four: The extra weight on the glider is too heavy for it to fly very far. On and on and on until the glider broke and the boys went back to the drawing board. Each one of those trials offered a small lesson in physics, aerodynamics and perseverance as well as providing them with even more opportunities to think critically and creatively.

I know they won’t construct a plane that will take off (at least not with the limited supplies they have on hand) and I suspect that deep down, my boys know that too, but they are having fun, they are using their imagination, they are enjoying one another’s company and they’re discovering new things. These discoveries may seem obvious to me and my husband (I.e. baking soda and vinegar isn’t going to provide enough thrust to power an airplane) but they’re going to learn a lot more by finding that out on their own than if my husband and I just tell them. So while I might have to avoid going into my backyard for a few more days in order to keep my blood pressure at a healthy level, I’m going to let them brainstorm, cooperate, communicate, experiment and imagine.

 
 

It's life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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