Dive Into Deeper Learning Through Make-A-Thons

A key focus at LaCreole Middle School has been deeper learning, both what it is and what it looks like. We explore deeper learning by finding ways to immerse our entire school community in innovative experiences so that they can engage as a learner again. One of our best experiences is the make-a-thon, which we use in both professional development sessions and special community engagement events.

What is Make-A-Thon?

My friend Derek Runberg, a SparkFun Electronics instructor, developed the make-a-thon concept, which pairs technical skills of coding with the open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino. Make-a-thons are about making things together, with a focus on utilizing practical design thinking to develop prototypes using common craft items with the goal of finding solutions to real or hypothetical problems.

This kind of event is intended to immerse participants in co-learning situations where deeper learning competencies are put into action. A co-learning event reflects authentic problem-solving where everyone is the teacher and the student. A make-a-thon is not about what you are learning, but about how you are learning and working together to rapidly create solutions. Watch this quick video highlighting the LaCreole Middle School Make-A-thon.

Make-A-Thon’s Deeper Learning Practices

Recently, Derek and I were able to facilitate a make-a-thon at the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego. Our objective was to demonstrate how a make-a-thon incorporates deeper learning practices in fun and engaging ways. It was also our hope that learners would gain ideas to promote and facilitate deeper learning practices in their own schools. During the daylong Deep Dive, participants were immersed in deeper learning competencies: developing academic mindsets, developing content mastery (which included self-directed learning), communicating, collaborating, creative problem-solving, and critical thinking. At the end of the day, teams presented their prototypes at an exhibition of learning.

Key Questions to Guide Deeper Learning

Our work developing deeper learning is based around three main goals: solving real-world problems, building connections between our students and those problems, and ultimately creating an emphasis on public exhibition of learning. Through project-based learning, we have increased our awareness of the importance of these three vital aspects. Below are a few ways the make-a-thon experience has helped us create and model deeper learning experiences, allowing for student creativity and problem-solving to shine:

What real-world problems are your students trying to solve?

Using our Deep Dive as an example, once our teams had sufficient content knowledge through the coding session and began to get the hang of programming, they were presented with Deep Dive challenges to develop their prototype for exhibition:

  • Design and build a prototype device that would enable you to automatically feed your pet when they are present or walk up to the feeder.
  • Some species of fish are attracted to light, some to sound. Design and build a device that separates multiple species of fish to different parts of a tank.
  • Indy the octopus is a suspect in a fish-thieving ring, escaping from his tank and stealing food stored in nearby containers. Design and create a prototype that will detect Indy’s escape or notify when there are fish tank intruders.

How do you build connections and foster motivation?

These challenges were developed in conjunction with professionals from the Birch Aquarium, who helped us navigate some potential real-world problems in the San Diego area. Finding real-world scenarios and problems for our students creates a sense of empathy and connection with whoever is faced with a particular challenge. Making every effort to engage with a real-world scenario helps to answer this question.

When and how do your students share their learning?

Starting with an end in mind is important when it comes to a focus on learning, and one of the key questions we focus on is this: When do our students share their learning? As we create projects, our goal is always to have our students either defend or promote their learning to a larger audience. Student reflection is often framed by these general questions: Where did they struggle? Where did they find the most success? How did they adjust within their teams to reach the finish line? Exhibition has been a motivating factor for our kids. Certainly, at the end of the day the work will speak for itself in a make-a-thon, but having learners reflect upon their experience works to highlight those deeper learning competencies.

True deeper learning experiences allow students’ learning to change from simply participating to actively engaging and taking real ownership of their learning, which is really at the heart of deeper learning. During our Deep Dive, participants worked at a feverish pace to complete their prototypes. During exhibition, teams were able to reflect upon their experience through the lens of what a deeper learning experience looked and felt like as a participant, which allowed for a new perspective. All who were involved came away with a sense of pride in their work and an elevated sense of what could be accomplished in just a short time frame, taking with them ideas of how to incorporate these purposeful activities for learning back in their own districts.

How might we create and model a culture of deeper learning in all learning communities?

Jamie Richardson is the principal of LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, OR. He is one of the 2017 Digital Principals of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @JamieR42.

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