Provocations: A Constructionism Methodology

By Jim Tiffin Jr (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

A major component of maker-centered education involves letting students learn from the process of creating something that is purposeful, public and shareable. Indeed, some would say that is all maker-centered education is supposed to be. While that alone is more than sufficient, it is actually far richer. What sits at its core is the constructionist theory of learning, a model first developed by Seymour Papert. He defined constructionism as follows:

“The word constructionism is a mnemonic for two aspects of the theory of science education underlying this project. From constructivist theories of psychology we take a view of learning as a reconstruction rather than as a transmission of knowledge. Then we extend the idea of manipulative materials to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product.”

Another appeal of maker-centered education is its connection to innovation, entrepreneurship and STEAM disciplines. These are capacities that many teachers are actively seeking to cultivate within their students. But Shari Tishman, lead investigator at Agency by Design, says it is more than that too:

“While innovation and STEM tend to be the buzzwords associated with the maker movement. When you talk with maker educators working in schools and maker spaces, the real news is what kids are learning about collaboration, about community, about complexity, and about themselves.”

Essential Project Design Elements from BIE's Gold Standard PBLThose reading this may also hear overtones within maker-centered education that resonate with those around Gold Standard PBL (project based learning) as presented by the Buck Institute for Education. A quick glance at the essential project design elements yields a number of recognizable connections.

It seems then that there is a tall order for maker-centered learning to fill. How then does a teacher go about trying to reach all (or some) of these important goals for their students?

Perhaps by using something MVIFI is experimenting with: Provocations.provocation-slideThe MVIFI idea of Provocations attempts to create a decision-making tool for teachers to use as they design learning experiences for learners. The tool outlines a framework that identifies the areas the teacher needs to consider in order to best harness the potentials of maker-centered learning listed above. With a set of learning goals in mind, the teacher can focus on how to start a project, and how to end it, using Provocations that align with those learning goals.

reggio-emilia-provocationThe concept of MVIFI’s Provocation is based upon elements of the Reggio Emilia Approach. In the Approach, a provocation is used to provoke thought and interaction by the student. Typically, provocations take the form of a curiosity piquing display that might suggest ways to use the materials for exploration. This Reggio Provocation Pinterest Board has many examples in addition to the picture at the right. MVIFI’s Provocations are very similar.

Our experimental design creates four different subcategories of Provocations. Each subcategory has a particular type of framing that varies in the sense of whether to use known or unknown materials, or if there is a known or unknown outcome.

“Known or unknown materials” means that from the teacher perspective, supplies and techniques for creating with will have either been selected ahead of time (“known”) or will be determined later on in the project (“unknown”). From a student perspective, known and unknown has the same general meaning, however, the material being used might be unfamiliar to them. For instance, they know they are going to be using this little red electrical component that plugs into a computer, but they don’t yet know exactly how to use a Makey Makey to accomplish a task.

“Known or unknown outcome” from the teacher perspective means that the product that the students are going to make could be pre-determined (“known”). This is not to imply that the class is going to be making exact duplicates of the known product. Perhaps to would be better to think of it as being the theme of the product is known. For instance, the students might be making keychains using a 3D printer, but they will not all be making identical keychains from a step-by-step process. From the student perspective, the idea of a known theme is exactly how they would perceive it. “Unknown outcome” is the same for both students and teachers – not sure what they are going to make at the start of the project, but it will become clearer as they move forward with their tinkering or discovery work.

Version 1.1 of the Provocation FrameworkThe four subcategories are summarized in the following section.

cardboard-automata-from-eshlearnsInstigations – Students use known materials to create a known outcome. Instigations give students a focused end-product to work towards, requiring pre-defined skills and competencies. Students will take a given idea and find new ways to customize the idea or add on to it. They will in fact create something different from what was originally presented to them. An example of this would be the teacher placing a cardboard automata out for students to interact with, and then asking them to create their own.

secondhand-wooden-blocksInvitations – Students use known materials to create an unknown outcome. Such an experience design provides a large glimpse into the adjacent possible because instead of the students seeing one possible product to create – which was provided by the teacher – the students discover many possibilities on their own. They themselves are deciding what the end product is as they tinker with the materials. An example of this might be a pile of wooden blocks that the students then decide to build a house with, or a bowling set, or a zoo, or a…

fusing-plastic-to-t-shirtsInspirations – Students using unknown materials to create a known outcome. These experiences promote creative problem solving in a just-in-time learning context. Students will have a fixed, user-based goal, but must discover the method the reach that goal. And “the method” may include the fabrication technique and/or the fabrication materials. A example of this would be a parent group looking for t-shirts with designs that promote maker habits of mind that will be worn a STEAM-faire event hosted by the school. The students know they are putting letters and shapes onto a t-shirt, but they don’t know how. They discover the idea of fusing plastic, but the type of plastic to use and the technique for getting it on there are not apparent to them. (If you are wondering, we used an iron to melt transparent colored gift wrap onto shirts with wax paper as a barrier between the iron and the gift wrap.)

juice-bottle-couch-for-our-reading-cornerInvestigation – Students will use unknown materials to create an unknown outcome. Investigation type Provocations promote problem-identification and self-recognized agency by the student – they themselves recognize that they made it, whatever “it” is, possible. Students must actively study the world around them and then fabricate a product that makes a positive impact. An example of this is a couch for a kindergarten classroom reading area. Imagine students recognizing that they needed more places to sit in their reading area, but not knowing exactly what (a chair? a rug? a beanbag?). Once they decided on a couch, they then had to make it. But they didn’t know what to make it from. Imagine further that after some experimentation and perhaps some research, they find out that juice bottles can be used if they attach them together somehow… and so the project continues.

None of these subcategories is defined by clear lines, and the examples given could easily fall into one of the other categories. In each case, it is how the teacher decides to facilitate the experience for their students that determines where it lands. Hence the original idea for creating these Provocation categories in the first place: to give teachers a planning tool to assist them in designing experiences for their students.

There is more to say about each of these categories, especially as MVIFI continues to experiment with the notion of Provocations as a whole. Like any prototype, you need to get feedback on your idea in order to make it better.. Having traveled to World Maker Faire to present this idea to other maker educators, it is time to ask even more via this post. So, what do you think of our idea of Provocations as a constructionist methodology tool? Leave your I Likes… I Wishes… and I Wonders… in the comments below.


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