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Jean Kaneko: Tinkering to Learn

Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways:

  • Don’t misunderstand STEAM by turning them into hands-on science projects and leaving it at that – find ways to connect their project-based learning with other curriculum subjects, with other learners, with networks of interest. Start with topics or places that have stories or language arts that involve stories. Starting with a human story provides a connection that all students can really draw from.
  • Don’t underestimate your students. “The most brilliant ideas I’ve encountered have come from asking a first or second grader what their problem is and what kind of solution they propose. They have the most amazing ideas – but few teachers have asked them. Take the opportunity to ask “What ideas do you have?” and listen to what they want to learn.
  • In the era of the search engine, the teacher no longer has to be know-it-all. Model real learning by being comfortable with not knowing in front of your students…but show them how to find out.
  • Experiment with making connections between projects and subjects, problem-solving and peers, between multiple subjects, and navigating all these actions with mandated standards – and when you learn something that works, help your peers navigate the territory you’ve explored.

One important aspect of learning that Makerspaces usually seem to deal with more effectively than schools is the importance of failure in learning – anyone who begins to tinker with electronics or computer coding learns that the first draft of a circuit or a program almost always fails. The process of tinkering or debugging is one of discovering and repairing the initial point of failure – learning why the first draft doesn’t work is a kind of learning based on failure as a starting point. Schools, however, are not set up to reward failure – if you get something wrong, that’s a problem more often than it is a starting point for discovery. Jean Kaneko, whose 2015 TedX talk was titled “Failure Made Me Do It,” was fully familiar with the processes of debugging and tinkering long before she began designing and facilitating Makerspaces. She started out with a B.A. in psychology and film media, and produced computer graphics and special effects for 25 years. When she started producing computer graphics for NHK, Japan’s public broadcast system, computers were the size of refrigerators. Kaneko was the first manager of a company charged with developing artistic and educational uses of high definition cameras, recorders, satellite broadcasts, back in the days when only government agencies could afford this kind of equipment.

In 2005, the birth of Kaneko’s son turned her interest to the educational aspects of the technologies she had been designing: “I started researching education opportunities and found myself in the world of the Reggio Emilia approach. I connected with the idea of giving children tools and materials early, so they could develop languages of expression. I recognized that I was a kinesthetic learner – I need to move my hands, learn with my hands. I had home economics, woodworking, sculpture, and shop when I was a student, and soon discovered that those subjects had been removed almost entirely from schools.”

Kaneko worked for Reggio Children and was project manager for “The Hundred Languages of Children” exhibit when it came to Santa Monica: “The idea was to introduce educators to what it would be like for students to have their subjects integrated and connected, where hands-on learning and discovery was really the basis of their learning experience. When my son started kindergarten at a progressive private school ten years ago, I saw that he had 45 minutes of math, a separate 45 minutes of English – they had all the right tools, but the subjects were all disconnected. Like me, my son thinks like a connected learner. He looks for connections and discovering connections gives him incentives to learn.”

Kaneko’s son struggled in kindergarten, so Kaneko started volunteering in his classroom. First grade teachers invited Kaneko to help them create hands-on activities that would link their standards-based learning goals with parent volunteers in ways that would make more connections between separate subjects. The principal didn’t like the idea “so we did it in secret. Parents and teachers just did this by ourselves.” Kaneko would look at state-mandated standards for subject matter and learning goals and work with teachers to create connective activities, then train parents to come in and assist the teachers with these activities.

That led to after-school programs. It was the early days of the recent focus on making and learning. Make magazine had just started publishing “and I’ve always been drawn to the connections between art and technology. I don’t know a single engineer or programmer or scientist who is not artistic in some way. I saw how making is able to connect the creative component of your soul with the joy of learning new tools to make your artistic ideas come to life.” So Kaneko started doing after-school programs – a “mom in a minivan” going from school to school. “One of the things that was important to me was trying to help kids get over what I call ‘the 45 minute syndrome.’ They come in, grab materials, they don’t know yet what they want to do, and quickly their entire goal turns into getting to ‘I’m done’ before the bell rings because that is how their learning in school has rewarded them.”

So Kaneko took big projects, put them in her minivan, obtained new materials, and brought the projects in progress to another school, bringing projects back and forth – more of a process than a rush to a completed product. That led to a conversation with the Maker Education Initiative. Kaneko’s next project, The Exploratory, was the first Southern California partner for the Maker Corps program, with the goal that in order for this movement to be sustainable, more trained adults would be needed to help teachers, parents, and kids to do more of the work of connecting subjects to each other and to the projects the students make. They hired and trained young adults over 18, then started summer camps and after-school programs in Culver City, California. That led to doing classes in schools. Over the last two years, these programs have been integrated into classrooms, bringing design thinking, systems thinking, maker education into traditional school settings.

“This year, luckily, we are going from bell to bell from day one of school to the last day of school. I’ve built four Makerspaces in four different schools and we’re developing curriculum that combines the system design and theme subjects, helping kids do things like Genius Hour, 20% time projects – projects that could have real impact on their community. Through all that, one of our primary goals is to train teachers so that they can see how this can be done, then train young facilitators so they can be placed in schools to assist the teachers.”

Kaneko started networking about 3D printing. When she began doing professional development four years ago, Kaneko got requests from educators about how to use 3D models and 3D printing, requests about how to use e-textiles or robotics. “So we ran classes, and when I checked up on them months later, I found that they weren’t using the techniques that they had been trained in. They were having trouble bridging from the technique to the application and navigating what they needed to do to get through the mandated standards. “So I thought then that what they really needed was inspiration. We needed more brains in the group. So we started doing a Making for Educators free meetup at The Exploratory one day a month.”

At these meetups, some teachers would say “I have no idea what making or Makerspaces are – show me” or “I’m working on a fourth grade missions project and want to do it in new ways, but I have no idea how to use these tools to do it.” Then other teachers would come and say “Well, I tried this, and this part of this lesson worked, but that part didn’t, so this is how I would do it differently next time.” “The Making for Educators meetup was a way to provide teachers the same opportunity that we’re providing the students –to encourage them to try something, have it not work, then share it with other educators and say ‘Got any ideas?’” In other words – peer learning.

This peer learning is now turning into documentation. “This is something that I learned from the Reggio world – an entire process of documentation is used to share with other practitioners. Because – similar to Reggio – making and seeing is not something that can be done with a formula; it’s not a ‘take this project plan and do it exactly this way’ algorithm. It’s really about reading the classroom, reading the students, reading the school community and culture, then twisting and adjusting and molding the philosophy to that culture.” Looking to Reggio’s methods, Kaneko’s programs document all their classes. “Right now, we’re only sharing with select educators, because there is the school’s reputation and that kind of politics to deal with, but the goal is to make the documentation sharable worldwide, to serve as case studies for other educators.”

Images provided by: Jean Kaneko/The Exploratory. 

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