hacker scouts

It looks good on the surface. Adults love to see kids wearing protective goggles. They’re hacking! They’re tinkering! They’re making! It’s STEM-y or even better STEAM-y! These kids are going to figure out how to get us to a new Earth-like planet when the inevitable dystopian future arrives!

It’s not that we’re not moving in a good direction. Doing it yourself? Good. Making? Good. Hacking and tinkering? Good.

The problem is that everyone has sat down and taken out their picnic things and said, “Whew! Great, this works for me!” But we’re only partway toward the good stuff. We’re stopping too soon.

We’ve got a partial handle on it, but we could do so much more for the kids. Better options are right there within our reach. We just need to go a little further.

If you’re excited about a DIY/maker/hacker/tinker-like group or activity, please take a hard look and ask yourself these questions:

- Are the kids’ ideas driving the making/hacking/tinkering?

If your child’s ideas aren’t required, then keep looking.

If you are thinking, “Well, my child doesn’t have any ideas” or “What if my child doesn’t have any ideas?” or “My child only likes to do X and I hate X,” then you are treating this as an “apply externally” situation (“apply learning experience liberally to your child’s exterior; wait for projected results”) when you really need to be diving deep to find out what your child cares about and what your child wants to do.

- Are the adults doing all the teaching?

Is peer-to-peer teaching happening? (Are kids teaching other kids?) Do kids have the opportunity to turn around and mentor someone else? Do they get to grow in their role from beginner to expert?

Is all the learning happening unidirectionally, with kids absorbing what adults are teaching?

Are skills being learned from a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds, or do all of the “experts” look alike?

Are kids encouraged to create learning tools for other kids?

Do adults have all the power positions?

- Is there an adult-imposed schedule or adult-imposed deadline?

Authentic learning does not thrive inside an imposed structure. How can it? All kids do not learn at the same pace. Any time there is a structure that sets time limits, some kids will be bored and others will be left behind.

Authentic learning generates questions which require research that in turn requires talking to people, finding resources, and discussing relevance. None of those things can happen if we all have to have our remote-controlled planes finished by the Maker Faire six weeks from Monday.

Major red flag: adults doing kids’ work for them, doing work for kids who have missed sessions to “catch them up,” or finishing their work for them in order to meet a deadline.

- Are adults jumping in to solve kids’ problems or tell them what to do to avoid problems?

Authentic learning is problem-producing and problem-solving.

Do kids get the opportunity to make mistakes, discover problems on their own, brainstorm with peers, seek out help when they decide they need it, and solve their own problems?

A streamlined learning experience smooths off all the rough edges and the rough edges are generally where most of the learning happens.

- Do all of the projects look the same?

When you start nit-picking (please, come sit by me), you’ll hear a whole lot of “Well, you have to start somewhere.” But that is frankly a cop-out. You do have to start somewhere — so why start *there*?

If you see a table full of kids working with identical-looking projects in front of them, then you are looking at something that is not authentically self-directed or self-motivated. It is just a “cool,” “fun” project that an adult dreamed up for some kids to do, that an adult planned, that an adult organized, and that an adult carefully translated into directions the kids could follow. Look at all the work being accomplished *by the adult*. That is so much closer to what we expect to see in a classroom and too far away from real learner-centered education.

Sitting at a table following instructions is the equivalent of sitting on the bench. Kids need to be on the field, not on the bench.

- Are kids following directions to complete a project?

Again we hear “You have to start somewhere!”

Again, there are a million opportunities in life to follow directions and make something that looks like the sample. Prioritize kids’ ideas. Prioritize individuality. Save the group cookie-cutter projects for another day. If you never get to them, it will be *fine*. Their value is negligible if not zero.

- Are children offered limited choice?

If a child’s input into a project is deciding which stickers to apply to it, that is not a good thing.

- Are follow-directions projects jumping-off points or ending points?

Okay, you-have-to-start-somewhere people, this is your chance for redemption. What happened after that follow-directions project? Did the kids explode off into a dozen different directions with ideas of their own? No? :: buzzer sound ::

If kids cycle from one follow-directions project to the next, with everything on a time schedule (“We have to finish our rockets this week because next week we start remote-control planes!”), then what you’re looking at is not innovative, not learner-centered, and not offering deep understanding or long-term engagement. It’s the same old hash repackaged as something new. Don’t be distracted by the protective goggles.

- Is there a revision stage (or, preferably, many revision stages)?

The lack of a revising stage is a red flag for an adult-imposed schedule. If there isn’t time to do multiple iterations and revise your ideas, your ideas are not going to be deep, complex, or layered.

Everything should be open-ended. Work should be done until mastery is achieved *and only the learner should decide when mastery has been achieved*.

If a child is ushered through a “project” from beginning to end without the chance to share with others at various stages then return to their work to revise, add, subtract, extend, ask for help, take suggestions, and so on, then the learning potential was severely diminished.

I saw an infuriating video (can’t locate, sadly; it’s possible I destroyed it with my rage) where an adult leader chuckled over how one child only realized his (very individual) project couldn’t work at the very end, when it was (according to the adult-imposed schedule) shared with other children and someone pointed out his mistake. The child was not given the time to go back and improve on his idea. The project was over; everyone moved on. So what was the point?

Real learning requires testing and revision.

- Are kids getting peer feedback during the making progress?

See just above. Kids should be collaborating, supporting, learning how to offer and ask for help and how to say a polite “no, thank you.” They should be copying one another, getting excited by each other’s ideas, and extending one another’s ideas. They should be challenged by what another child does with their idea and want to go back and incorporate that child’s extensions into their own original plan.

If that is not happening, again, what is the point?

Real learning requires multiple iterations, feedback, collaboration, and sharing.

- Are the children working on REAL real-world problems or FAKE real-world problems?

There is a horrible trend among educators to give students “real-world” problems to solve — but the problems are fake.

In a more recent project, Richardson was surprised when her students became so invested in a project to reduce poverty in their area that many of them became genuinely upset when they found out that their plan would not be enacted. — read the article here

Please, no. No, no, no, no, no. Do you think these children who put forth tremendous effort and were emotionally and intellectually invested in their work only to find out they’d been *tricked* tackled their next project with the same level of enthusiasm? I’m going to guess no. Are we motivating children to become “lifelong learners” with this kind of bait-and-switch? What happens when they catch on? How do they feel about themselves, their teachers, and education in general?

This kind of “problem-based learning” shows a complete lack of respect for children’s ability to do real work. Please do not waste their time by asking them to work on “real” problems if their efforts are going into the recycling bin.

[P]rotoyping a recyclable lunch tray; setting up a water delivery system to guard against urban fires; building a public awareness campaign to combat hunger. These are just a few of examples of the types of tasks students are taking on… — A design challenge to students: Solve a real-world problem

One of the teachers from the above article is quoted as saying, “They get excited about it and they want to accomplish more than is realistic.

So, once again, you get kids excited about doing real work and then you yank the rug out from under their feet. You explain that their work is not actually going to solve that problem. You set limits; you put up fences. You tap into true motivation and then you waste it. You had an opportunity to engage a child with something meaningful and purposeful and you blew it.

Rather than asking children to think about problems they cannot actually affect in any real way, it’s a simple thing to let them work in their own community to solve real “real-world” problems. They can even identify the problems themselves before they set out to solve them.

If they choose their own problems, the work is self-leveling. And if there’s an adult who says “pish posh, who cares about this petty subject when they could be applying themselves to solving global warming?” … well, move back, because my head is going to explode.

The real world is RIGHT HERE — we live in it every day. It’s in your community, in your school, in your backyard. Children live in the real world. They can change *that* world. Don’t waste their time asking them to put real effort into imaginary solutions. Help them do real work that matters.

- Are extrinsic rewards are being offered?

Is your child being awarded a badge for the work she’s doing?

There’s some controversy about how damaging extrinsic rewards are, but it’s pretty generally agreed upon that you shouldn’t offer them for anything a child wants to do. Extrinsic rewards are okay if it’s dull, rote work that isn’t enjoyable. But if you offer an extrinsic reward for something a person likes to do, you sap their enjoyment. And you take their focus off their ideas and put it collecting badges.

[R]ewards cause people to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing. This phenomenon, which has been demonstrated in scores of studies (Kohn, 1993), makes sense given that "motivation" is not a single characteristic that an individual possesses to a greater or lesser degree. Rather, intrinsic motivation (an interest in the task for its own sake) is qualitatively different from extrinsic motivation (in which completion of the task is seen chiefly as a prerequisite for obtaining something else) (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Therefore, the question educators need to ask is not how motivated their students are, but how their students are motivated. — Alfie Kohn

The data suggest that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.

Deci and Ryan (1985) describe the use of rewards as "control through seduction." Control, whether by threats or bribes, amounts to doing things to children rather than working with them. This ultimately frays relationships, both among students (leading to reduced interest in working with peers) and between students and adults (insofar as asking for help may reduce the probability of receiving a reward).

Moreover, students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or other "goodies" become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and take chances. At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current level of ability. — ibid.

[G]ood values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards — like punishments — are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case. — ibid.

People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by external pressures. — Theresa Amabile, “How to Kill Creativity,” Harvard Business Review

It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they’re part of something important. — Dan Pink, TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

“Extrinsic motivations crowd out intrinsic motivations.” That’s economist-speak for: if someone loves doing something and then you start paying them, money undermines that natural desire. — Is money a lousy way to motivate people?

What the research shows … is that the great wellspring of creativity is intrinsic motivation — that is, I do my best work for personal rewards (out of love or intellectual fulfillment) and not external motivation…” — Malcolm Gladwell

“[A]rtists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior… It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.” — Dan Pink

[B]eing offered a reward for doing the work results in less creative output than being offered nothing. — Geoff Colvin

We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else. — John Holt

If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them… — then their intrinsic motives will vanish. … [Rewards] can have the unintended effect of dismantling a child’s drive to learn for [learning’s] sake. … [Y]ou are telling them what kind of consequence matters, and what motive to pay attention to … And [learning] will suffer. — How to motivate learners

Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.What really motivates us? 

What message do we send when we reward kids with badges for doing their own meaningful work? Doesn’t it belittle their effort and engagement? I think it does. Isn’t it patronizing for adults to pat kids on the head and say here’s a little prize for you? I think it is. It’s not the way I want to treat my children or their work, and I think they would be so insulted by it, it would be damaging to our relationship as well as their feelings about their work. I literally cannot imagine handing my son a badge for the challenging and meaningful work that he does.

Do you really want your child to focus on something as mundane as collecting badges when she could be focused instead on digging deeply into something she cares about?

I can already hear the “but my child LIKES badges,” so here’s my response: Your child deserves to do work that is intrinsically motivated, that matters deeply, and she deserves to learn how to care more for her own opinion than the validation of others. So let’s do more of that.

- Is your child the driver or the passenger?

True self-directed learning is not assigned. It is not done within a structure provided by someone else. It proceeds at its own natural, organic pace.

It is self-motivated. It grows out of a desire to learn something, create something, and/or solve a problem — but the motivation is personal.

The learner is absolutely necessary — he connects a collection of ideas, plans, questions, and actions to create something unique. If you can lift your child out and shove any kid in there, then it isn’t personal, which means you can do better.

- Is your child choosing the skills he needs or someone is teaching him random skills?

“You have to start somewhere.” Okay. Then start with a particular, individual child and find out what interests her and then help her make her ideas happen. Along the way, she will need to acquire knowledge and skills. Help her figure out how she’s going to do that. That is an authentic, meaningful process. That learning will last.

When you say, “You have to start somewhere,” you are really deciding that to acquire any skills at all is just as useful as to discover what interests you, set a goal, work toward something personally meaningful, and figure out how to do the things you want to do along the way. It isn’t just as useful. Random skills will be forgotten; personally meaningful work done for a real purpose set in a context of uniquely individual authentic interests and desires will never be forgotten.


You can throw it against the wall, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stick. If your child comes away from this group experience full of personally motivated plans, goals, and ideas that will no longer fit into a preplanned structure, then it worked — and now off-the-shelf will no longer suffice. And if he does NOT come away on fire to go further, do more, and make his own ideas happen, what’s the point? No matter how you slice it, unless your group supports individual kids’ ideas and plans, it is only a starting point. Eventually, you have to mentor your child as an individual and help your child build the learning experience he needs — the one that is custom-fit for him.

Start with the child, find out what’s personally relevant to that child, and every single ounce of effort you invest will return to you tenfold.

This is why learner-centered homeschooling is always, always going to drink formal schooling’s milkshake. Because it’s personal, relevant, tech-neutral, unscripted, deadline-free, fully customizable, and self-leveling.

And every parent can give this to their child, whether their child is homeschooled or not. Every parent can mentor their child to become a self-directed learner. Every parent can learn to be a self-directed learner themselves.

This can be accomplished in community-based groups. Children can do authentic project work with the support of adults who want to mentor rather than lead. It requires adults to put the individual before the structure rather than plugging kids into a preplanned framework.

Throw away the instructions. Throw away the agenda. Throw away the schedule. Apologize to the kids. Say, “I’m sorry. I got super pleased with myself and forgot this isn’t about me — it’s about you. I have my notebook. I’m listening. Please tell me what you want to learn. Please tell me what you want to do. I will help you help each other.”

We offer this kind of learning and imply that when kids are adults they’ll be "life-long learners" who can take over and do what they need and want to do. But all we’ve shown them is how to ride along in the backseat. They don't know how to CREATE opportunities. They don't know how to SELF-SELECT their projects. They don't know how to articulate their own goals and then break them down into manageable steps. They don't know how to shift their own habits and behavior to get what they want — because they've never had to do any of that. But they so easily could — if we let them.

Please look at the group you’re considering and ask yourself these questions. (I’ve made you a handy abbreviated checklist here.) Then, if the group doesn’t measure up, start your own group. You don’t need special materials; you don’t need to know the things the kids want to learn. You can find the materials; you can find the experts. You can acquire the skills. You can make it. You can hack it. You can DIY it. And by making it yourself the way you want it to be, you can show your kids how that is done.

You can do it. Don’t settle for something less just because it’s easier.

I don’t think every parent should have to form their own group or eschew the existing groups completely. What I really want is for these groups to pack up their picnic things and decide they’re only partway there after all and if they hike a little further, they’ll end up some place much better. It doesn’t really take a lot more effort — just a change of mindset and a change of heart. The work is really the same. If you’re involved in one of these groups, maybe you can speak out, start a dialogue, and instigate some change.

So, we need two things:

First, we parents — who buy our kids organic and handmade everything — need to be less complacent about accepting off-the-shelf, mass-produced learning experiences for our kids.

Second, we group leaders — who care deeply about the kids we work with but bend so readily to the constraints of time, parental expectations, and the exigencies of managing a group — need to take a hard look at our true objectives vs. our xeroxed agenda and see if we can reorganize ourselves around the true center: the individual child as learner.

Until kids are combining skills with their own ideas, we’re not there yet. Until kids are allowed to do their own organizing, researching, and decision-making, rather than waiting for adults to do it all, we’re not there yet. Until the adults step back and let the kids take over, we’re not there yet.

If adults are doing all the teaching — and if they’re offering the kids badges for acquiring skills — then we’re just glancing off the surface of what self-directed learning can accomplish.

If you’re out there trying, I’m a fan of you. I just want us all to think a little harder about why we’re doing this — then work a little harder to give kids the learning opportunities they deserve. Let’s help them rigorously pursue their own ideas.


See also: What to Look for in a DIY/Maker/Hacker/Tinkering Group for Kids

Some good stuff here: Kathy Sierra on gamification of education, incentives, and rewards