Kurt Vonnegut, c. 1952

Tinkering and Thinking:
On the Role of Doing in 21st Century Education

Story Evolution

A meditation triggered by Grobstein's
Writing Descartes ...

Grigg Mullen and Handsum (his '52 Chevy truck)
at the end of their cross-country trip, summer 2004

In Player Piano, a 1952 novel (republished in 1954 as Utopia 14), Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of the rebellion of a group of tinkerers against the totally automated society in which they live; their goal is "to destroy machines in order that people might take a more personal part in production." For me, the punch line of the novel was that as soon as the whole social structure was destroyed, the folks immediately started trying to make things work again: "Things don't stay the way they are," said one of the instigators of the riot (also one of the engineers who designed the soul-sapping machines in the first place): " It's too entertaining to try and to change them." A fellow engineer and instigator replies, "Most fascinating game there is, keeping things from staying the way they are...." The novel ends as the two men come across a teenager, who asks them if they have "seen an eighth-horsepower electric motor laying around anywhere....One that isn't busted up too bad?....if I had a decent little motor to go with what I got...I'll betcha anything I could make a gadget that'd...."

Grigg Mullen III is one of those gadget-collectors and tinkerers. In the summar of 2004, having just completed a four-year apprenticeship (in 3 years, 4 months) at The Apprenticeship School at Newport News Shipbuilding, Grigg enrolled in a "Summer Transition" program at Virginia Military Institute, where he will begin his studies in mechanical engineering this fall. As part of the summer program, he wrote an essay on "English, A Life Changing Language." His aunt Anne, who teaches at Bryn Mawr College and spends a good deal of her time thinking about how to teach English, about how to teach more generally, and about how hands-on work can facilitate that process...

...asked Grigg if he'd be willing to let her share his essay with others who have been talking together about (among other things) Revising 21st Century Education. That conversation had began with a Letter to René Descartes , in which Paul Grobstein argued for the importance of profound skepticism: both of our conscious thought processes and our unconscious feelings--what we know experientially, experiences we (think we) do not doubt. That conversation evolved in a number of different directions, including an exploration of questions about the usefulness of academic work to practical work, in the role that "thinking " plays, for instance, in Lucy Darlington's work-a-day world as a therapist, or Lucy Kerman's in community development. As (the latter) Lucy said, "'doing' together is sometimes far more powerful than 'talking' together." So, too, doing alone (with encouragement!) as Grigg testifies below.

English, A Life Changing Language
by Grigg Mullen

As an English student, I have always had a hard time. When I was younger, I had no problems speaking the language. However, I had great difficulty reading, writing, and understanding the terms associated with the different kinds of words and rules when applied to writing. My struggle with English was both intensified and resolved by my ninth and eleventh grade English teachers' different teaching styles. They changed my ability, and even my willingness, to understand and learn. Not to mention my self confidence and view on life.

My ninth grade teacher was simply ineffective. When explaining a new concept, she refused to clarify anything other than the exact concept at hand. I often had questions about words she would use in explaining such a concept. I could ask what an adjective was, and she would look at me with the same look that a dog would receive after doing something wrong. It did not take too long before I stopped asking questions in order to avoid the humiliation. Without clarification on the simpler points, I never learned the more complex ones. Frequently my questions were ignored all together. She was unclear. Even if I knew what the words meant, I was unable to grasp the concept or principle she was trying to convey. Whether I learned anything or not, it did not seem to bother her in the least. She was altogether unhelpful and uncaring.

As a result, I learned next to nothing in English my ninth grade year. I recall very little from that class. I remember sitting in the front left corner, right beside her desk, where I would have the best chance of learning something while not being distracted by other students. I also remember being utterly terrified when I had to present to the class my book report project. I worked very hard on it, but I was never sure exactly what she was asking for or what she expected from me. Other than that and the bad memories, I do not remember anything else. I had no self confidence in that class. I was always waiting for the teacher to humiliate me just one more time. I did not realize it at the time, but now looking back I can see that other students had similar problems not only in my class, but in her other classes as well. I now know several other students that have had the same experience and frustrations that I had my ninth grade year. As the year went on I gradually shut down. Eventually I had given up trying not only in English class but in my other classes, too.

About halfway through my freshman year of high school, I was diagnosed with depression. My struggles in English class were a major factor and, until the year was finally over, continued to be. With counseling, medication, and the support of my family and friends, I was eventually able to overcome it. Perhaps the biggest help came from my eleventh grade English teacher. She taught me many things, but most importantly, she taught me not to fear English class.

My eleventh grade English teacher was exactly the opposite of my ninth grade teacher. My new teacher was different because she was concerned for all of her students. She cared about every one of us and did her best to help us learn. I still had difficulty learning English. Because of my past experiences, and lack of success, I was also still reluctant to try. My new teacher was kind and understanding. I was never afraid to ask a question, no matter how simple. She would answer without making me uncomfortable and would be sure I understood before moving on. She was also very knowledgeable. There was no principle she could not explain in such a way that would be clear to everyone. Most of all, my eleventh grade English teacher was flexible. We would read a book in class and then we were required to write a short paper on it. In place of writing the paper she would occasionally allow us to make a project to portray an event, or a scene, or a character in the book.

Given the choice I always chose the project. I would spend hours and hours making a small model to portray a scene or a place from the book we had read. I chose to make them out of scrap brass and copper that I would cut and file and solder together, and then I would polish them. In this way I would learn much more than I would by struggling with writing a paper as I became more and more frustrated with it. That is not to say I was not frustrated with making the models. Often I would solder one part together just right only to have it fall off again when I tried to solder something else to it. Other times I would know how I wanted it to look but not know how to make it or how to solder it all together. I was on my own, and there was no one I could go to for help. I did not know anyone that had done anything like what I was doing, so all my creations and ideas had to come from me. This meant that if I was going to get the project done I had to figure it out on my own, and I did. Although my teacher was understanding and flexible she did not give us an easy way out, nor did she give us a grade if we did not learn anything. She realized that different students learn in different ways and did her best to accommodate them. For me this method of learning worked because I could do something I enjoyed and it would cover up the fact that I was actually learning English, my least favorite subject. To make a good model I had to first understand the story, the characters, and the events. The very same things I would have to understand to write a good paper on the same book. I was proud of my models, and so was my teacher. For someone to be proud they have to care, and to care they have to listen. My eleventh grade English teacher listened, but even more than listening, she made her students feel appreciated. Now almost six years later she still has all of my models sitting on top of the intercom in the front of the classroom.

With the help of my ninth grade English teacher my difficulty learning English turned into an inability to learn for better than a year. On the other side, my eleventh grade teacher changed me completely. For the first time, I almost looked forward to the class I had once learned to hate. I accomplished even more than just learning something in English class; I gained a self confidence by solving problems for myself. I felt good about learning what I had always had trouble with. These small accomplishments made a big difference in my overall attitude towards life. They changed my ability to understand and learn, and even my willingness to learn. For me, teaching style makes the difference in whether I learn anything, or not, and how easily I do learn. In ninth grade my English teacher pushed me into a depression that I was eventually able to get out of with the help of my eleventh grade English teacher.

Grigg's essay is a good demonstration of Howard Gardner's work on Multiple Intelligences and Education. It suggests that inviting students to set their own problems, and find their own solutions to them, is an important aspect of Revising 21st Century Education. It's also a great demonstration of "getting it less wrong." As Grigg himself says, in commenting on the process of learning to write, "Practice makes perfect, although I do not think anyone will ever be perfect in English. If someone thinks she is perfect, then the rules will undoubtedly change, and she will have something else to learn."

Anyone with other stories of "learning to learn" is warmly welcome to post them here.

| One Woman's Exploration | Writing Descartes Home Page | Descartes Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994-2004 - Last Modified: Monday, 26-Jul-2004 11:18:33 EDT