I teach technological education. My classroom is a makerspace. We use computers and other forms of digital technology, but although this class is high-tech, we try to make it high-touch. In other words, we keep screen time to a minimum.
My student hands me a paper doll with wild scribbles for hair. “I made this one look like you!” she announces delightedly.
My kindergarten engineering class is creating paper toys with oscillating parts. We learned what “oscillating” means by swinging our arms overhead like the blades of a windshield wiper. We watched the movement of an oscillating fan. I have hooked up an Arduino – a small programmable circuit board, kind of like a mini computer – to a motor that sweeps a plastic lever back and forth. Together, her small hands mirroring mine, we attach her invention to the motor. A long strip of pink hangs from the mouth of my paper avatar.
“That’s your tongue,” my student informs me.
“Will that be the part that oscillates?” I confirm.
“Yes,” she giggles. I give her the responsibility of attaching the yellow power cord to the computer and the pink paper strip begins to dance back and forth.
“You look like a chameleon!” another student laughs.
“Does that mean I have to have flies for lunch?” I ask, in mock horror, and the kids around me imitate a group of lizards, eyes bugged out and tongues waggling comically.
My classroom is a joyful mess much of the time. It’s jammed full of tools and machines, shelves loaded with projects underway, spools of wire, boxes of wood scraps and a giant basket of fabric that never seems to stay contained. Along the wall, 3-D printer filament in all colours of the rainbow sits waiting to be transformed into whatever new forms our young creators design. A team of robots, their little blue faces smiling in a row, sits on the shelves by the door. A unicorn head crafted from paper stands guard on the other wall, wearing a pair of safety goggles. In this room, we learn woodworking, sewing, electronics, coding and countless other skills needed to turn ideas into objects. We also practice the fine art of problem-solving that develops by trying things in different ways until you get it right.
Educators, parents and other carers have done a lot of thinking lately about the future of education. During the pandemic lockdowns, we definitely learned that the future of meaningful education is not virtual. We don’t learn best through screens. More and more, I’ve come to believe that the future of school lies in classrooms like the one we’ve built in this makerspace: where students combine technology with human creativity and connection.
When teachers get together and talk about postpandemic life in school, we talk about two things: mental health, and artificial intelligence. Mental-health challenges among school-aged children aren’t new, but the pandemic has made them much worse. Kids are having more trouble making it to school. When they do, they’re having more trouble getting their work done. Self-regulation and executive functioning, those background programs in our neural functioning that lets us get stuff done, seem to be at an all-time low. And the high-pitched alarm emerging with the rise of AI is heard especially well by young people: Do human lives still have value? Should we bother writing stories? Making art? Studying for exams? It’s a scary and confusing time to be a young person.
Earlier in the day, I helped my Grade 8 students build robotic arms. They’re refining the mechanical and electronic interfaces that will allow their robots to perform tasks from the mundane – dipping a tea bag into a mug – to the profound, like cleaning up radioactive waste. Like most days, things often don’t work out as expected. Sometimes it’s the wiring that’s not working. Sometimes, it’s a mechanical problem, like the glue holding the parts together failing under the strain of movement. Troubleshooting takes a thousand forms. I do my best to encourage students to persevere through challenges, though, truly, their peers are the best cheerleaders. When things aren’t working, they make suggestions: “That happened to me, and here’s how I fixed it.” They lift each other up: “Try again! You can do it!” They also do a fair amount of playful teasing. But when things finally work, they celebrate together. Crucially, this is a classroom of teammates, not competitors.
Although this kind of community is possible through a Zoom screen, it isn’t easy to develop. It also isn’t easy in classrooms where the teacher’s voice is the most important one, or where kids need to spend a lot of time quietly listening. Because I believe in the future of humans, I also believe in the future of school. And the future will lie in re-establishing the foundations of community. We need to connect, learn and make things together as fellow humans. We need to lean into authenticity. Yes, we will teach our students how to use and understand emerging technologies. We must also carve out screen-free spaces. Let’s keep writing poems on paper. Let’s build things with our hands. Let’s put on plays, plant gardens and read aloud to each other. Let’s also wire circuits, learn to code and analyze new media together. Let’s resist the movement toward remote connections in schooling.
My kindergarten students have no immediate worries about the future as they attach another creation to the motor. A paper bird, eyes coloured blue, spins around. On the third rotation, the wings fall off. We laugh, and then try again.
Beth Alexander lives in Toronto.