What’s the Pretty Thing?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation with some smart folks in the maker education community ((“Maker Education Community,” like “edublogosphere,” is a silly and illusory term. But you know what I mean.)). We were continuing a conversation we started on Twitter a month or so back. You can watch a recording of yesterday’s piece of the conversation here.

You should listen/watch the conversation. I learned a lot and there were several threads I’ll want to play with later. But right now, I want to spend a minute on some of the pieces that I almost said, and wish I had.

Near the end of the session, we got to talking about what gets made from generative kits. And along the way we had touched on the idea that assessing making in school is tricky – do you assess the thing made or the process followed ((My bias? Don’t assess either so much. Make sure there are good reasons for making and doing and plenty of support along the way and the grading parts aren’t so important. Habits aren’t assessed so much as made. But that’s a different post.)).

And I made an off-hand remark about the fact that sometimes, what gets made through a generative experience isn’t a tangible thing, but an intangible. When you can’t see what was made, did it still get made?

Consider a memory of a powerful experience.

You can’t touch it. You can’t measure it. You can’t point it out and say – look – there it is! It just is. We have to trust the maker on that. Or not. Maybe our take on their experience doesn’t matter so much ((It sure won’t if we don’t have a good relationship with the learner.)).

Memories, like well-crafted furniture, poems, and robots, are often very pretty things. But the fact that a pretty thing was made in a maker-y experience isn’t necessary OR sufficient for a maker-y experience to be a good one. If all that you made in a learning experience is a pretty thing, it might be that you had a powerful experience. But it might be you copied a picture on a box. Or executed a recipe ((That doesn’t mean that either of these things is bad. A well-executed recipe can be a powerful accomplishment. So, too, a copy of a picture you like. Purpose matters when you start to evaluate the successfulness of these things.)).

Or maybe you made a pretty thing of memory in your head, and no one else, save for who was with you when the thing remembered happened, will ever know what went down or how it felt or smelled or was/is.  For that matter, memory being what it is, I’m near certain that shared experiences still generate individual memories.

Is the thing still pretty if you’re the only one who knows?

I guess what I’m trying to say, and maybe not saying so well, is that when making happens, don’t pretend it’s the thing you made that matters most. Except when it is, whether anyone else knows it or not.

When I was six or seven, my dad took me to see Ghostbusters. He probably shouldn’t’ve, but it happened. And I loved it. And I saw it again and again over the years and committed more of it to memory than a young man should.

My memory and love of and for the movie has very little to do with the writing and the characters. I’ve attached being a kid and spending time with my dad to that movie.

And so there’s a LEGO Ecto-1 on my shelf at my desk at work. You can see it hiding behind my ink collection and next to the Mystery Machine in the picture up top.

I built the kit because it was a gift from my family. My daughters helped me sort and locate some of the pieces. I put it together like I’d assemble a puzzle – following some instructions but also enjoying the quiet and peace of sitting and focusing on a thing that wasn’t me as a break from so many other things that were stressful and busy and rough and loud.

I blew through the first half of the build in a couple of hours, and then put it away for a while so I wouldn’t finish too quickly. Like the last few pages of a book I don’t want to end, I wanted to savor the construction and what it offered as I built.

I didn’t get the kit because it was “open ended,” but because I wanted to relive a thing that had become a bunch of other things.

Along the way, I saw how to fit brick together to create some edges and shapes and angles I didn’t know how to make before. And I can carry that knowledge – and have – to other, more open builds. So there was still some openness in a “more closed” kit.

My final product is a “pretty thing,” and it sits on the shelf. But it’s there more as a tool to recall the other pretty things, all the memories and experiences and stories and people, that I think about and remember through the thing, and the thing the thing represents, and the memories the thing triggers.

Some questions I’m thinking about as I remember my build:

  • How would a teacher assess my desire to have and make such a kit?
  • How would a teacher assess the way I got it made?
  • How would a teacher assess what the final product looks like ((There were parts leftover. I think I built it right.))?
  • How would a teacher assess the memories wrapped in, around and through the thing?
  • And why would it matter, to the maker, how they did any of those things, if they chose to do so?

When the pretty thing you can see is the thing, it’s possible it’s the wrong thing ((That’s not to say that anyone on yesterday’s panel would say that it was. Process and memory and relationships were important to all involved, I think. But I wouldn’t want to not offer these questions to folks thinking about beginning to make in their schools and libraries and other spaces.)).


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