On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

Who are the learners today who learn in the moment because of their own interests or because they need to do so? The learners who don’t just learn on command when we want them to learn? Where are the citizen-thinkers who tinker to learn and who get their hands dirty, perhaps earning a callus or two along the way? Could the “culture” of creativity and innovation we so highly prize in America be an outcome of skills we developed within families and communities as we fought first to survive, then to subsist, and, finally, to expand from East to West? Is that culture still breathing? Are our schools on their own when it comes to educating America’s young people? Are we in what America’s top CEOs call a creativity crisis? Where are our fence designers today?


When I reflect upon the ingenuity of early colonists homesteading in the Blue Ridge, it’s pretty obvious to me that despite a lack of “school” education, these families depended upon deep creative and critical problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes I wonder if schools were ever a source of this nation’s creative genius or whether our creativity and passion for innovation emerged as a socio-cultural skill of survival that continued to be honed across generations until… today.

Perhaps our capacity for creative genius is being dismantled not just by the longstanding reductionist, industrialized, one-size-fits all schools we have inhabited for generations but also by our current capacity to acquire the resources to buy, service or replace on a whim. Or, maybe despite our urge to still repair or fix things around us, our creativity’s being defeated by technology advances that lock us out of problem-solving possibilities. I suspect it’s a combination of all of these. As the digital divide fades away, will the next divide be between those who can create and respond in the moment with innovative solutions and those who cannot? How important are concrete experiences to honing creative and critical thought?

It struck me as I chatted recently with a local plumber at work with his seventeen year-old son that his son was learning something that most of our children are not. They were working on an older neighborhood home with a mash-up of pipes carrying water inside and outside, from well to drain field. I watched this young man work with his father to problem-solve the size and length of pipe needed, how to find underground pipes they needed to locate, and where to drill through an unanticipated concrete, not cinder block, footing.

I simply listened and watched as the two of them worked together, sorting through a series of multi-step problems that involved spatial relations, mathematical-analytical, verbal-linguistic, and kinesthetic intelligence; with a healthy dose of deductive reasoning on both their parts. They didn’t use any computer-based technologies, but rather a few old-fashioned technologies that most of our kids today can’t name, let alone use: the pick-axe, the shovel, the measuring tape,the level, the square, and the pipe-wrench. Many today disdain these tools as beneath them, but I was struck in watching these two at work that perhaps the lack of these tools in our children’s lives is one reason we as a culture appear to be losing our creative edge.

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

Discovering Bending Moment in First Grade

I think about my visits to schools over the course of this school year. While I love seeing new learning technologies being used by young people, I also appreciated second graders measuring with unifix cubes and handmade rulers, middle schoolers playing stringed instruments, chemistry students in goggles analyzing mixtures in old-fashioned test tubes, and kindergarteners with hands covered in blue finger paint. I loved the imagery created by the first grade teacher in her rocking chair reading from a picture book with children gathered on the floor, second graders chasing each other in a healthy game of tag, and high schoolers outdoors at lunch hanging around picnic tables and lounging on the ground.

designkids5

Comfort, Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking

In reflection, what I most value is the level of activity and engagement everywhere I look in our schools from fifth graders using iPod touches to race hallways in an in-school scavenger hunt to third graders dancing with their music teacher. Isn’t it this movement of thought processes that defines how we connect with our creative genius? When I see minds in action, not passively contained in rows, I believe that the intellectual juice of this nation can still power deep learning through the vast array of tools at our disposal, inside and out of the places we call schools.

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

These tools represent the dichotomy of our struggle to teach this techno-generation: how we capitalize upon using new technology learning tools while making sure our young people don’t lose the capability to use old technology tools as well. When we power up our young people with the “high-tech” learning tools we make available in our schools today, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must still power up our young people with musical instruments, paintbrushes, Legos, beakers, bones, pulleys, picture books, woodworking tools, kitchen stoves, blocks and more.

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Using Power Tools Requires Problem-Solving, Creativity, and Teamwork

Our youngest children need to have their hands on a variety of tools, but our eldest do as well. All of our children need time to socialize face to face, not just in text bytes. I want our young people to graduate with the skills to problem-solve how to fix a leaky faucet or rewire a lamp that stops functioning. I don’t want them to always feel compelled to search the Internet for an “Angie’s list” problem-solver for all their household conundrums.

I want them to…

  • wander parks, fields, forests and their own yards, taking time to not just glance past a Viceroy butterfly or mantis but also to ask questions and seek answers about that which they don’t know
  • be inspired by music from a range of genres and time periods – to grow up savoring the natural world and the arts
  • understand scientific concepts that underpin how things work, what things are, and systems that explain and support life
  • engage in passionate dialogue about the rights of humankind through informed perspectives based on deep knowledge of history, politics, religion, and culture
  • speak a second, and maybe even a third language, but especially to understand the language of mathematics and,
  • see themselves as poets, narrators, conversationalists, and consumers of literature

I guess what I am really looking for is a nation committed to creating a learning renaissance with an infusion of enlightenment thrown in to extend and challenge the thinking of young people who represent the future. And, yes, I’d also like to see our young people use technology to connect, communicate, and collaborate with the world; to draw upon the experts, their peers, and the breadth of resources that together make pathways to deep learning universally accessible to all of our young people.

We now have the capability to turn on a faucet of learning opportunities unlike anything in the history of humankind. But, shouldn’t we make sure our kids don’t lose the capability to problem-solve as the best of plumbers and fence designers do while also learning to produce and create in the clouds?

** I first wrote and published this at Edurati Review.

About pamelamoran

Educator in Virginia, creating 21st c community learning spaces for all kinds of learners, both adults and young people. I read, garden, listen to music, and capture photo images mostly of the natural world. My posts represent a personal point of view on topics of interest.
This entry was posted in culture, Game Changers, learning technologies, social story, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Fence Designers and Citizen Thinkers**

  1. Deven Black says:

    As I look back over the 55 years starting with my pre-K (we called it nursery school then) through to my experiences as a teacher and learner today, I see a continual narrowing of the modes of learning even as our requirements for student learning expand.

    Teachers are thought responsible for student learning now. This is only possible because we’ve so narrowed our conception of what learning is and how it happens. This is partially the fault of the education professionals, teachers, administrators and the like, who have advanced the notion that learning is this mystery that only we understand. This is nonsense.

    Learning is a continual process, an essential part of our life that happens whether or not we want it to. Still, as you so ably point out, we only learn what we we are exposed to and, paradoxically, our exposure to the processes of creativity, invention and collective problem-solving are limited by having access to all the knowledge in the world. We are overwhelmed and take the defensive position of watching cat videos because we’ve lost contact with what is real, valuable and useful.

    We need to be exposed to the tinkerers, the mechanics, the carpenters, plumbers, electricians and others who practice the practical arts because they show us how to solve real problems, not the ones we artificially construct to create “real-life” applications of mathematics or science in school.

    A good friend recently developed diabetes and now has to inject himself with insulin. He was not in a condition to learn when he was taught how to do this. He found a YouTube video, actually many of them, that showed him how to inject himself. It seems possible to learn anything online from YouTube or some other video site, but there is something essential missing. There is no feedback, no guidance on how to recognize and correct an error in the process.

    What struck me most about your plumber and son example was how the learning, the application of learning and feedback about the execution of the learning was immediate, part of a holistic process, not broken into distinct, almost disconnected phases. The just in time learning should be the model for our schools, not the curricula we see applied in lock-step pacing more and more.

    • pamelamoran says:

      Deven-

      Thank you for posting on the fence designers piece… we have subtracted so much natural learning from the world of our children that you and I see as essential. I appreciate your perspective on the “why” and the important piece we’ve lost in our race to test- that children need to learn in context to hold on to what’s important. You get that- we have to build that library soon.

  2. Kelly says:

    I teach in a fifth grade STEM classroom (my blog teachingstems.blogspot.com is new) and I am well on this path with my students. I discovered the maker movement in the fall as I started this new curriculum, and it has really turned my classroom into a BUSY place. I do find, informally, that my students are understanding concepts better if I put a quality “build” in front of them. Currently we are learning our force and motion curriculum through building roller coasters. The discussions are wonderful. This is a wonderful reflective piece.

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