Pumpkin Chunkin and the Nature of Teacher Work

I read Matt’s post yesterday and I appreciated the way he chose to push folks to look at learning and teaching differently. I thought about it as I was running/waddling through West Philly this afternoon. I was thinking of one particular response to these sorts of proposals: it’s too much work to teach this way.

Let’s think about this for a minute. To build and to really understand a trebuchet or a catapault, you would need to have basic knowledge of force, of how to calculate velocity, of balance,of how bodies in motion behave. As an intellectual problem — how do I hurdle an object the greatest distance — you can see the ways in which basic math (both algebra and geometry) and basic physics could be learned.

But ONLY if it’s done right.

You could spend a month, two months, split between a shop and classroom, and the kids could have a GREAT time, well, blowin’ stuff up. And a teacher could revel in the engagement the kids showed — hey, this is the best lesson ever — and be thrilled about the community they’ve built. But the kids could walk away with nothing.

If it’s done right, though, the teacher is pouring through medieval texts — how did they build these things, anyway ? — and looking at the grade level standards to figure out EXACTLY how they’re going to teach the math that makes the machine work. The teacher would be emailing experts — engineers, physicists, mathematicians — for advice. They’d be watching kids closely, figuring out when they achieved a deep understanding or when they were just riding on a peer’s vision. They’d be searching for the necessary texts that would push kids to hone their designs and they’d be carefully thinking about how to best scaffold these texts. They’d be helping the kids learn to monitor themselves, to see how they best grasp mathematical concepts, to see what tactics work best when faced with a difficult text.

This is a ton of work, too, but the kind of joyful, authentic, fun work that gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s a far cry from auditing student work, or ploughing through a dead textbook, or figuring out how to best position a word wall to keep a vice principal happy.