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The Importance of Asking Why?

The Importance of Asking Why?: The Direct Correlation Between Hands-on Learning and Lifelong Learners


The Choice program offers project based-learning, where youth are able to investigate what interests them and are challenged to work through difficulties that arise. Youth are encouraged to wonder and to ask “why?” I remember much of my own time in school as a process of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts for tests and grades. Young people at OC are working on the same fundamentals (reading, writing, and math) through multi-step, multi-faceted projects that require them to synthesize a vast array of skills and utilize high-tech tools. These projects require teamwork, critical thinking, and creativity. Yet, perhaps most importantly, these challenges reflect real life problems and thus prepare young people to work in a future that requires these abilities. These types of projects also enable the young people to be the directors and drivers of their own education and that is the root of developing lifelong learners. I love that the Choice program is designed to spur curiosity and creativity by giving young people projects where they can take the wheel.


I would like to begin by looking at the Woodshop. In a time when many schools are dropping their shop programs, our woodshop offerings are some of the most popular options in the Choice programs. In a day and age where you can have a birdhouse delivered to your house with a click of your mouse, what are the benefits of learning building skills in the woodshop? One is learning precision measuring skills. Many of us successfully use approximations when it comes to measuring, but the need for precise measuring skills quickly becomes evident when you attempt to line up and join multiple approximations. Building challenges young people to have a thorough understanding of fractions for measuring, and building is a real-world example of the necessity and use of fractions. Likewise, building creates an opportunity for exposure to angles and an understanding of their importance when making cuts.


In addition to these academic parameters, I would say that woodshop helps young people develop a sense of confidence. Many youth come to the woodshop having very little experience with the many hand and power tools available for their use. The experience of developing skills with these tools and working through the difficulties they encounter while building is empowering. I know that I have experienced this to a small degree when I have followed the “directions” when assembling an IKEA bed or bookcase. Persistence is strengthened when youth work through difficulties encountered with their woodshop projects. The adage to “measure twice, cut once” comes to mind as a tried and true practice that is often best learned through experience. When something goes “wrong” or not as you had planned in the woodshop, it is not the end of the world. You may feel discouraged, but then comes some “real” learning as we problem solve to get things back on track.


Facilitators and young people alike are really excited by the expanded opportunities the new Makerspace has provided to our community. Each Wednesday this fall, I looked forward to hearing the stories of what new items the young people were working on in their Bricolage1 Choice this fall: “Today I discovered that twelve LED’s can be powered through one bread board.” “I was attempting to program a song, but discovered that I needed to be able to produce chords, whereas the computer was only producing single notes.” “I worked to program my light display, but I have not quite finished.” As I listened to the young people tell me about their struggles with programming, I realized that although the technology we are using has become increasingly sophisticated, the project-based learning that each young person is pursuing encourages creativity and rewards those who persevere through adversity.


When we were young, learning through experience was a natural part of the process. In schools that teach to the test, this freedom to learn by making mistakes may be inhibited in favor of getting the “right” answer. At OC we have no tests, allowing young people the freedom to learn and create. I have seen a lot of this in action as young people learn to code their Arduino boards. The possibilities for an Arduino microcontroller (an integrated computer on a chip) are endless, but first you must learn to communicate with the microcontroller. Learning a new language takes practice, and just as we allow babies the freedom to practice and adjust with speech, young people learning to code need that same type of freedom to experiment with learning a new language (Arduino code). The act of coding gives feedback almost immediately because if you “misspeak” the computer does not understand or follow your directions as you intended. Once again, this is where the real learning takes place, as the young people continuously adjust and create their work.


The Film Choice participants constantly worked through the process of create and adjust. Managing the many components of this process to tell a story in a compelling fashion is an art. This group had the opportunity to take something that started in their imagination and work with it, molding it until it was realized on the screen. Filmmaking contains a wide variety of unique challenges for young people to overcome. While there is a large quantity of technical expertise gained through running lights, capturing sound, doing camera work, and editing video, there is a greater life skill gained as each person nurtures a project to completion. Being part of a film crew takes strong collaborative skills to decide on artistic direction, and also tests creativity and writing skills for script writing. Teamwork is a much needed real-world skill that filmmaking can help foster in young people. I love the challenge filmmaking provides young people; they are so excited and invested in video storytelling because they enjoy the product and are inspired to produce their own work.


We also used film in the Wildlife Forensics choice group as a vehicle to convey a message of conservation. Conservation is a wide-reaching topic and I introduced the idea of creating a public service announcement to allow the young people the opportunity to take the lead in what they wanted to learn about. In doing so I also unleashed a flood of creativity I otherwise would have not enjoyed. I heard passionate stories of a young man wanting to document his work to replant understory trees decimated by deer, a message on properly disposing of dog feces and then another group who worked on telling a story through whimsical fairy protectors of nature.


Learning begins with curiosity, the desire to find out why. Many parents consider the constant “Why?” from their toddlers as a phase to be endured, but I am here to argue that this is the beginning stage of a lifelong learner. We are lucky to live in a time when so many of those why questions are immediately answered at our fingertips thanks to technology. Learning should not be a passive text-dependent process, and spending just one day with the young people of the OC Choice Programs will show anyone why.