Personal Learning and Creation Time in Middle School

Introduction: Personal Learning and Creation Time in Middle School

About: Math/Science Educator and writer with more than 30 years of experience in science and industry.

Inventiveness, creativity, and life-long learning are critical for personal growth, leadership, and national achievement. Realizing the importance of innovation, educators are looking for ways to foster creativity and an inquisitive spirit in children. Inspired by Google's "20% Time," wherein employees are encouraged to pursue something of high personal interest at work, a growing number of teachers are providing time for learners to pursue what interests them at school. Although few teachers are willing to commit to a full 1/5 of every school week, it has to start somewhere.

Children are often unfamiliar with the concept of selecting and pursuing a topic or project of their choice that has very few rules or bounds associated with it. As a result, they are often at a loss as to how to proceed. They can have difficulty with the concept of doing something at school that is not for a "grade."

This Instructable provides a framework for implementing personal learning and project time in a middle school setting, although it could easily be adapted for use at any grade level.

By participating in personal learning and creation time, learners will gain first hand knowledge and experience in bringing an original idea from concept to final product, which will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Step 1: Inspire

There is nothing like seeing the amazing things that others have done and are doing to get the creative juices flowing. To that end, videos from the folks at Make are hard to beat. In bandwidth limited situations, offers a seemingly endless selection of project ideas and how-to documents. Many short and interesting "I made this" videos can be found on YouTube and cool project photos can be found on Flickr.

If YouTube is blocked at school, download or convert videos (using or equivalent) from outside the school network and play them from a local drive. To find relevant videos or photos at websites use the search terms "maker, DIY, invention, how-to, creativity, project build" and the like.

A list of videos that have been well-received by 12-14 year-olds is included in the Resources section of this Instructable.

Here are some tips for inspiring kids to learn, create and invent:
  • It is important that the kids see a variety of example projects and people doing them. There should be things that appeal to both boys and girls. There should also be a mix of longer personal maker profiles and shorter demonstrations.
  • Modelling the making and learning process is powerful. If you are doing this, then maybe you like to learn and make stuff too. Be like the crazy teacher in the photo, and bring in stuff you have made to show the kids.
  • Just about anything will succeed in demonstrating that "cool stuff can be made" and "interesting things can be learned." Examples include: knitting or cross stitch projects, something you have published, a computer program, wood or metal working projects, handmade jewelry, model kits, art work, anything!
  • Bring in an actual inventor, writer, or film maker to talk to the kids. This is not as hard to pull off as it may seem. Creative types are often anxious to share their knowledge and experience with young people.
  • If you can't get an actual live inventor or creator to come in for a presentation, organize a meetup over Skype and project it on a large screen in front of the assembled class (or classes).

Step 2: Plan

Without planning, personal creation and invention time is likely to become an unfocused quagmire. Little will be accomplished, little will be created or learned, and no one (especially you) will be pleased with the outcome. To aid in this process a two-page planning form has been developed for use by the learners.

Personal Learning/Creation Project Planning Form (Part A) contains three sections: Brainstorming, Narrow it Down, and Final Learning/Project Idea. Links to download the form are provided in the Resources section at the end of this Instructable.

Personal Learning/Creation Project Planning Form (Part A)
  • The Brainstorming section is a place to jot down as many ideas as possible. The ideas can be specific, but as often as not, the child has not been presented with such an open-ended opportunity before and will be at a loss. That is exactly why some sort of organized thinking process is needed. If nothing else, the learner should write down subjects or topics that interest them, or list things that they like to do.
  • After brainstorming is done (at least for now) it is time to Narrow it Down. The learner should take a critical look at the list of subjects or project ideas they have in the Brainstorming section. Cross out the ones that don't seem feasible (e.g. would require zillions of dollars, or years to complete). If the brainstorming section contains general interests or rather vague notions, use the Narrow it Down space to think of a problem in a topic of interest or something in that realm that they think could be improved. Don't be critical of any of the ideas. You will have kids who have never made anything before in their life, or who have never studied something for the sheer love of it. This is hard for them.
Note: Remember, this does not have to be a "make something" project. It can just as well be a "learn something new" project.
  • The Final Learning/Project Idea space is for coming up with a single project or learning topic. It should be distilled form the Brainstorming and Narrow it Down work done previously. Something like "I will learn how to _________" or "I will make a __________" is the goal here. It has to be narrowed to a single idea.
Personal Learning/Creation Project Planning Form (Part B)
  • Part B of the form is for more specific project planning once an idea is decided upon. It contains space for a Project Title, Mission Statement, Resources and Product.
  • The formal Project Title should be short, descriptive, accurate and to-the-point.
  • Next comes the Mission Statement. The mission statement is important because it requires an evaluation of the purpose of the project. Write a sentence that describes the project, its purpose, and the intended outcome. It should be longer than the project title.
  • Resources: If this is a learning project, write down some resources to use in pursuing the learning. For creative projects, write down some resources for use as references to use along the way. Be specific. Also use this space to make an initial materials and/or tools list.
  • Product: This is important! Here is where the the learner explains how they will present their work to the world. It could be by documenting progress in a blog, making an instructional video, giving a presentation before an audience of peers, creating a written description/report, or some other way. The point is to get it out there. Celebrate it and let others learn from the experience.
Some hints for the planning process:
  • It is good for kids to work in a small group and bounce ideas off of each other.
  • Provide graph paper and encourage inventors to create increasingly detailed drawings of their product ideas. Attach these to the planning sheets.
  • When you are satisfied that a plan is feasible (don't be too quick to rule anything out, failure is a better teacher than success), sign and date the bottom of Part B of the planning form. This makes it official and ensures no dangerous or otherwise unauthorized projects get underway.
  • Keep a copy of each completed planning form for your records.
  • Some kids will complete this phase in 10-15 minutes, while others will take two or more work periods. Either way is fine so long as they come up with something they are interested in and are excited about doing.
  • There might be a few individuals who will not be able to come up with anything. Sit down with them and talk them through the process.
  • Provide a selection of project how-to books from the library. If inspiration does not arise on its own, let kids leaf through the books to see if something catches their eye.
  • In rare individual cases, the planning process will fail. Then you will have to "assign" a project. This is undesirable. More on that in the Do section of this Instructable.

Step 3: Do

It takes time for kids to begin making progress in developing and implementing their plan. This is normal so be patient. Do not skip the previous steps of planning and inspiring!

It is not the teacher's job to solve every problem that comes up in a student project. On the contrary, experience in recognizing and surmounting problems is a major goal of a personal learning and creation time program. There will be plenty of problems. Once everyone has an approved project, it is the teachers job to encourage, provide technical assistance, and facilitate the process. There is no sure-fire step-by-step method for inventing or creating something for the first time.

Here are some tips for the teacher (better known as the Learner-in-Chief):
  • Walk around the room and make sure you check in with everyone at least once a period (preferably more).
  • Ask the young makers and learners to explain to you where they are in the process.
  • If they seem to be stuck, offer a bit of advice for a work-around, or suggest a tool, book, or website that might help them solve their problem.
  • If someone is floundering, go over their plan with them. Often they will need to make a new sketch or drawing. The initial plan may need modification to make it more "doable."
  • Get parents involved. Often a parent has some special knowledge or expertise that can add a positive dynamic to the experience. Invite them in to help their own child or anyone else who needs help. When more adults are around, it makes the kids feel their projects are more more worthwhile.
  • Make something! Inspiring with a show and tell of things you have personally created is great. It is even better to actively make something along with the kids. So, whatever project you are working on, bring it in and spend at least a bit of time working on it while the kids work on their projects. If you don't have a project, get out the planning form and get started on something.
  • Celebrate success. When a problem has been solved, announce it to the class and let the student give a short description of the problem and what they did to solve it.
Okay, now what about those reluctant kids? You know, the ones who would rather sit around and talk to their friends, interfere with the progress of others, read a book, or flit from one idea to the next every week without ever getting anything done. Another type is the "super helper" who is interested in what others are doing and will really get involved in somebody else's project, but has nothing of their own. A few might always have an excuse for not being productive. They are "waiting for parts to come in" or are "still choosing the right materials," or are "talking it over with their parents." Unacceptable!

Here are some tips for those kids:
  • Sign 'em up for (it's free) and get them started on it. This assumes you have a student computer available and internet access.
  • Ask them what their favorite subject or pastime is. Based on the first thing that comes to their mind, spend a bit of time brainstorming and assign them a learning project with a written report or a video as the final product. This even works for those who can only think of "football," "gymnastics," or "video games."
  • Get MIT's Scratch program installed on some computers and have them figure out how to use it to create a simple video game or animation of some kind. Whatever you do, don't train them how to use it, let them figure it out.
One of two things will usually happen after "the assignment." They will get interested in the assignment and launch themselves into it; or, they will decide maybe there really is something else they could get interested in after all, and they will come up with a project of their own.

Make sure that any completed project is taken all the way through the product phase. If the method of sharing is to make a presentation to their peers (in other words, in front of the class) hold them to a high standard. Don't let them simply stand in front of the room and say "I made this." Require at least a visual presentation to go along with it (PowerPoint, Keynote, SlideRocket or Prezi).

If it is a learning project, have them distil the whole thing into a 5-15 minute presentation that teaches the rest of the class something about what they learned.

Step 4: Resources

Blog Posts About Personal Learning Time in School
Links to the Personal Learning/Creation Project Planning Form
You may edit or re-purpose the form as you please. An acknowledgment would be nice.

Videos for Inspiration

There is a lot of material available but these have proven interesting to middle school-aged kids.

Maker Workshop: Burrito Blaster
Squishy Circuits -- Sylvia's Mini Maker Show
Maker Profile: Music Machines
Maker Profile: Steampunk
Maker to Maker Magnets
Maker Profile: Wearable Technology
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    7 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool way of getting kids excited about their learning..


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool way of getting kids excited about their learning.

    Daniel Pink in his book "A Whole New Mind" says it best.
    "The future belongs to a different kind of person," Pink says. "Designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers — creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't." Pink claims we're living in a different era, a different age. An age in which those who "Think different" may be valued even more than ever.

    Keep thinking differently!


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Much appreciated. I'd like to hear about what other teachers are doing along these lines as well.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing it.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks. I hope that similar programs take off all over the country in one form or another.