A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have the chance to head back to the middle school where I worked for 14 years to help an outstanding and dedicated group of educators launch their project based learning unit for 150+ sixth graders.
We developed a LEGO Design Thinking Experience that placed a focus on two key areas that must be covered when doing high quality PBL with an authentic audience:
These are two essential building blocks among many others that we must teach students. We often discuss the importance of group work and basically just put them in groups and say “work it out”. We wanted to avoid this type of mindset and really create an interactive experience for them to understand how important these concepts are when working as a group.
We wanted to develop an experience that was fun, fast, and furious. We knew we had to grab their attention. We knew we had to keep them moving. We knew we had to keep them discussing and working together to build these skills out.
We knew that in order for any of this to work the learning had to stick. We had to connect to emotions, the senses, and hands on learning. Anytime you place over 150+ middle school students in one space you better move quick to hold their attention and it better be worth their time.
We had students work with their teams that they will be working with during their project to help them build bonds and connections. This helped to put into the context why we were doing the work we were doing.
You can access the entire slidedeck above so you can follow the work, but we began the event with setting the stage about the importance of this work and understanding the people that we work with. I really wanted to emphasis that this work is inside all of them. They all have their own unique superpowers(Captain Planet reference) and when we combine forces we can even more amazing together(Captain Planet).
Once we discussed the importance of working together and setting up expectations and norms we had them open up their bags of LEGO. I provided each student a bag of 20 pieces that they could keep at the end of the workshop because no matter your age we all love free stuff!
We started with a few quick builds to get them warmed up to the pieces. We live in a day and age where not every kid has played with LEGO. Not every kid has the chance to simply build and play. Some kids don’t know how to play. We wanted to make sure they were excited and ready to do the work so we crafted some quick builds to get them used to the format of the workshop.
From here we dove into a more specific build project of making a duck. We used this to emphasize that every single one of us has an answer inside and none of them are wrong! A task as simple as using 6 pieces to make a duck lead to over 100 different duck designs. It is a powerful visual for them to experience.
After we discussed this important idea and how vital it is that we allow everyone on our team to contribute their ideas to the work we do in the classroom we raised the level of thinking and sharing by diving into the concept of metaphors.
We challenged them t0 a build where they take 5 random pieces and have to explain how this is the answer to a statement provided them. This gets them to learn to open up and share ideas. Trust me, this is very hard for kids. We naturally fear being “wrong” even though there is no wrong. To communicate our ideas for something like this where we are trying to make the abstract concrete is challenging. Students really struggled at this phase to share ideas with confidence. This was a moment where we learned how important it is for us as educators support students to share ideas without fear of being wrong.
At this point we cranked things up. We had a table stashed in the back part of the cafeteria where we had a prebuilt structure. Each table had a “communicator” that could walk over to the table and come back to their team to explain how to build it without touching the pieces. This really focused on communication. Once again they were learning how important communication is when working with others.
We had one group complete this task in the 4 minute time window. We did not stop there, but instead cranked up the communication challenge. This time we had one communicator who could see the build. They then described it to the communicator #2 who then walked back to the table to describe how to build. This is an important lesson in asynchronous communication. Many groups struggled here because to describe and focus is hard under pressure. The kids did amazing work during this phase trying to figure out the best method for making this successful.
We had many other builds to do, but unfortunately we ran out of time. The time flew by and we had to adjust our builds and bring things to a close.
I am not going to lie, this one of my favorite days I have had in a long time. It was wonderful to work with educators so dedicated to creating authentic learning for their students. They designed a full day launch to help get students ready for the pbl unit that they are about to embark on. The project itself will be making positive impacts across our community in a variety of ways.
It was wonderful to come back and work with middle school students. I was again reminded how amazing they are when we give them the space to do so. I was reminded about how hard it is for them to open up and share ideas. It reminded me about the importance of educators and how the calling of educators stretches far beyond a simple standardized test score.
At the end of the day we further proved that you cannot treat people like machines. Humans don’t respond like machines. We cannot manage people like we manage machines. The creative process does not work like that. We must provide support, empathy, emotion, and a foundation to help people feel safe to share and build their ideas.
It was inspiring to know and work with people who are passionate about their work and passionate about doing what is right for kids.
At the end of the workshop we wrapped up the event by celebrating the good. The adults in the room shared out examples of what we noticed in the workshop on these topics:
We wanted students to know that we noticed. We were watching and we were proud. We must acknowledge the good. We must bring light to the great things they are capable of doing.
I cannot wait to do more of this work and am already heavily invested in making more of these types of experiences for students and adults.
Check out the video below to see a recap of the day.
We had recorders at each table using this chart, but we needed more time. This is something I need to figure out how to capture more of the thinking. The idea was good, but not realistic for them to accomplish while trying to build and network at the same time.
However, one of the teachers saved the day by having students use Flipgrid to capture their thoughts about the day. Check out these ideas because it inspires me to keep developing experiences for students.
Kids are amazing. They get to be amazing when they have educators who are dedicated like this crew. I cannot wait to see how this project unfolds.
If you want to see more from the day, here is our photo album of the event.