I read a social media post that implored us not to give up on direct instruction, that it, too, is useful. I agree. And I saw a science teacher last week masterfully weave direct instruction and quick moments of student group work together. My reservation, though, is that we depend on direct instruction, in a teacher-tells-student kind of way, too heavily and too often.

So it was with a lot of interest that I went to the Innovation Lab yesterday, to see how the teacher was running the class. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be direct instruction.


It’s five minutes into class here in the Innovation Lab, a large space with drills and saws and screws and hammers and tape. I’m sitting in the couch area, I’m not sure what the teacher calls it, but it’s an area with four couches and some chairs and a chess board made with a 3D printer on a wooden table that someone else made. There’s a big screen, too, with whiteboards that fold out. On one white board there’s a list of student names – individuals, pairs, or threesomes – and the project they are working on. I believe you could call that the syllabus: just the projects the students chose. 

Curriculum Lite. When I was young Miller Lite ran a string of commercials with the tagline “Tastes great. Less filling.” This lab tastes great. And it is indeed less filling, in the sense that the approach isn’t the filling of a bucket, but rather the fanning of a fire, to paraphrase the popular quote. 

The lesson plan today is as light as the curriculum. After introducing me and my colleague, a professor of education, the teacher says, “Go!” And the students went. The teacher’s role here is to move from group to group, individual to individual. I just heard him ask a student: “What can you do while you are waiting?” So add coaching to the teacher’s role. Coaching the type of skills that transcend any particular class. 

I can’t just sit here in the corner with all this independent action going on. I’m going to ask students what they like about the Innovation Lab.

“I like figuring stuff out by myself,” says the student nearest me. “When I get stuck I get to figure things out myself.”

“There’s not a lot of homework, we get to do projects, and there are a lot of resources here,” say three young boys sitting in a row on a couch. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I think to myself. One of them is holding a lego car with an EV3, which allows them to actually drive the car. They are on the Lego website, searching for something.

“You basically get to build whatever you want. You create whatever you want,” This from a boy making a guitar out of wood. The body looks good, if a little uneven around the edges. He’s going to attach a neck he removed from a broken guitar. 

“Hanging around next to my best friend,” a girl answers, with a glance at the girl next to her. A third girl says “Learning new skills, like I learned how to sew.” I look past her to a row of Bernina sewing machines. Like the previous student said, there are plenty of resources here.

The last group I talk to are three boys modifying a pair of old skis. “We get to make stuff.” I prod just a little, asking if class always runs this way, with the teacher saying “Go!” and everyone getting to work. “We had to have a plan first, like an image or something on a Google doc,” one boy answers. “The teacher needs to know what we plan on doing.” I notice they are the ones telling the teacher what their project will be. Nice.

The time has flown, the luthier (heck, when else do you get to use that word specifically for someone building a string instrument?) and another boy I didn’t manage to talk to are using hand vacs to clean up their work area. The teacher is walking past students reminding them to leave enough time to clean up. Students crisscross the room, returning tools, hanging things up, storing their projects below the work tables.

My colleague, the visitor from the university, asked me before class if we’d be seeing project based learning. Not really, I told him, more like learning while doing projects. It’s not what educators might identify as PBL. I’m not sure what education term would be appropriate for this class. Maybe people working in makerspaces have a term for it. 

The Lego car drives into my foot. Lego is from the Danish leg godt meaning “play well.” Maybe we could call this type of learning something along the lines of good playing. For example: “Free play with power tools.” Makerspace folks, what do you call this?

Leg godt!

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