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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

The fun we have

Our quest to measure how frequently a skateboard wheel spins in a given amount of time continues. Working off of Twitter feedback (leave your feedback here) from Andrew Carle and Katie Mae, we built reed switches – circuits that use magnets to pull contacts together to complete themselves. We passed the reed switches through our MaKey MaKey board so that every time our circuits completed themselves, TextEdit would type a “w.” Our plan has been to get our wheel sensor working so that we can reliably consider each “w” a complete revolution of the wheel.

Reed switch is go

Reed switch is go

We learned how to build reed switches out of tiny boxes, paper clips, tin foil, and wire from Mahmoud Alaa, a young Egyptian instructables contributor.

Our switches all tested just fine, but they failed as wheel sensors. The boxes had to be held too close to the wheel to work; the magnet we hot-glued to the wheel pulled the entire box of the switch we used (at the distance we held it) into contact with the magnet which created friction which slowed the wheel. At “fast” speeds, the circuit didn’t stay completed long enough to register on the computer. At “slow” speeds, the magnet and circuit locked together pumping out an endless stream of “w.”

Reed switch friction

Reed switch friction

We remain undaunted by our serial failure because the learning matters to us. It is, in fact, fun to fail because we are building al the while. We are not chasing the answer; we are trying out many of them. Finding most of our answers lacking so far, my chief student inquirer has come up with these conclusions:

  1. We need clamps to hold our reed switches in place because the friction of our hand-held sensor hitting the wheel is not helping us.
  2. We need to make a more sensitive reed switch.
  3. We need a more powerful magnet on our skateboard wheel that can act over a short distance.

In thinking about our work (in classroom) and our work (in the profession), I come to a question similar to one I’ve asked before.

What prevents us from finding joy in failure?

Why do we remain so complicit with purely notional, test-based “success?”


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


10 thoughts on “The fun we have

  1. Chad, I continue to follow your student learning efforts with your students with pure joy and happiness for them and you!!! The notion that ANYTHING can proceed from initial glimmer to final optimized outcome without regular self-assessment and appropriate associated refinement – of successes and failures (or a combination of both) is insane. I presume K-12 textbooks are similar to college textbooks in their outlining a problem-solving procedure that’s implied to be both linear (do step 1, then step 2, etc.) and foolproof; for the students that actually seek to grow using this material, this is an absolute tragedy!!! In a program at UCONN a few years back, K-12 (middle and high school) teachers were brought on campus to work in faculty labs. One of the early and significant lessons they learned was this: faculty and students in the labs were completely comfortable with repeated failure … All credit to you and others (AND your administrators) for all you do for and with your students.

    Posted by jcbjr9455 | November 2, 2012, 9:56 am
    • I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity I have to do and share this work – my kids, colleagues, school founders, and supervisors all contribute to what makes this work possible.

      If we can trust kids to identify learning that matters to them, and if we don’t short circuit that learning or resist it systematically or as individual teachers, the kids and their learning can keep going and going and persist into more and more sophisticated and complex territory that provides continued motivation for kids to learn and explore.

      Go Huskies!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 3, 2012, 5:07 pm
  2. Chad, You ask a really good question! I hope your school bosses share your positive inquisitiveness, or at least continue to support your efforts. I’m glad “the pill’s” effects are not strong for you!

    Posted by Patrick Farenga | November 2, 2012, 3:19 pm
  3. Re practical issues, I can see a potential problem here. Just for some back of an envelope figures, I calculated that at 4MPH (walking pace), a 52mm dia wheel rotates at 11Hz. At 10MPH (running) it rotates at 27Hz. I’m guessing that a hand-rotated wheel will rotate at somewhere between those figures. The inputs of the Makey Makey seem designed for keypresses – but probably at 3 or 4 keypresses a second maximum (3-4Hz). The blurb implies that the high input impedance inputs are sampled so anything fast (like electrical pickup noise) is filtered out. In other words, the MM may not be able to keep up with the wheel. In fact, I think that’s what you were finding with the reedswitch when the wheel was spun at speed.

    Personally, if I wanted fair accuracy, I’d try to do this optically. I’d paint a white line radially on the wheel, shine an LED at it and sense it with a photodiode circuit, maybe logging the data or using a counter-timer. Some research would be needed for the circuit.

    Another way might be to paint the line and just video it with a high-speed digicam. That’d have the advantage of being able to determine the start point reasonably accurately – ie when the hand leaves the wheel.

    Hmm… curiosity, inquiry, experimentation – a recipe for lots of learning and fun!

    Posted by Clive (@CliveSir) | November 2, 2012, 5:11 pm
  4. Hey Chad,
    Always love to hear what you’re up to. Awesome stuff.

    Regarding the important question, “What prevents us from finding joy in failure?” It seems that by setting goals or outcomes for kids, or certainly by articulating standards, we are privileging one particular result. Everything else is necessarily a “failure” as it does not realize the stated goal, right? So in fact by the very nature of defining the target we dramatically increase the likelihood of hitting anything but.

    Let’s say I am enjoying shooting arrows into a massive wall of hay bales, every shot is a success. I feel the tension of the bow, hear the thwack of the arrow’s contact, revel in the sense of awe as my power is magnified by the physics of this simple beautiful machine, etc. But as soon as I paint my little bullseye somewhere on the wall I almost certainly doom myself to failure. Even if attempting to hit the target improves my skill and accuracy, what are the emotional and psychological costs of changing the game in this way? For the game is now certainly and qualitatively different. My likelihood of feeling stress and frustration, embarrassment and humiliation, poor self-esteem have increased exponentially. Add to this scenario a horde of other competitors and the message that I I can’t go to college if I don’t hit the target and I’m really stressed out. It also seems very likely that all I care about now is hitting the damn target and I no longer take pleasure in the artistry or aesthetic beauty of the game itself.

    So my question is, what is the alternative? Does this mean we shouldn’t have learning goals at all? That seems extreme. But is there any way to mitigate the many serious negative effects of articulating goals and standards? For starters it seems like the goal should be created by the learner. At least then, the target is less arbitrary and more personally relevant and meaningful. This would have to increase motivation if nothing else. Then it seems we need to somehow elevate the value of honest efforts that lead to alternative outcomes. Could the target be much larger? Could there be many targets? Could aiming for one, yet hitting another be considered a wonderful surprise? Could we prize small incremental movements towards the target as much as actually hitting it? Could we truly encourage and value those that help and facilitate others’ progress as much as achieving their own personal success? Each of these tweaks seems possible but very challenging inasmuch as we live within a much larger culture that keeps telling us that you’re on your own and you’ve got to hit the tiny little bullseye and nothing else matters.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 3, 2012, 9:35 am
    • I think one alternative is building communities and spaces that can react nimbly to follow kids’ learning, to help kids record their learning, to help kids make and do things, ands to help kids think about what, how, and why they learn.

      If we could build those places and invite constant feedback from within and without – from students, parents, teachers, students’ outside clients and mentors, et al. – we could create a dynamic, demanding, and fulfilling workplace and play-space for all involved.

      Towards brightly lit and wide open systems of education –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 3, 2012, 5:15 pm
  5. Chad,

    Amazing post! I’m intrigued by your work with the makey-makey board. I bought one for my own kids…just haven’t had a chance to experiment with it yet.

    Your students’ work in this project is amazing and rewarding in so many ways, I imagine. None more so than the discovery that failure is not an end state.

    Last year, after our 7th graders had completed a unit on redesigning school furniture, lockers, and other items, we brought in designers and engineers from Knoll Furniture, one of the premier office furniture producers in the world, for a grade-wide assembly. (Their headquarters is within 25 miles of our district…we got lucky.) The greatest thing to come out of that assembly was one line that their lead engineer said: “It’s important to fail early, and fail often.”

    I don’t think you need to know that. But such a mentality is spreading, and design and design based learning, such as you are involved in, is a catalyst for change unlike any I’ve seen in my two decades in the classroom.

    I’ll be presenting ideas and concepts that undergird my classroom to an design-ed symposium taking place at the Henry Ford Museum/Academy in Dearborn, Michigan this weekend (sponsored by the Industrial Designer’s Society of America and organized by Doris Wells-Papanek–you should meet her; she’s a tireless champion for the type of learning you’re undertaking). I hope you don’t mind if I draw reference to your class as an example of what’s happening, how the maker movement and design-learning are so closely related, and how they can alter the classroom and learning utterly.

    Have you seen this?

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | November 7, 2012, 5:56 pm


  1. Pingback: Makerspace Busywork « Tie And Jeans - November 5, 2012

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