Learning by Making is More Humane


Human beings learn in lots of different ways. They can learn by reading a book or by sitting in a classroom or by taking an online class. Some ways of learning are more tedious and stressful than others, though. When I was an engineering student in college, I sat in lectures for nine hours straight on Wednesdays, with no lunch break. After those nine hours of lectures, I’d study several hours to prepare for the next day. Is it any wonder I ditched engineering as my college major? There’s got to be a more humane way of learning. Learning by making is that more humane way.

Learning by making starts with learners having a purpose. They seek to create something, and in the process, they acquire the skills to do so. When they learn by making (often called project-based learning), the learning sticks because they have a reason for doing it. It’s the exact opposite of cramming their heads with stuff that they may never need or use in their lives.

Teachers who incorporate making into their teaching are not at all interested in what their students are not able to do. They focus on what their students are able to do. They look for hidden talents and help uncover those talents. Teachers who incorporate making follow the tradition of Annie Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller sign language. The fact that Helen Keller was deaf and blind was irrelevant to Annie Sullivan. She sought a way to unlock Helen Keller’s language abilities, and she succeeded in that venture.

Today, huge numbers of students drop out of high school in the United States, and every one of them determined that the costs of education outweighed its benefits. We could try to solve the dropout problem by urging students to stay in school. That might work in a small number of cases. What might work better is if we made school the place where students really wanted to be. If we changed our teaching methods from sit down to stand up, from passive learning to active learning, we might see a rapid reduction in dropout rates.

Treating human beings more humanely can never be a mistake. Learning by making is one of the most humane ways for students to learn. If we were wise, we’d move all our schoolsprivate schools and public schoolsrapidly in this direction. In years hence, youth will laugh at old movies showing students sitting obediently in rows of desks in a classroom. “What were they thinking back then?” our youth will mutter. “Were they really so clueless about learning?”

Yes, we really were so clueless about learning.

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