CMK Project

We became students to become better teachers

In July, Pioneer John Nordell attended the "Constructing Modern Knowledge" summer institute. In this article, he writes about his experience at this four-day hands-on workshop.

Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute 2017

“Being able to make things is an internalized form of power.”  These words, delivered by guest speaker and progressive educator Deborah Meier, really captured the key pedagogical thread of CMK 2017:  The idea that when students make, create and invent, they become empowered.  Empowered in the classroom and empowered to create their own futures.

According to the CMK website, “Constructing Modern Knowledge is a minds-on institute for educators committed to creativity, collaboration and computing.”  So, after a brief introduction and a posting of proposed project ideas, event organizers Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez invited us to form groups to make projects and pointed the groups towards rooms full of any materials you might need to make anything.

What?  No endless instructions?  No samples of what we were supposed to make?  No guidelines?  The structure of the institute thus evoked the pedagogical approaches suggested by the faculty, that experience leads to knowledge and less is more when it comes to instructions.



Many of the participants, like myself, had little or no experience with microprocessors or coding. We took on the role of students and learned.  And learned and learned.  I learned not only how to, for example, program a proximity sensor to trigger a motor to rotate a mirror into view, but also what it is like to be a student again.

My project at CMK was to make a device for individuals to explore their identities.  When an individual approaches the device, a proximity sensor triggers a motor that rotates 90 degrees, revealing a mirror in the process.  As the individual sees his or her reflection, they can ponder the questions posed in cut out letters on the front of the device, “Who Are You?”.  The individual can then a push a button to record his or her thoughts and/or push a different button to hear a recording of previous person’s response.

I felt the joy of success.  I felt ultimate frustration.  I felt supported by my fellow "students."  I felt jealous of others’ complex and creative projects. I balanced asking for help with learning on my own. I was pushed and nurtured and cheered on by the faculty. I also encountered a little disapproval.  I made stress induced careless mistakes as the completion deadline loomed.  I did not have a working project at the end of the institute.

All of these experiences were little gifts.  Gifts that put me in the shoes of my students and will allow me to have a deeper understanding of what they experience during class and how these insights will lead to greater compassion on my part, and thus, more effective teaching.

While most of the institute was time for the hands-on, minds-on learning of project creation, the four days were peppered with guest speakers, a visit to MIT’s Media Lab, circling up for reflections, a group dinner at a Brazilian steak house, and mini-seminars.  After Deborah Meier’s rousing talk on the importance of democracy in the classroom to create democracy in the world, surprise guest Alfie Kohn remarked.  “In one sense the Maker Movement is about agency, it’s about having an impact on the world, being a subject and not just an object, not just taking things as they are given, but constructing meaning from them.”

Guest speaker Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of Little Bits (easy to use programmable electronic circuits that clip together), shared her inspiring success story and concluded that her company’s products,  “(are)… not Easy-Bake Oven. It’s real technology that’s around us every day, just made simple so that it is really accessible for kids to be able to invent with.”



project 2

I am setting up an Art and Innovation Lab at my college and left CMK bursting with ideas, not only for what creative tools to make available to my students, not only with the goal of instilling a maker mindset in them, but also how to create an educational space that fosters democracy.

Happily drained at the institute’s end, I shared a concern with CMK co-director Sylvia Martinez.  “What is the line between introducing technologies that I personally may have little or no experience with (the need to be the expert) versus introducing technologies and having the students take the leadership role in learning how to use them?”

Her empowering response, “You may not be an expert with all these technologies, but you are a pathways expert.”