Smallify to Learn Effectively

An Edgility Practice

As mentioned in the Transparency article, there is an important interaction between having the “big picture” (having a goal and some expectations along the way) and knowing “what to do next” (a feeling of workability and progress). This article explores how to establish both by creating an effective self-guided learning strategy for students.

In EDgility we encourage student self-determination. Student choice and understanding the big picture are critical components to cultivate self-determination. They need to understand the big picture in order to exercise real choice. To support them, I like to offer students projects with broad goals. The big general goal starts the process of smallifying, because they will have to smallify in order to make progress. The students first explore the field just enough to find ideas that interest them, to pick their own specific goal, and to find a purpose or context for that goal. It is important at this stage that the student’s goals already include a complication / design compromise consistent with the overall goal. For example, students may choose to build a cargo boat that saves energy, but it must also be stable in waves. Commercially, their boat is only better if it is effective at the overall goal (staying afloat) and good at a new specific goal (saving energy). Students must think broadly and understand the context of their project in actual use.

This first step generally creates a lot of enthusiasm (and ideas) as the students create a storyline, a new identity, and an organization to support their mission. The story line and organization need to be attractive to them and others, both to support their motivation and to make for a good sales pitch at the end of the unit.

Two classes that started with big goals that required smallifying into many workable steps were the “Boat Design” and “Robot Gardeners” classes. I’ve written about those elsewhere, see e.g. boat design in ECIS Global Insights and Robot Gardeners in Spotlight.

The next step in smallifying is for the students to figure out the most important aspects needed to accomplish the big goals. I call this distilling the essence of the topic in relation to their goal. For example, in the boat design class, all boat designs must understand buoyancy (flotation), and depending on the boat specialty and safety features, two or three other concepts will be important, i.e., students who choose to build a speedboat will need excellent fluid efficiency and perhaps also stability while turning. Learning to discover the important aspects of a large complex field and to find the critical aspects relating to one’s goals is an important life skill in almost all aspects of life. It is, in fact, a skill that transcends the specific content of the class - and therefore lifeworthy.

I give the students only a short amount of time to do these first two steps (perhaps one or two classes total). This prevents analysis paralysis. Besides, not having time to fully understand a field before starting gives the students permission to adjust as they explore their topic. Learning to manage and adjust projects as you learn and progress is known as agile management - another useful life-skill in our quickly evolving world.

At this point the students start the iterative smallification of concrete actionable steps to learn and progress toward the goal. These small steps are exploratory and safe. Safe means that the step is small enough that it isn’t upsetting if it doesn’t work on the first try and safe means that the teacher is neutral about successful and unsuccessful steps. Exploring and learning is what is celebrated. Under no condition can mistakes be punished or made a point of shame. Without feeling safe about errors and unknowns, smallifying and creative learning is almost impossible. It will take time for most students to trust this environment, thus initially, expect students to be reluctant to smallify in order to explore all the unknowns inherent in big messy goals.

Figuring out the next workable step happens as the student progresses - students are not working from a large, clear plan that maps out each step at the beginning of the project. I do give students who have never worked this way a few introductory steps to get them started. Once underway, students gain confidence and generally have enough experience to find the next workable step - as they progress. Here’s a concrete example of smallifying, based on building a racing catamaran that is stable while turning at speed might be:

  1. configure your computer with the software to print on a 3-D printer;
  2. design and print a box (or any simple shape);
  3. print the above shape, but make it hollow (learn to subtract a shape);
  4. print the above hollowed shape joined with a second shape; if the first shape is a box, add a cone, sphere, pyramid, etc (this requires addition and translation);
  5. etc. (now the students have enough basics to keep learning and progressing).

As Bill Rankin said in several keynote addresses, you learn to cook by cooking. In fact, you learn almost anything by doing it. You have to jump in and start, or “get cooking.”

Of course, a student who chooses to build a rescue boat will have a different set of small steps, but common to both boats is learning to work incrementally and building on the next workable small step toward the goal. This is a powerful learning technique that builds confidence in students' ability to learn and be successful.

Once the students get the hang of this process of moving from the big picture, identifying a few critical aspects, and smallifiying their project into small workable steps, they have effectively learned how to learn and self-correct as they move toward a large complex goal. This meta-aspect of the learning process and its deliberate practice may in the long run be a lifeworthy skill that goes far beyond the specific content of a single class. Engineering classes such as the Boat Design class example here work well. So, too, do classes in art and other areas.

Caution: Smallification happens in small chunks (one or two steps at a time maximum). In the tech world we call this planning at the last responsible moment, but fundamentally, it is about figuring out the next workable thing when the students have enough information to see that next step. This prevents the feeling that the big goal is just too overwhelming. Students who have never worked this way will need some smallifying guidance. For example, in the Boat Design class, I gave students a few steps to get started and I give the details of the final assessment. (I like a public demonstration and company pitch.) As a teacher you may want to step through a project to be more confident in the timing, practice the smallifying, etc, but be careful not to give away more than needed and avoid at all costs big and detailed plans! The fun and exploration is a central feature of a motivating and educational experience for the students.

Fundamentally, creating a learning environment where having the big picture and exploring the details along the way can create an uplifting educational journey.

Bill Tihen
Bill Tihen
Developer, Data Enthusiast, Educator and Nature’s Friend

very curious – known to explore knownledge and nature