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  • Joe Haig

Beat the System.

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

"Well worn pathways to success have become dead ends - cul de sacs filled with disillusioned graduates, milling about wondering how they’ll pay off their student loans."


Several years ago I was teaching a group of 6 and 7 year olds about the water cycle. As a teacher, I’m a big fan of excursions, incursions and diversions. Any excuse to deviate from school routines fine with me.


It was a sunny day, so we went outside to tip some water on the ground to see what would happen. Two students were chosen to fill up a large jug with water. They were thrilled to be assigned this task and ran to the nearest tap. They walked clumsily back, both trying to hold the jug between them as its contents sloshed over the brim.


I tipped the water onto the ground and we watched as it slowly snaked its way across the hot, dry concrete. We walked beside it, trying to guess where it would go as it gradually became thinner and stretched towards the drain in the corner of the playground. The children stared as it drizzled down into the darkness. They peered into the drain and speculated about what might be lurking down there. It was probably the most fun they had that day.


Can you guess what they said when I asked them why the water ran in the direction of the drain? The prevailing theory was: Water likes to be with other water, so it will always head to places where there is water.” Of course, this opened up further questions - is it a kind of magnetism? Are the waters all buddies that like to hang out together and catch up on old times?


I’ve listened to young kids explain how trees make wind by waving about and how the sound of a motor makes a vehicle move (which is why the louder the sound of the engine, the faster it moves). These students made observations of cause and effect systems but misinterpreted the results. They misunderstood how things work because their conclusions were based on limited information and life experience.


Our behaviour is governed by our understanding of “how things work”. If we unwittingly work against a system we experience frustration and failure. We can't quite understand why things aren't working out. On the other hand, if we can understand a system we can leverage it to our advantage - we can “hack” it.


As teachers, we're faced with the challenge of preparing students for success in a landscape where systems are rapidly changing and it’s difficult to keep up. The rules of the game are changing and this makes it difficult for us to position our students to win. Well worn pathways to success have become dead ends - cul de sacs filled with disillusioned graduates, milling about wondering how they’ll pay off their student loans. If you think that sounds like an overstatement, check out this story.


We need to train our students to test systems, figure them out and hack them to achieve their goals. To continually push them out of their comfort zones, keep them platform agnostic, able to rethink assumptions and question conclusions. This is why I love teaching digital technologies, and especially robotics: it provides students with rich system related learning opportunities. They can test conditional statements, tweak values, watch what happens and try to figure out why it didn't work.


Let's make our classrooms places where we try new approaches, places where we can admit that we don't know. Let's not be afraid to mess about with things to see what will happen. Maybe we'll learn something.