An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.
Or … is it?
Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?
Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.
We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”