The Subtlety of Prompt Setting

In Chapter Four of our new book, Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we discuss the importance of prompt setting as a basis for project-based learning. I argue that “a good prompt is worth 1,000 words.” Projects are not the occasional dessert you get as a reward after consuming a semester’s worth of asparagus, but that the project should be a teacher’s “smallest unit of concern.

Last week, Sylvia Martinez and I completed a successful four-city Texas Invent to Learn workshop tour. Each workshop featured an open-ended engineering challenge. This challenge, completed in under two hours, was designed not only to introduce making, engineering, tinkering, and programming to educators with diverse experience, but to model non-coercive, constructionist, project-based learning.

Presented with what we hope was a good prompt, great materials, “sufficient” time, and a supportive culture, including a range of expertise, the assembled educators would be able to invent and learn in ways that exceeded their expectations. (We used two of our favorite materials: the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit and Snap! programming language.)

A good time was had by all. Workshop participants created wondrous and whimsical inventions satisfying their interpretation of our prompt. In each workshop a great deal was accomplished and learned without any formal instruction or laborious design process.

What’s your point?
Earlier today, our friends at Birdbrain Technologies, manufacturers of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit, tweeted one of the project videos from our Austin workshop. (Workshop participants often proudly share their creations on social media, not unlike kids. Such sharing causes me to invent new workshop prompts on a regular basis so that they remain a surprise in subsequent events.)

This lovely video was shared for all of the right reasons. It was viewed lots of times (and counting). Many educators liked or retweeted it, All good!

What’s slightly more problematic is the statement of the prompt inspiring this creation.

“Problem: The Easter Bunny is sick. Design a robot to deliver eggs.”

That was not the exact prompt presented to our workshop participants. This slight difference makes all the difference in the world.

The slide used to launch the invention process

Aren’t you just nitpicking?
Why quarrel over such subtle differences in wording?

  • Words matter
  • My prompt was an invitation to embark on a playful learning adventure complete with various sizes of candy eggs and a seasonal theme. Posing the activity as a problem/solution raises the stakes needlessly and implies assessment.
  • Design a robot comes with all sorts of baggage and limits the possible range of approaches. (I just rejected the word, solutions, and chose approaches because words matter.)

People have preconceived notions of robots (good and bad). Even if we are using a material called a robotics kit, I never want children to cloud their thinking with conventional images of robots.

The verb, design, is also problematic. It implies a front-loaded process involving formal planning, audience, pain point, etc… good in some problem solving contexts, but far from universally beneficial.

The use of problem, design, and robot needlessly narrows and constrains the affective, creative, and intellectual potential of the experience.

A major objective of professional learning activities such as these is for educators to experience what learning-by-doing may accomplish. Diving in, engaging in conversation with the materials, collaborating with others, and profiting from generative design (a topic for future writing) leads all learners to experience success, even in the short time allotted for this activity. Such a process respects what Papert and Turkle called epistemological pluralism. Hopefully, such positive personal experiences inspire future exploration, tinkering, and learning long after the workshop ends.

Our book suggests that good prompts are comprised of three factors:

  • Brevity
  • Ambiguity
  • Immunity to assessment

Such prompt-setting skill develops over time and with practice. Whether teaching preschoolers or adults, I am sensitive to planting the smallest seed possible to generate the most beautiful garden with the healthiest flowers. That glorious garden is free of litter from brainstorming Post-It Notes, imagination crushing rubrics, and other trappings of instruction.

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, second edition (2 ed.): Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1992). Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 11(1), 3-33.

Cross posted at Stager-to-Go and Invent To Learn


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