Serendipitous Learning

By Gary Stager, Ph.D.
Founder and Director
Constructing Modern Knowledge

The result of the project brainstorming process

The following is a learning story documenting one project’s development  and the subsequent knowledge constructed. The lessons of this learning adventure embody the values of Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Beth Calderone, Dan Trockman and Lizz Buchanan of the Blake School in Minneapolis, attended Constructing Modern Knowledge for the first time in July 2011. They engaged in a project, almost accidentally, that led unforeseen learning adventures and rich insights across multiple disciplines.

Their initial project idea was to explore virtual and physical representations. However, like many projects developed during Constructing Modern Knowledge, their plans changed in fortuitous and serendipitous ways. Often, when initial goals are abandoned based on new questions, discoveries or curiosity, the result is deep personal learning. When learners are permitted to follow their own intuitions and inquiry, the resulting knowledge constructed may exceed the teacher’s curriculum.

Since there is no imposed curriculum at Constructing Modern Knowledge, participants are free from the pressure of satisfying someone else’s preconceived objectives.

Day One - Beth, Lizz & Dan explore the Picocrickets and Scratch

More Day One activity

Sharing during the end of Day One reflection

After some time pursuing their original plan and exploring Pico Crickets and Scratch, the colleagues became frustrated. In need of a diversion that would take their minds off whatever obstacles they encountered, Dan, Lizz and Beth looked around the learning environment for inspiration.

Constructing Modern Knowledge goes to great lengths to fill the learning environment with all sorts of materials, tools, books, toys, junk food, experts and reference sources. You never know when a radio controlled tarantula, bag of marshmallows or book of Islamic art will lend just the creative spark a learner needs!

Beth, Lizz and Dan found a kit that promised to produce a model of an old Edison cylinder phongraph by scratching the recording in a plastic drink cup and playing the recording back when the needle is placed in a different position. My love of “junk” and forty year fascination with Thomas Edison led me to buy this kit on the Internet. I had no idea if it would work or if any Constructing Modern Knowledge participants would even open the box.

The three educators from Minneapolis figured that it would be easy to assemble the kit and give them something to do while they took what was intended to be a short break from their initial project idea.

Toys, tools, art supplies, books and reference materials are all part of the "objects to think with" critical to the creation of productive contexts for learning.

A "hard fun" workspace

Surprise! There was nothing simple about assembling the machine, especially since the plans were written in Japanese! When the illustrations failed them, they searched for a fellow participant who could help with the Japanese. Inspired by the challenge, the three worked until the model was complete and they had a functioning cylinder phonograph.

Assembling the cylinder photograph kit

Beth and the phonograph

Lizz and Beth at work

A student temporarily joins the construction team

Once the phonograph was assembled, it was time to yell into the horn and record onto the plastic drink cup. When the team played back the recording the volume was too low and therefore the quality of the recording was indiscernible.

At this point they grabbed a USB microphone, installed Audacity audio recording software and placed the mic right near the sound output of the phonograph. They then needed to figure out how to ask the software to increase the volume of the sound. All of this was done without instruction.

Guest Speaker, Jonathan Kozol, visits the team and listens to the phonograph

Once Beth heard her voice played back, she was startled by the result. She sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt! Her voice was high-pitched and stacato, just like how people spoke during the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Beth was always proud of the ways in which she used primary sources and documentary films or audio recordings in her history lessons, but now for the first time she was wondering about those sources. She experienced an epiphany. Did Eleanor Roosevelt really sound like that or is the voice we have come to associate with her the result of the recording technology of her era?

Beth wondered, “What if ordinary Americans began to alter their speech patterns based on what they heard on radio and movie reels?” Does technology alter our perceptions of history?

These are all powerful questions requiring further research.

A bit of whimsy in the form of a wooden Edison automata used for animation in the video made about the project. Turn the crank and watch him talk!

In addition to constructing the phonograph and amplifying its recordings, the team built a wooden Edison puppet out of an automata kit. This ingenius puppet was used in a presentation or video (not sure) produced by the team that documented the project development and compared the benefits to education promised by Edison after inventing the phonograph with other technological innovations since, including the educational claims made to seel the iPad.

The "team" working interdependently on various aspects of the project

Sharing the phonograph with their peers at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011

Watch the following video to see the phonograph in action and to hear the lessons learned by Beth, Dan and Lizz during the project development process.

Project Documentation – Edison Cylinder Phonograph from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

How did building a model kit lead to insights into science, history, linguistics, propaganda and pedagogy?