Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Good Prompt is Worth a Thousand Words




My friend and student of Seymour Papert, Gary Stager, would always say that a “good prompt is worth a thousand words.” What exactly does that mean? There is a lot that goes into this statement. Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez discuss three rules for this in their book. For this blog post I will be using “learning adventure,” and “prompt” interchangeably.

The first rule of thumb is brevity. Prompts, which Gary calls “learning adventures” (a term I borrowed from him), must be short. They can fit on a small piece of paper, be written on a board in one sentence or delivered as a tweet. All the best questions are short.

The second rule of thumb is ambiguity. The learning adventure should be state in an open-ended way so that students can solve the prompt in different ways. The prompt should be crafted in a way so students can come up with different solutions, possibly an answer never thought of by the teacher. This helps students understand that there is often times more than one way to solve a problem.

The third rule of thumb is immunity to assessment. The learning is judged not by a test but rather by to learning adventure being completed. If a student is developing a video game, the reward is completing it, having someone else play it and tweaking the game so it is better. The motivation is caused by these rewards -- not by a B+, A, or the threat of a “F.” I know some teachers who understand that “failure is learning,”

A good prompt is also something that can’t be “Googled.” When the ubiquity of cellphones in students’ pockets occurred, some educators were concerned about students being able to Google or now, I guess, ask Siri the answer to questions on tests. Using the above rules “Googling for an answer” is just not possible.

Recently, I had a chance to be a “Maker in Residence” at a local school for a day. The school was Pioneer High School and I was located in the library. The tool I was using is called Cubelets and I gave student “learning adventures” that they were to solve. This occurred during the Hour of Code week and here is a previous blog post about the experience.

The hardest part of this teaching style, that Seymour Papert calls “constructionism," is thinking up the prompts. It takes a lot of creativity, knowledge of the tool and cognitive energy to think up learning adventures. Plus, we really want students to come up with their own learning adventures. Students coming up with their own learning adventures and playing promotes curiosity and wonder. Problem-solving, failure and working through failure, curiosity and wonder are really the only ways our world's problems will ever be solved.

While in Pioneer, working with Stephanie Hogan, I jotted some learning adventures down. Some I had asked before and some I had not. Here they are and in no particular order. All of these learning adventures involve Cubelets. The Cubelets are individual blocks and each one of them have a separate function. Some blocks are the battery. Some are wheels and others are sensors. The prompts below are written slightly in an order of easy to hard.

Make a flashlight.

1) Make a light house.

2) Using tape and a pencil, make a vehicle that draws a circle.

3) Make a flashlight that gets brighter when a sensor is covered.

4) Make a vehicle that when the light shines on itself it moves forward.

5) Can you make a vehicle that refuses to drive itself off of the table?

6) Can you make a light alarm?

7) Can you make a strobe light?

8) Make a vehicle that is controlled by your cell phone.

9) Make a vehicle that is attracted or follows a light.

10) Can you make a sound that either increases or decreases when light shines on it?

11) Can you make the Cubelets dance?

12) Can you make a vehicle that refuses to run into walls?

The above are just some ideas specifically for Cubelets, and if you have ideas of your own, please submit them as comments. All the above fit the “Invent to Learn” rules of thumb for a good prompt. The above rules of thumb are not just for Cubelets or any kind of making in general. Most questions asked in school should follow the above rules of thumb.

1 comment:

Donald Watkins said...

Thanks for sharing this. You've given me some prompts for our EV3 robotics class.