Building to Learn

At the RIT Center for MAGIC (Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity), we talk a lot about making things. Well, more correctly we make a lot of things and occasionally talk about them – we’re probably guilty of focusing more on making than on examining the how and why we do so.

A little while ago I was cleaning our house and I found a piece of homework debris my son had stuffed in a backpack. It looked like this:

My son's homework assignment

My son’s homework assignment

I was somewhat intrigued, because (a) I like to make things, (b) I was curious as to his intentions in making this, and (c) it was colorful. What I discovered was that he gets a sheet like this quite often, with three random words on it. He’s learning his letters, and his ‘job’ is to copy the word in the boxes below. The idea, one might suppose, is to spend enough time writing various letters and combinations that they become familiar and/or habit. It’s the 10,000 hours theory applied to letters.

So every day or two there’s another sheet, more words, more letters. OK. I asked him about the colors. He told me the colors are there to make it more fun and so it looks pretty. I asked him about the words and he stared at me blankly for a bit. I asked again “what do the words mean?” He knew all of the words, but had to stop and think about it – the frame he was operating in for that assignment, letters, didn’t have any context for the words. It wasn’t about words. It was about letters.

More ironically, I found a bunch of the other sheets and they are largely nonsensical as sentences. There’s clearly a program at work that randomly spits words across a page for students to copy, probably ensuring that every letter gets used so often or some such. I don’t know. What I do know is that this particular sheet, or this particular teacher, is either brilliant and subversive, or this is one a truly masterful piece of art arising from random chance.

You see, I know my son. I asked him whether he liked the letters assignment (he didn’t) and what he felt he was getting out of it (blank stare). About the same time, I caught him making letters out of Lego. “See, this side is slanted. This side is curved. This part connects these other parts.” He still struggles with the motor-dexterity of creating the letters, and probably will for a while. But he doesn’t struggle with the patterns of the letters themselves, or their meaning – he reads grade levels beyond his age. For him, thinking of letters as constructed objects with meaning was critical.

What if we learned about language not by learning a complex (and in American English somewhat arbitrary and convoluted) ruleset through memorization and practice, but by creating languages and studying patterns? We have the tools to do this at our fingertips – but we don’t.


Recently, my son and I were watching the Olympics, and he was seeing a bunch of sports he has never seen before, like bobsled. So he made a bobsled.

Lego Bobsled, inspired by the 2014 Olympics!

Lego Bobsled, inspired by the 2014 Olympics!

He was struggling at school with various social settings (cafeteria, classroom, school bus) so he made those too. In short, he makes just about everything he encounters. He is interpreting the world through making. Building something is a way to contextualize whatever it is he’s exploring, from trucks to planes to chairs to language to art to music. If it can’t be built in Lego, it’s construction paper, cloth, string, bits of eraser, wood, whatever. And tape (oh, God, the tape).

The reason this is important is that it’s a kind of learning and engagement that’s increasingly missing from our formalized view of education. We forget, in our quest to cram facts and figures into our heads, that facts and figures in abstract, unknown contexts are fragmented, disconnected, and largely useless. Plus, they are increasingly all at our fingertips anyway – the question is how to find them, how to contextualize them, and how to apply them. Memorization is less a prized skill: critical thinking and adaptability is touted as a hiring criteria in the current “How to Get Hired By Google (And Everyone Else)” set of articles being bandied about the popular press. But recall of facts and figures are easy to assess, individualized solutions for building and making are not. I’m not sure I care so much about ‘hiring criteria’ – but I do care about raising kids that can solve their own problems and hopefully some of the big ones we are leaving behind. I don’t think memorizing state birds is likely to help very much.


Growing up, I hated school. I hated nearly everything about it, and in particular I hated Math and Science, which is pretty ironic given my current position, career, and set of colleagues. But school in that day and age meant memorizing solutions that someone else came up with, and applying those formulae to meaningless (if intricate) problems that had no real relevance to much of anything I was interested in. The only thing that got me even close to caring was a unit in which we applied the formulas to Loony Tunes cartoon scenarios to see if, in fact, the coyote would hang in the air and for how long. And I only cared long enough to note that it was really a sham: the focus of the work had nothing to do with the coyote, or anything, really. Then we cut up a frog for some reason I can’t remember.
Meanwhile, that un-driven, uncaring, and largely depressive teen would spend hour upon hour drawing, sketching, tinkering, building, and playing. And not just at home: in the lunch room, study hall, on the bus – I, like so many of my friends, were working around the system, making things. The things I wanted to make.

Why make things? When we make things, we are driven to create them, driven to learn about a particular thing, process, or form. Human beings will solve most any problem or learn most any skill when it is contextualized in a way that doing so brings them closer to accomplishing their own goal and objective. If I want to make pottery, then I’ll learn about glass, and heat, and physics, and firing temperatures, and all the rest. If I don’t, then sitting through that kind of material is mind-numbing. If I want to make a car, or a house, then its engineering and math and mechanics and physics. Otherwise, no.

About a decade ago, I started working with students on games. Students would come to a place like RIT because they wanted to make games, and take subjects like computer science or software engineering, or 3D animation because that seemed like the right set of skills needed to make games. And it is, sort of, but not entirely (games have, uh, content, beyond the form). But the reason these students sought me out was that what they wanted to make wasn’t what the folks in those fields wanted to make (when they wanted to make anything): I would work with CS students who were struggling with concepts like stacks and queues who were being given analogies like plates in a dishwasher. Have you met an 18-year old? They don’t do dishes. And then they were being told they were unmotivated because they thing they wanted to make (games) weren’t ‘real work’, didn’t solve ‘real problems’ and (hilariously) weren’t ‘real computing’.

The thing is – it doesn’t matter if it’s real to the person teaching the course, it doesn’t matter if it’s real to their parents or friends or community. The only thing that matters to engage the drive of a human being to learn damned near anything is whether what they want to build and create matches their perception of the skills and methods they are learning. If an educator can get on the ground and create that link, then you win. I’m working on a new project with a friend in which we are approaching very complex computing topics with young children, the kinds of things that most folks are saying ‘they don’t yet have the skills and experience to comprehend those concepts.’ What a crock. So our first question to them is ‘Given this set of materials, what do YOU want to build?’

In our work with games, once you meet someone at their passion, they go all over the place. Some of them will wind up making games. Others will make some and discover that wasn’t what they were driven to do after all – but they really like graphics or systems or networking. Some will focus on art or story and set off to do something else. Some will go explore simulation, some will go major in psychology, and some will drop out. It’s all OK. They got something meaningful from it because they did what they wanted, and in doing so learned about themselves and the world around them. It’s not a failure to me if some student of mine does something unpredicted with their degree (or their not-degree) – in fact I think it’s wonderful – but in a rule-bound bureaucracy this seems aberrant.

I’ve written about this personalization and ‘jubilant chaos’ before with my friend Chris, and about the dangers of an educational system that seeks – in the name of fairness and equality through standardization – to minimize personalization and self-direction in nearly every context.
When we make things, we are driven to learn. When we paint, we aren’t just driven to create the final product, we are driven to express ourselves. We are driven to create something that doesn’t already exist. We start with copying, then move to modification, then multiple-incorporation, and finally innovation. My students don’t get into games just because they want to create Final Fantasy XII again – they want to change it, to make it different, to create something of their own, to tell a story. Later they will want to start from nothing. When we take photographs we aren’t just about form, or light, or composition. When we write, we aren’t simply about letters, or disconnected words.
We are seeking to understand something. We make things in response to a question about the universe, about people. A painting, regardless of subject, is about emotion. It is about understanding that subject, about conveying message between artist and viewer, about capturing a thought. It is about capturing our own emotions, our own understanding, our own thoughts and interpretations.
When we make things, we seek to understand ourselves. It’s personal. That cannot be standardized, it cannot be institutionalized, and it cannot be compartmentalized. It’s hard to evaluate and it’s messy for checkboxes.

But we can use our ability, our focus, and our passion to better educate ourselves and our children.


Register Today!

When: Saturday, April 5, 9:00 AM-4:00 PM
Where: Rochester Institute of Technology, Student Innovation Hall
Hosted by the University Center for Engaging K-12 and the RIT Center for MAGIC

Learning 2 Build Building 2 Learn is a free one-day conference hosted by educators for educators to gather, share, learn, and discuss new ideas and new approaches to engage students in their own learning, while fostering innovation and critical thinking in their learning process. The keynote address will be given by our guest blogger, Andy Phelps.

Andrew Phelps is an educator, digital artist, and technologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY. He currently serves as the founder and director of the RIT Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC), and holds the rank of Professor in the School of Interactive Games & Media that he founded in 2011. His work in games education, digital media, and interactive software has been published in numerous articles, journals and periodicals, as well as by the popular press (CNN, USA Today, NPR, The NY Times, WIRED, etc.), and he maintains a website featuring his work as an educator, artist, programmer, and game addict. Primary research and teaching interests include online behavior, learning theory, 3 dimensional graphics and real time rendering, virtual reality, and interactive worlds. Alumni from his courses currently create the cutting-edge titles at the forefront of the industry.


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