Mr. Spiegl assigned my class a science project called the “Distillation of Wood” in which we used a Bunsen Burner and some beakers and such to break a piece of wood down into its component parts, liquids, gases, etc.
Obviously, I didn’t learn much lasting about wood, or science for that matter, based on that description. But, that’s sort of the point. Knowledge of the elements of wood wasn’t going to take me very far in life. But, these lessons from the “Distillation of Wood” experiment continue to be somewhat profound:
- Wood is more than wood. Deconstructing something commonplace is far more enlightening than starting with the wholly unfamiliar or abstract. It forces us to unpack our assumptions about what is and isn’t in our daily experience. It forces us to reassess, in this case, everywhere and in every form we see wood, to ask questions about the things we typically take at face value. Learning happens best when you start with the familiar and work from there.
- Burning and learning rhyme. For a boy, this has to be more than a coincidence. Learning requires getting out of your comfort zone. As I have written before, it requires risk. And, fire is obviously risky for everyone, and in a lab full of pre-teen boys must represent full-on danger for a teacher. There have to be rules, boundaries, and ultimately trust for the learning process to take place.
- Weird goggles and a smock are the great equalizers. Puberty was pretty rough. My classmates and I all of a sudden started to look a little weird, smell a little weird, get braces, acne, and glasses. We were also starting a new school. When you can put all of that awkwardness aside by making “weird” the norm by looking “dorky” like a real scientist (sorry, Mr. Spiegl, I don’t think that anymore), then self-consciousness can subside and learning can happen. Norming awkwardness makes it a lot less awkward.
- Sometimes you can just smell the learning happening. The whole building smelled like the charred sweetness of distilled wood for weeks. The smell became a symbol and a reminder of our experiment, another point of analysis. Learning happens through all of our senses and the more that are engaged, the better chance there is for real learning to take place.
- The process is the answer. Education is experimentation and exploration. We didn’t study wood first to find out what gases and chemicals made it up. It was an experiment. We had to explore, make mistakes, pay attention, take notes and several of us probably got a nice little burn from a hot beaker or bit of wood ash. Mr. Spiegl knew the answers, but for us the exploration was genuine. We found the answers ourselves, and that’s what I remember.
As I continue to work in and around education and expand my world into the realm of education technology, I am ever mindful of the distinctions between information and knowledge, between content and process, between education and learning.
It’s not about the tool. It’s the process the tool allows and, in the hands of a great teacher, the world of learning it can open up.