Sunday, February 20, 2011

We need more "junk" in the classroom

by Mike Kaechele

We have mid-winter break this weekend so my family went over to Detroit and visited the Henry Ford Museum. Although I have lived in Michigan my whole life somehow I had never been there before. It is a huge place that emphasizes American advances in technology. Much of the technology is of the transportation variety with large exhibits of planes, trains, and automobiles but they also show changes in farm equipment, homes, furniture, culture, and huge steam engines. The subject matter is vast from science and technology to civil rights, American history, architecture, culture, and art. The technology really tells the story of the culture and history of America and the world.

My kids enjoyed looking at the thousands of items, but their favorite parts by far were the interactive parts. They ran to climb into any exhibit that they could.
Listening and sitting in same bus seat as Rosa Parks

They generated electricity.

They loved making these simple crayon rubs of exhibits.

They even enjoyed playing in an empty shack representing George Washington Carver's childhood home. We  spent the longest time playing with K'Nex and drawing.

We built cars to go down bumpy ramps. After an hour we had to force the kids to go on to see the rest of the museum.

The temporary exhibit was on George Washington Carver. He was an amazing artist, philosopher, scientist, and educator. I was struck by how his holistic ideas of crop rotation and using natural remedies are just now being implemented and appreciated. He was a man before his time in so many aspects. His school was a working school that required students to be in the fields and woods exploring nature. They discovered by doing not by lectures in a classroom.

That is when it hit me. We don't need any new type of education. We need to use hands-on, problem-solving, student centered learning that has been around for over a hundred years. Museums are not divided by core subjects but are integrated by topics such as transportation or culture. Most of all, learning needs to be interactive. Reading good books counts as interactive too. Textbooks, not so much. The internet and online tools are just another development in hands-on learning.

Our classrooms should look more like museums with interesting things to touch, smell, taste, build, break, and play with. I think that is why students like science with aquariums filled with interesting creatures, birds nest, pine cones, etc. All classrooms should be filled with objects that cause students to ask what is this? What is it for? There is good pedagogy to be found in the design and items in a kindergarten classroom. That is why students love to use computers. They are hands-on too.

I have a few artifacts in my classroom that students are always interested in. I think I have a new goal to find some more. So what is the strangest thing that you have in your classroom to inspire curiosity?


  1. I have a wooden tiki a buddy carved for me. His name is HEARD! The kids loved him. Still do!

  2. I have a cow in a hamster wheel, an 19th Century popcorn maker, a ceramic thingy that is from a century old power line, really old bee keeper smoker thing, "knife" part of the thing that harvests corn from way back when, fossil of a fish, a perfectly round rock, puppets, a really old dress, beach ball, aquarium with a fish...aquarium with worms, the inside of a piano, hmmmm....some other stuff in drawers that comes out once-in-awhile. O'there is a plastic skeleton and a ladies wig from the 1950's and a collection of license plates from the 30's(40s?) on up.

  3. Thanks Toby and Paul,

    Sweet list of interesting stuff!

    I did not list my junk, but most of it represents me: a Chinese house carved out of cork (students always think it is an ant farm), a coke can from China, one wood carved Chinese medicine ball (the other one disappeared), and my pet tribble.

    I am seriously going to start looking for more items to add to these few.

  4. I have trains. Lots and lots of trains. I have chess sets, chess clocks, and board games! I have cabinets full of all the books I read. I have movie cameras and digital gadgets of all kind. Computers are everywhere. It is an old computer lab. Old history day projects are everywhere. Yearbook stuff fills nooks and crannys. It is a used and active room.

  5. I could not agree with you any more that students need to be actively engaged and participate in their own learning. My philosophy of education is based off of the old saying, "I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." Students are not going to become motivated to learn through a 1980's textbook. They need tangible resources in their classroom where they can put their brain to work and actually ponder about important things, instead of just memorize facts that may mean nothing to them. Teachers do not foster critical thinking skills without embracing a student-centered classroom full of manipulative's where students can play and figure things out on their own. Just like your children being most engaged with the coloring and building cars, teachers need to bring items into the classroom where children can explore, create, and be actively engaged in their learning process. Once you have a motivated child, the possibilities are endless.

  6. This is why my high school students are SO CRAZY about using our beater, all manual, film SLR's. The have levers. If you do not hear a satisfying click you didn't do it right. Physical troubleshooting. It's different than digital troubleshooting.

    When they watch the photo history movie, I actually pass around the old cameras being described in the movie so that they touch open & handle what they see in the video.

  7. I have a Primary Source Center with old letters (1800's) and old photo album (also 1800s), old children's toys from the twenties, old secret society handbooks (very creepy) and a host of other things. Kids manage to wander over there pretty often.

  8. In fact, what you're describing — a library of junk, representing what kids can work with — is exactly what major design firms like IDEO do. Kids need materials for thinking, creating and doing with... or they don't learn anything beyond the abstract.

  9. The most interesting thing in my classroom right now is a skull from a long horn, several models of houses that I built in college (I was an architecture major for a while), and several K'Nect Carnival Modles. I am a second year teacher and I am in the process of aquiring all kinds of cool "junk". Any suggestions on where to find and aquire more...cheaply!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.