Friday, March 11, 2016

Why MythBusters Should Be Our Model for Education | #30DBB - Day 12

 This is day 12 of "The Thirty Day Blog Binge." Learn more

Tonight I plan to sit down with my daughters, fire up the DVR, and enjoy the final three episodes of one of the greatest shows to ever hit the small screen: MythBusters. If you've never seen or heard of the great Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, fear not, for there will forever be MythBusters reruns on the Science Channel. But for a quick overview, check out the video below.

Beyond the great watchability of this duo, the more I see of them, the more I propose that the MythBusters model be adopted as our model for education. Why? Well, let's break down a  typical episode.

The MythBusters Model

First, the pair find a myth that they're interested in testing if it's true, possibly true, or a total hoax. (Airplane taking off on a conveyor belt, anyone?) They then brainstorm a bunch of ways to test it, starting with small-scale shop tests, eventually getting up to the full-scale insanity the show is known for. Along the way, they consult with experts when necessary, get unexpected results, and try things again and differently when their original plan doesn't work out.

At the end, they provide their analysis of the myth as confirmed, plausible, or busted. If it's been busted, they'll do whatever they have to do to replicate the results of the original myth (exploding bumper?), which typically involves things they have to warn you not to try at home.

Why does that sound so familiar...?

The MythBusters are engaged in their distinctive version of a common structure: The Engineering Design Process. There are literally thousands of versions of this process out there, but they all follow the same fundamental sequence as the version used by my district, which is shown below.

 The necessary components are:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Brainstorm solutions
  3. Design a plan
  4. Implement the plan
  5. Refine the plan
  6. Share the results
And in MythBusters, that's exactly what we see happening. It's a process that served them well for 14 years and almost 300 episodes, and it makes for both compelling television and a sound model for teaching kids to think through problems.

So what do we change?

There are countless, well-written posts about the need to prepare students for a future that hasn't been invented yet, that we need to stop teaching them answers that can be Googled, and how we need to teach them to ask the right questions instead of simply finding the correct answers.

And while we know that, the problem often becomes "What do I do when I walk in the classroom Monday?"

It's certainly not simple, but I think we can starts with small steps:
  1. Propose questions that are complex, understanding that students (and teachers) don't have all the necessary knowledge and skills at the beginning.

    In countless MythBusters episodes, they call in experts to help them guide their pursuit of an answer. Whether it's first-class marksmen, the world's top drifters (the "Fast and the Furious" kind), or the Blue Angels, the two hosts know they don't have all the answers. But they're willing to consult with those who have significant domain knowledge to help find them.

    As a teacher, it's okay to not to know everything. It's not okay to let our lack of knowledge stop students from pursuing answers.

  2. Expect students to learn tools to solve problems.

    Watching Jamie use a lathe or Adam weld together a steel model of the the shark from Jaws reminds me that tools and skills are a means to an end, not the end themselves. Our classrooms are often the equivalent of teaching a kid to use a drill press so they can pass a test on using a drill press. But if they can't create with it, what's the point of knowing how to use the tool at all?

    Technology, science equipment, mathematical tools: these are all things students will need to know how to use not for the sake of the thing itself, but as tools in the pursuit of truth.

  3. Teach students that "failure is always an option."

    One of the most oft-quoted lines from MythBusters is that one right there. And as students try to solve complex questions and work out elegant solutions, they're going to screw stuff up. A lot. Show them the purpose of failure as they make progress toward a solution. It took the MythBusters 10 years to finally launch a rocket-powered car into flight. Problem solving is a messy, non-linear process, and students need to learn to persevere through the chaos.

  4. Share results.

    Being able to communicate results is required of nearly every job that can't be done by a robot. We need to start creating space in our classrooms for students to provide data, but then create narratives about the data that make their findings clear and relevant. We need to help our students tell a compelling story from the data that's as clear as confirmed, plausible, or busted.

So as the MythBusters pull down the steel door at the M5 Workshop for the last time, we should consider their longevity. In doing so, we'll realize just how compelling the process of discovery is, and that their success comes from more than explosions, singed eyebrows, and near death experiences. Instead, it's the drive in all of us, including our students, to wonder "Why?" about something we don't understand, and then pursue it passionately until we do.


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