Traveling with students has always been one of the most rewarding parts of the teaching job. Seeing students out of their normal classroom setting draws out their character much more than content alone can. One particular experience on a trip last week forced me to rethink aspects of my classroom as I never could have predicted it would.
On our second day of the trip, students experienced the lives of Chinese farmers. For breakfast, we paced a series of stalls cookies of sizzling noodles, Chinese pancakes, and tea eggs – students could spend no more than ten Yuan on their breakfast. After leaving the market and driving for an hour, we arrived at a village surrounded by tea hills. Here, the farmer experience began. The students were divided into three groups and set out to compete for first, second, and third place in a series of tasks; their place determined how much the group would be paid in order to purchase dinner that night.
Students tilled the ground with hand tools to plant vegetables, with a seasoned farmer showing them what to do, and then judging them on their efforts. The farmer’s wife gave a dumpling making lesson, and then had students make their lunch of dumplings according to her example. The third task involved collecting corn from a nearby field and putting it into a woven sack. Teams were judged by both quantity and quality. Many students tossed out corn that had shriveled kernels and silk from beetle larvae around the stalks. Students at this point guarded their yellow post-it notes (where the guide recorded their earnings) carefully, chasing them down when they flew away in the wind.
In the final task, students were to earn money by assembling plastic pens. For every one hundred pens put together, the group would earn 1 Yuan, or about 16 cents. Our guide said we would work on this for three hours. I prepared her for the likelihood that the students might not last that long. Such a simple task would surely result in disinterest, especially in a group that was already distressed by our insistence that their mobile devices stay put away for the majority of the day. To myself, I questioned whether an investment of three hours into the task was really necessary to get students to appreciate the meaning of a day of hard work or to understand the required input of human energy to create a cheap plastic item. They were already exhibiting signs of fatigue before this, and a repetitive task like this couldn’t make things any better, right?
The first pattern I noticed was that students quickly saw the need for cooperation. Each student felt the inefficiency of building one complete pen, one at a time. Without any input from adults, the students organized themselves into an assembly line. They helped each other with the tricks they discovered to shave off seconds of the process. They defined their own vocabulary for the different parts and stages of assembly. Out of the tedium, they saw a need for innovation, and then proceeded to find better ways on their own. While they worked, they sang songs, told jokes, and made the most of the fact that they could socialize while they worked.
The students were brutally honest with our guide about the value of the work they were doing. They expressed disbelief that they couldn’t be paid more for their time. The guide responded by reminding the students of the real costs of things: 17 Yuan for a chicken, 2 Yuan for bottles of clean water at dinner. The students responded by asking for the price of the pens at the market (“0.8 yuan each” said our guide) and said that without the people working, the pens wouldn’t be made. By the end, students had assembled 3,880 pens, and had smiles on their faces even at that point.
The other outcome of this activity was that each student was permitted to keep one pen as a keepsake of the day. For a group of students that routinely leaves things everywhere, these pens were guarded and treasured as closely as their mobile devices. A couple of them were so attached that they insisted on bringing their pens with them for pre-dinner free time at the creek.
There were so many lessons that came out of the repetitive nature of this task. As I said, I underestimated the level to which students would be engaged by this activity. They took pride in their work. They tested their pens carefully before counting and bundling them together with a rubber band. They took time to understand what they were doing in order to find better ways.
I routinely look for students to have similar discoveries in my class. There is repetition. There is a need for careful reflection on the quality of an answer or clarity of explanation.
I do, however, try to hasten this process because I underestimate the value of repetition during my class period. I’ve argued before that class time should be spent making the most of the social aspect of the classroom for learning. Repetitive drills don’t tend to make the cut by that standard. This is, after all,one of the points I frequently make about the role of computers and computational thinking. I do introduce students to tedious processes, but usually cut out the middle part of students feeling that tedium themselves, because I figure they get it without needing to actually experience it. I do this to save time, but I now think I might be spoiling the punchline of every lesson in which I take this approach.
After seeing the students themselves invent and create on their own and as a group (and with no adult intervention), I now feel the need to rethink this. Perhaps I’m undervaluing the social aspect of repetitive tasks and their potential for building student buy-in. Maybe class time with meaningful repetition is valuable if it results in the community seeking what I have to share from my mathematical bag of tricks. Maybe the students don’t fully believe that my methods are worth their time because I tell them what they should feel instead of let them feel it themselves.
Perhaps I’m also reading too much into what I observed on the trip. I am , however, quite surprised how off the mark I was in predicting the level of engagement and enjoyment the students would have in spending three hours assembling pens. I’m willing to admit my intuition could also be off on the rest.