Light Bulb Moments: Pedagogy

by | 10.31.16

Every teacher hears the question at some point (usually multiple some points): you know, the “When are we going to use this?” or “Why do we need to know this?” question. Answering that the question is “Going to be on the test” or “Covers our standards” doesn’t cut it in the young student’s mind. Like most teachers, I’d think of the best reason or example that I could on the fly and hope it sufficed. Over time, I developed several stock answers, and my students politely trusted me and then moved on.

Douglas Ferguson

This approach never sufficed for me, though. I always wanted to do a better job finding answers, so I read and researched and improved my responses and eventually reached my breaking point around year five in the classroom. I appreciated that my students took my word for why we learned the given material, but I didn’t think they should have to take my word for it. The learning should either be self-evident from the activity that I planned or provided, or there should be enough activities across the curriculum that intuitively answered the “why” question for students.

Beyond an explanation, I wanted to show students what’s possible and inspire them. Coincidentally, at this time, I was helping work with our afterschool program for at-risk students and we were trialing robotics as a way to do just that. The results made an impression on me.

When students realized that they could build and program robotics systems, their confidence went through the roof. Students felt like their work was worthwhile and meaningful, and they wanted more! I had my answer. I needed to find tools, projects, and technologies that empowered students through application of their current grade-level standards and learning. Robotics was the start of something, but definitely not the end.

My desire to transform my instructional practice took place during the height of the No Child Left Behind testing era. My Title I school was under pressure. When I had first started teaching here two years earlier, I’d been informed that we only taught reading, writing and math. No science or other content because it wasn’t on the tests that counted. To say that my idea was any easy sell would not be honest.

I studied standards and the technology, developed a plan and proposed it to my principal. To his credit, his strong opinions have always been coupled with an open mind and willingness to listen. He opened up gradually to reintegrating science instruction, but anything we did had better be 100% standards-based. I walked him through the proposal, and to my relief he gave me permission to do a trial run and then follow up with him.

What he didn’t know was that I also felt like a ship lost at sea without an anchor. The drill and kill of our current environment was burning me out. I needed something, some way to enhance instruction so that I could honestly look my students in the faces and know that I was doing right by them. I needed this perhaps more than them…or I needed a career change. A lot was riding on this for me.

Fortunately, our trial run worked and expanded into a grade-wide rotation where once every three weeks, students would do a week-long robotics lesson series. This way every student had access to the tools, not just “Mr. Ferguson’s class.” My amazing and supportive teammates took on some of the more detailed heavy lifting of instruction to support this. We even expanded further into programming instruction as a form of problem solving and participated in Code.org’s first ever Hour of Code event. We replaced some textbook instruction with hands-on electronics kits as students created and tested series versus parallel circuits. We even moved into early adoption of 3D printing. These activities were all standards-based, but our students definitely couldn’t get enough!

Destiny’s unique transformation story inspires me. She first came into our afterschool program, sat in a corner and exclaimed that we shouldn’t even try teaching her robots because she couldn’t do math or science. We reassured her but didn’t pressure her. She sat and watched but gradually warmed up over the following weeks as we encouraged her. Soon, Destiny was teaching younger students and before long presenting to outside groups. Destiny’s confidence skyrocketed, and, in conjunction with a lot of other interventions, her state test scores increased from the lowest level 1 to the highest level 4.

For Destiny, programming the robots felt like a superpower and made her think of herself in a new light. Suddenly, she felt smart and capable and that confidence blossomed and expanded into other areas. She still visits us about once a year, brags (rightfully so) about her math and science grades, and likes to tell us that she’s going to become an engineer. I reassure her that she can be anything she wants and that I’ll be proud of her regardless of what she chooses…but I’m secretly proud.

I’ve shared about a lot of exciting tools that we use, but those tools cost a fair amount. This naturally slowed our implementation down significantly. I’m learning that there are just as many low-tech ways to engage students. I like to call this “Cardboard Engineering” and “Origami Science” because we’re using everyday materials in innovative ways to accomplish the same educational purpose. The students really don’t mind and in many cases, prefer it.

My most popular lesson series is an activity where students read Those Darn Squirrels and then design “squirrel launchers” using everyday materials like popsicle sticks and clothespins. Cheaper, more accessible materials mean students can extend learning at home. I’m actually part of an Engineering Fellowship of 30 teachers that are designing nine additional lessons around this idea. The lessons are a huge success so far. From using paper and tape to simulate bridges to empty pop bottles for rockets, the ideas are nothing new but the application of Next Generation Science Standards integration is powerfully engaging. I’d argue this is purpose-driven learning at its finest.

Now when a student asks “why,” other students answer the question for me. They see the purpose behind their learning. We still have a way to go with our plans, but this invigorates me to keep going. I want students to see purpose to their learning.

Purpose-driven instruction intrinsically motivates students. On-task behavior is less driven by “carrot” and “stick” behavior management or the indirect desire to please the adult. The reason for on-task behavior and learning is an authentic desire to learn materially in order to directly solve a problem or complete a project. Purpose-driven learning is real. Students get that. Teachers get excited about that. In a world full of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, I believe that we must make every effort to instill a sense of reality to student-inspired learning.

Douglas shares his tips for beginning purpose-driven learning in your own classroom:

  1. Perhaps you are already farther down this path than me, but if you’re looking for a way to start then I’d recommend some Cardboard Engineering. Something as simple as learning about the science of structure and shapes, then using paper to design bridges. This allows for basic applications of the engineering design process: brainstorm solutions for building a strong bridge, evaluate via tests and discuss, redesign, repeat. Or pick a math or science unit, pitch an application at the beginning that requires learning the material in order to do a one-lesson project at the end. Milk it along the way as you build up to this culminating activity. Suddenly any unit has found purpose and your students have some purpose-driven learning. One additional 30-minute lesson is all you need.
  2. Start small, take small steps, build slowly and stay with it. Walk alongside students, learn with them and enjoy not having to be the expert. They’ll love the hands-on learning, love teaching you, and you may rediscover some passion along the way.
  3. Beyond paper, there are amazing opportunities contained in the staff supply room. Ever watch a student engineer a pencil holder or desk organizer with desk supplies? I could go on but the list of references and ideas linked below are probably more helpful. However, your students are your best resource for inspirational ideas. The opportunities are all around us.

Purpose-driven learning links and resources:


About the Author


Douglas Ferguson
Douglas Ferguson

Douglas Ferguson is an elementary STEM specialist at Kent School District in Kent, WA. Connect with him on Twitter @daskalosdouglas.


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