067 – A Real Education with Dr. David Thornburg

Powerful and Profound Podcasts – Year 1

A Real Education with David Thornburg

“Up through the middle grades, I had been identified as mildly mentally retarded. Yet when I started my undergrad work at Northwestern University in Electrical Engineering, I changed majors because in all the electrical engineering courses I could ace the finals on the first day of class.” –David Thornburg (What made the change?)

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David and Norma Thornburg

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[In This Episode][Guest Bio][Additional Notes][Text Transcript]

In This Episode – 12/17/15

Hi, I’m Steve, the host of the Table Top Inventing Podcast. Normally, our podcast theme music comes in at this point, and we hear that inspiring voice.

If you’ve been following our episodes this month, you will know that we are adding an extra episode every week on Monday’s for a total of 2 every week. Today’s episode is 3 of 6 in our profound and powerful podcast series this month.

This episode revisits one of my favorite maker education evangelists, David Thornburg. Here is a taste of his story…

“Up through the middle grades, I had been identified as mildly mentally retarded. Yet when I started my undergrad work at Northwestern University in Electrical Engineering, I changed majors because in all the electrical engineering courses I could ace the finals on the first day of class.” –David Thornburg (What made the change?)

Wow! How could we get our students prepared to ace their entry-level college finals on the first day of class? Listen to the whole episode for David’s educational formula.

David Thornburg is one of the wisest educators I know. His views on inquiry-driven, project-based learning are both practical and powerful. If you would like to supercharge the education of your teenager in a similar way to David’s education at Lane Tech, you need to know about the Resonance Innovation Fellowship.

This next year we will be taking 10-15 select teens on a journey of self-discovery, excellence with integrity, and innovation leadership. This is not a club, social gathering, or homework tutoring. The students in the Resonance Innovation Fellowship will be on a quest to find impact and world-change through the backdrop of technology.

To find out more email me at stevekurtiATttinventDOTcom.

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Guest Bio

David Thornburg is an award-winning futurist, author and consultant whose clients range across the public and private sector across the planet. His razor-sharp focus on the fast-paced world of modern computing and communication media, project-based learning, 21st century skills, and open source software has placed him in constant demand as a keynote speaker and workshop leader for schools, foundations, and governments.  His current work on new learning spaces resulted in the creationg of the Educational Holodeck – and immersive, interactive, learning environment suited for interdisciplinary exploration of academic topics through realistic simulations.

As a child of the October Sky, David was strongly influenced by the early work in space exploration, and was the beneficiary of changes in the US educational system that promoted and developed interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills.  He now is engaged in helping a new generation of students and their teachers infuse these skills through the mechanism of inquiry-driven project-based learning.

His educational philosophy is based on the idea that students learn best when they are constructors of their own knowledge. He also believes that students who are taught in ways that honor their learning styles and dominant intelligences retain the native engagement with learning with which they entered school. A central theme of his work is that we must prepare students for their future, not for our past.

In addition to his work with technology, David also consults on the relationship between classroom design and learning.  In this capacity he is Senior Consultant to the architecture firm, Fielding Nair, and is currently writing a new book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: How Place Matters in Education.

David splits his time between the United States and Brazil. His work in Brazil also is focused on education, and he has spoken at conferences and consulted for firms and educational institutions throughout that country.

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Additional Notes

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Text Transcript

Steve: My guest today is David Thornburg. Dr. Thornburg has worked in the field of Education Technology since the early days. His focus is on STEM education and he has a strong proponent of tinkering as a pathway to helping children learn about engineering. He is the co-author of the book “The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in a Classroom”, which is lined to both the next generation science standards and common core math standards.

Steve: So let’s start off today by asking you David to tell us a little bit about yourself as an educator.

David: Well I came in to education from the *(not sure)*, prepping up my Ph.D. I was working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center as a research scientist in the center. A couple of years later my son was born and there’s nothing to get you as interested in education as having a kid, so my interest in education really started because of him. And when I fell down that rabbit hole, I’ve been focused on education almost ever since. And I taught mostly at the university level but I also hang out with kids who would be like him and down in Brazil I have worked with middle school kids and it’s just… I love hanging out with bright young minds and showing them ways to express their selves into learning stuff with their own creativity.

Steve: So can you give us kind of broad stroke’s view of education, the state of education as you see it right now.

David: Well what I see happening right now Steve is really positive. You know we’re coming out at the back end of a dark period in the United States that were *(not sure)* by nor child left behind. Because a lot of people interpreted to that to mean that you had to teach to the test and if it wasn’t on the test they just didn’t get taught and that’s a bit of an over statement that there’s more truth to that than I’d like to admit. The consequence of that was we have a bunch of kids who had 12 years of MCLB education or try luck behind education who suddenly find themselves in college not very well prepared for world where education is more open, more flexible, where they’re expected to be more creative and better problem solvers. They’re really great in memorizing stuff and in passing standardized test but that doesn’t mean they truly understand in a deep level the things that they’re learning. And the reason I say that this a positive time is because we cracked some new standards. To me the one… the big one is next generation science standards which encompasses… not just science but also engineering. For the first time in the United States engineering is part of the K12 curriculum, for the states who have adapted the standards. The overall approach has been is to stay in the past; we had a curriculum that was a mile wide and an inch deep. But now we’re going to focus on narrowing that into core ideas and then explore those with great depths, now here’s a very smart move to make. Also, that’s not just about having kids learn about science it’s about having them learn how scientist think or they could learn about engineering but to learn also about how engineers think. And that has also rubbed off in to the common core state standards which were different relating both to mathematics and to language arts. So the big shift that we’ve seen and the way I’d like to talk about it is we’ve shifted from a noun-based curriculum the stuff that you know to verb-based curriculum which is what are you able to do with what it is you that you know. And that really is the corner stone of promise of education. I mean Dewey said “I don’t care what your child knows; I care what he can do with what he knows.” So that’s the something that we should celebrate and be very excited about. It’s also extremely so because teachers who are coming off this other educational model need too much help and support as they can possibly get. They need to the start development, they need people to help them make these transitions and schools have to be really sure that they get that because if they don’t these standards will be a collated and that would be a really bad thing.

Steve: So with all these changes happening, how are we approaching this on a practical perspective? How our educators across the country and administrator’s system, how are they coming at the promises of understanding how the shift should occur?

David: I think it’s a missed tag, I mean there’s some people that have just said “Thank God!” You know, and we can go back to doing what we’ve always known was the right thing to do. And in fact those people never stopped doing the right thing; some level it’s just that could be very public about it. But now you know, it’s like all the things that I truly believe about education are back in the proper vocabulary again and so I really am happy about that. But there are other schools and other parts of the country where people are skeptical of the tiny little changes and so it’s as it is, it’s a missed tag. Some people are ready for it and others aren’t. I mean some states have said we’re not going to sign on to these next generation science standards even though they’re national standards. Some of them would even said we’re not even signing on the common core even though they’re funding, the federal funding because I understand it and yes because they don’t so it stick well. You know, what’s that all about? I mean why are people fighting stuff, not have to. Seriously, I’m not a huge standards fan but compared to what we’ve had in the past this stuff is looking pretty good and I don’t know why people are fighting at because it’s the ultimate beneficiary would be their children and ultimately the country.

Steve: I think you and I are definitely speaking the same language on this because one of the things that I’ve asked people all the time is you know when students can just go on Wikipedia and improve the IQ points by about 20, how do you inspire and measure achievement? Like what is achievement in that framework?

David: Well right and I mean to me the whole… one of the things I’ve said for years is let me just start with any educational system that’s based on memory is certainly at risk in a world of universal access to the internet. But that said just because people have access to the internet doesn’t even mean that they know how to use it effectively. And for the longest time I’ve said that there are 3 basic skills that people need to have. One of this is to figure out how to find stuff, the second is how to figure out if what they found is accurate, and the third is to determine if what they found is relevant. And these types of search strategies are things that we have to help kids learn so that even when they’re using the internet that they, you know, they’re very effective in the use of it; they can use it in some good ways. A difference in studies have been pretty interesting, I mean they’ve taken college kids… freshmen kids in college that used to study at Northwestern University. They took college kids actually from another university and gave them a series of questions on using the internet and they found that even all this people all said the same they’re all internet savvy, they really didn’t know how to use it to get verifiable information that would be germane to their questions. And so there’s this skill that have to be taught and if we don’t teach those then we can assume that just because kids have access to the internet that they are learning a lot. There’s an interesting mythology that was running around for some years. The idea is the digital made even on digital anagrams and you know the digital maybe it’s for the ones who grew up with all these technology and the anagrams of the old folks who grew up on the time where it didn’t exist and the implication was that Canadians have been fell under control. So research is showing that that’s not true after all I mean it could become real fragile to exploit bunch of other things. But when it comes down to establishing whether or not particular historical event happened in a way your textbook does in it, that’s completely different set of skills and that’s something we need to spend more time focusing on. Still, there are 2 aspects in the answer to your question. First one is that I’ve said if you’re using the internet, know how to use it properly and effectively. And the second is how much time are we spending just getting raw information cramped into kid’s head or just having them do stuff with all these information, building and adding on the knowledge themselves. And the way I like to encourage that is through the kind perspective *Google proved questions* asking questions from which Google provides with the answer. And during that these are trickier kinds of questions which would come up but boy, there are really tough and when you can find them and then we’ve got it in some very expedient conversation among students and teachers and some deep learning takes place because there’s no one source existence will be able to go and say “Oh, we’ll be in success.” And that all ties him to the core project-based learning which will then get back to doing *(not sure)* not just what it get notice but what it all can do for the… you know.

Steve: We’ve been dancing around the core question that we always like to get through in a podcast and that is… So given this backdrop, what is the purpose of an education?

David: Well to me the purpose of an education is for people to be able to you know… to try in their communities and in their lives and some of that relates to local area things and some them relates to global issues. So you know the purpose of an education should be to equip people with the requisite skills that they can make them form decisions and understand that sometimes may make different decisions but at least we’re upgrading from our perspectives for the best information we’ve got. I guess Jefferson that once said that purpose of an education is… Well he put it this way if I recalled that “You can’t have a democracy without an educated populist” and I think there’s some truth to that. So if the core level was purpose of education, it’s how do we have a function in the democracy and that’s a very deep and very important reaction now.

Steve: You added a keyword in there that I don’t hear very often. You said functioning.

David: Yeah right, yeah!


Steve: That’s not particularly functioning if people aren’t participating I suppose, at least not in a meaning way.

David: Right, yes! And again it’s not that everybody has to agree with each other. But when they disagree, they disagree… They can argue their positions based on data, *(not sure)*, and on their core beliefs that has a foundation, and I think that’s important. But we’ve got so many issues facing at, it’s in a global scale right now, I don’t even like watching the news anymore. It’s like every day there’s some amazingly tragic stuff going on in the world and there’s a part of it that isn’t… and made this a natural disastrous and everything else going on. You have to believe that sometimes those human beings play a huge role in fixing our… moldering all of these odd things that are going on if we just put our minds to it, that requires an educated public and it requires coerce engage in the process.

Steve: I completely agree. So with that purpose, how are we… how do we come up with this practical ways? What are the practical approaches we can take to arise to that purpose?

David: Well I mean within the classroom setting we give leap service to critical thinking skills. But the fact is we’d love to… we have to take steps to reinforce student’s capacity to take a challenge, gather the information to that challenge, and then from that create a position from which they can argue with some sense of awareness you know deep awareness about the topic, I think that’s important. Now the ‘Umbrella language’ that’s being used for the kinds of pedagogical models that makes sense for all of these is inquiry driven project based learning and I think that’s a wonderful model because what it does is it’s makes the teacher away from these huge responsibility of being the front of all knowledge in front of the room and shares that responsibility by putting the kids in charge of their own projects and coming up with their own insights and ideas and then sharing those projects with their colleagues where they are open to criticism and suggestions and improvements and everything else. And I think that that’s really good but you know the argument against that is when you take a look at real project based learning some of the textbook publishers who have a vested increase in staying in business would say themselves “well jeez, you know what rule can we have if teachers aren’t going to teach to the test or teach what’s in the textbook what role is there for us to play?” And I think that there’s some publishers that would be for personal reasons concerned if we were to move head long in this direction and might provide some resistance to it. I’m sure that they’ll find other ways to keep their doors open so I’m not worried about them long term. But it certainly is requiring some new thinking on their part and I’m sure that there are publishers today who are thinking very deeply about that topic and saying “how can we support these pedagogical transformations on behalf of all our children.”

Steve: So here at Table Top Inventing we’re quite passionate about trimly I know you and I have really used quite a bit match maker education. So how does (right) education fit in with this inquiry-based, project-based learning that you were described?

David: Well you know that’s a terrific question Steve because one of our colleagues up in Canada Peter Schelling I don’t know if you know him… yeah, Peter’s a great guy. And he did a blog about a month ago talking about tinkering-based learning, okay, which stabbed on project-based learning, it’s tinkering. You know you just get in and you mess around with stuff and out of that you’re going to start learning things. And in our 3D printing workshop, one the first activities we have teachers do is we toss them at the deep end of the pool with the design challenge that happen to be a life and death challenge and there’s this space mission where they have to design a plug to take care of a hole that’s been punched in the side of a spaceship by some space debris before the oxygen get sucked out. They have to design it with software and they have to print it on 3D printer and when we’ve done this with kids we don’t even tell them what software to use, with grownups we said well, we’re going to suggest that you sketch up. But right away they’re trying stuff out, they’re tinkering, they’re working in groups to think “jeez, this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work. Oh but look at this, you know, and this looks like this might work.” And they’re out there making measurements, and then lo and behold they’ve come up with design and they print it out and that looks like the problem solved and so they’ve reached the class. And after they do a project like that we asked them, what subject areas did you explore? And the answer is “Oh, well we had mathematics, we had physics, we had all these different engineering, we had all these different subject areas that were all explored in the context of this single project.” And I said, “Well, did you teach any of this? No. Did anybody teach it to you? No.” Well, that’s an example of real tinkering-based learning, that’s deep end of the pool stuff. And Gary Steger does his whole workshops actually that way I mean their normal went to one of the ones he did at SC and it’s like okay well here’s a station for people who want to do this kind of stuff and here’s a station for people who want to do this kind of stuff and you just feel free to move around and explore whatever it is you want to explore and people will gravitate to things that challenge them. You know that’s the thing that I think we short changed kids sometimes by thinking that if we don’t push them they won’t try tricky things. The fact is if they’re left on their own, the challenges the kids will try something that maybe a little too tricky for them and then we either have to help them redefine their projects so that they don’t get overly frustrated or provide some other resources for them so that they can be successful. But this idea that if we don’t teach it they won’t get learned I don’t think it’s true!

Steve: That’s probably going to take a lot of unlearning for us I mean you and I probably went through a whole schooling approach where you know the person of the front of the room was very much a part of that learning process, although it runs in my mind that that wasn’t true for you. It was true for me but what was your schooling experience like?

David: Well I will tell you, and I didn’t know this at that time. But when I got to high school, well the start way with my… up through the middle grade I was not a good student. And in fact I’ve been identified as mildly mentally retarded.


Steve: Wow! That’s kind of brutal!

David: Yeah, that’s kind of tough! Well that was because my attention wandered and you know, whatever. So I ended up at vortex school in Chicago that also had an academic track and it ends well and it’s called Lane Technical High School. Well it turned out that Lane Tech was the second oldest school in the city of Chicago and the founder the school Albert G. Lane was a colleague of Francis W. Parker who ran at that time that Lab School at University of Chicago and had worked… I guess both them had worked with Dewey. And Parker was interested in the academic schools and Lane wants us to do a school for kids who may not go to college and so he created what we now called Lane Tech. And when I was there it’s now a Co-ed school, when I was there 6,000 boys, it’s all boys school. I had a full… I mean my day was filled with shop classes and academic subjects and everything was taught in a contextual manner and what’s that… is you started out… every freshmen had to take mechanical drawing. We didn’t have CAD programs; we didn’t have computers at that time so everybody had taken mechanical drawing. Then the next course that you took as part of that sequence was plane geometry and suddenly now all those shapes that you’ve drawing in mechanical drawing, you understood the mathematics behind them because of the things that you learned in geometry. And that was a beautiful approach because you were motivated to learn the stuff because you’ve already been using that and they actually structured the entire 4-year curriculum with that attention to detail. And as a consequence when I graduated from Lane Tech, and like started my own work at Northwestern University in Logical Engineering, I changed majors because all the engineering courses, I could ace the finals on the first day because of what I’ve learned at Lane. Okay so I said WOW! You know I mean I’m not being challenged at all so I changed majors and ended up in engineering sciences and it was a smart thing for me to do but it speaks volumes to that school.

Steve: So I’m looking at the story from beginning to end and I see that through the process of making and building things, this Lane School took the student who, you know, by all accounts was maybe not interested in school or you know not excelling in school would think in complex. Then suddenly you became very interested in school and very interested in projects and as a result decided to go on eventually to get a Ph.D.

David: That’s right!

Steve: I normally don’t ask this question, but why don’t more people use maker education?

David: I see for a lot of folks it’s kind of a new… it’s still a new thing for them you know the word is only coming in to the vocabulary now. You know Gale Dorothy is pushing the daylights out of it through ‘make magazine’ and ‘maker fairs’ and all these kind of stuff, and rightly so. But I did an experiment mostly because our friend Kim Brandon in Indiana had tried it here in Illinois. I went in to a hardware store right down the street and they just acquired some new space that they don’t know what to do within the store. So I said “Oh, this new space, this is where you’re going to have your 3D printers and your CNC machines and all these stuff for people to use.” And the guy said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Well that’s a perfect place for a maker space.” And he said “what’s that?” And I said “well here’s the deal, you’re a hardware store, right? People come in here and they buy parts, they buy things that make stuff with. A lot of them don’t have all the tools that they needed in their own homes, so suppose you made the tools available to people here and they bought all the materials from you, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do?” And he said “Yeah! It’s the first I’ve heard of this.” And I thought “Boy, if an owner of a hardware store hasn’t heard of it, what’s makes us think that anybody else should have heard of it.” I mean in some sense you know loads on depot places like that, they should be phone all over themselves to build this things. And you know a proof of that pointing is you look at the scrapbooking world, so start with the maker movement isn’t just about the electronic gadgets and things and the physical stuff I like making. I mean look at the popularity of the cooking shows and TV, it’s amazing! You know there’s tons of them, these competitions, and they’re fascinating to watch because people are given real challenges and clear way to success using materials that were previously unknown to them and the facts that that’s drawn such a huge audience says that there’s a pile of interest in that topic. You go to the scrapbooking stores where they’ve got the work rooms in the back of the store and in front of the store they got all the materials and what makes the back room important is not just of the space for you to work on your scrapbook but other people who are working on their scrapbooks are back there so can find something that you can bounce ideas off of, and those are successful nationwide. Scrapbooking, in fact I thought a perfect place for maker spaces would be in fact in a shopping center right next to a scrapbooking store and so who knows, maybe that’ll happen. But it hasn’t caught on yet and I think that what we need to do is just do everything in our possible… everything possible to get the word out.

Steve: Well David I appreciate all the efforts that you’re putting in to this.

David: Oh you’re doing at least as much as not more than I am yourself.

Steve: Oh well I mean if there’d be a hundred of it that probably wouldn’t be enough but I mean you we just keep spreading the word, we just keep talking to teachers and saying these things. I mean I hadn’t… You know you and I have spoken quite a few times before, I guess I had never picked up that you’re actually sort of at an ‘at risk student’ at one point in your life. It just validates something that I’ve always thought after looking at the maker tools. You know I know lots of smart kids that they got into trouble, their lives kind of went the wrong way, you know kids that I grew up with they’re now adults. You know, and I ask myself you know why do I have a Ph.D. and they’re in another trouble all the time. Right…? I just think there’s so much hope here and continue doing what you’re doing. We love the books, I love the discussions we have, I love hearing your opinions, and I don’t want to keep you any longer. We’ve had a fantastic couple of conversations here but before I let you go, why don’t you tell your audience how they can get in touch with you and maybe a couple of resources that you have they might be interested in.

David: Sure, well to start with I love hearing from your audience and the best way to reach is through my personal email address. And if they just refer to your name or the show title in the address or should be in the subject line, then it moves to top of my list and my address is dThornburg@aol.com. Simple, simple address, instead from number it d-T-h-o-r-n-b-u-r-g. And then of course our book on 3D Printing in the classroom which will be available from the Amazon, just call “The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in a Classroom”, it’s a resource that a lot of people are enjoying so I invite people to just take a look at that. People who are interested in 3D printing in general and just want to keep their finger on the news in that field because it’s you know there are all kinds of breakthroughs all the time. There’s a website called 3ders.org and I go there at least once a week because of breakthroughs and how 3D printing is being used in medicine, how it’s being used you know like the space acts, the rocket is going to be taking people up to the space station. I just read last week that they just tested successfully a 3D printed engine in that rocket.

Steve: WOW!

David: Yes, that’s pretty interesting stuff. So, in terms of the awareness of the G-winds factor of this stuff it’s amazing! And then the other resources too is to say you know 3D is just part of it and if you really want to get in to this whole inventing world, there’s so many other tools to look at as well, it’s not instead of, but as well. Certainly Arduinos, and the raspberry pie 25 dollar computer, you know all kinds of other you know, cool tools that will be… that can be used as part of maker spaces inside schools.

Steve: Excellent! Well thank you David for taking some time out of a one day afternoon for us. We’ll let you go and I just want to say thank you and we’ll certainly be in touch.

David: Alright Steve thank you so much for calling. Take Care!

Steve: Thank you for joining us for the Table Top Inventing podcast where we are seeking the answer to the question: What is the purpose of an education?

You can connect with us on Facebook.com/tabletopinventing or on Twitter at @ttinvent. To learn more about Table Top Inventing, visit our website at www.ttinvent.com. Join us again next time where we will again seek the answer to the question: What is the purpose of an education?

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