...Buy it broken. Accept it damaged and worn. Welcome it ripped, ragged, and rough.
…Don’t just stand there because it works ok right now. Don’t just stand there and talk about the pieces of it that don’t work ok right now. Dive in, take it apart, try something new with it! For Daniel’s sake, take a chance on breaking it! Here’s why...
When I literally steal a moment away from other things I should be doing to sit in the breeze to assuredly think about the things I’m truly good at; the list is definite, short, and the items on the list are unmistakably bound together with 3 common threads…
The things I feel confident other people would identify as those I’m good at are all things I’ve: 1. Had to learn out of necessity to fix something, 2. Taught myself by seeking out resources and through trial and error, 3. Were born out of deep passion.
Not many people likely know this about me, but almost every single thing I know about computers, programming, assistive technology, motorcycles, cars, photography, welding, or music, I’ve taught myself. These things, I taught myself because I either HAD to learn to fix problems I created for myself, couldn’t afford something without pre-existing problems, or simply NEEDED to know NOW…before I could wait for someone to teach me!
When I was 16 years old, I broke my leg playing the sport I was best at. A subsequent domino effect from this unfortunate event proved highly negative to the point I lost almost all of my friends; some of whom I’d had since kindergarten. Long story short, I could no longer march in the marching band as a snare drummer, which meant that I couldn’t be in any other bands in my high school. Devastated to have lost two of the things that I most valued, in addition to my friends, I sunk deep. I bought an old Peavey guitar with the last $150 I had from working the previous summer cutting grass. Not being able to walk, drive, or even hang out… I taught myself to play that guitar. It kept me going and the necessity to have something to keep me going required me to learn something I may not have learned otherwise. Now, playing the 6-string is a return-ticket to a place where I’m deeply rooted and can return, re-focused and recharged to some extent.
At 17, I was so ready to have my own car. I had loved motorized and mechanical things for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember very limited things, but I most definitely remember disassembling nearly every toy I owned. ...taking them apart, exchanging pieces with other toys, sanding off the paint and repainting in differing colors, and sometimes never actually getting them back together. I always felt like I’d gained something though and never felt like I’d “lost” a toy. I always gained the knowledge of the inner workings of my things, which meant so much to me. It was a most certain gain that would apply positively to the next thing I took apart! I’m not so confident my mom saw it the same way as she stepped on parts and pieces of toy cars, action figures, bicycles, speakers, radios, and OUCH…legos! So, I bought my first truck for $700 with money I’d earned by tagging successfully hunted deer at the local sporting goods store in my small town. You’d be accurate in thinking it needed a lot of work. …work I had no real idea how to do and parts I didn’t have and couldn’t afford. Long story short, I got really good at searching salvage yards, applying-sanding-painting bondo, and shifting that manual 4-cylinder in such a way that I could limit it’s back-firing, which would cause me undue attention in that little red truck that could.
When I bought my very first computer in 2000 (yes, just 16 years ago), I pushed that poor laptop to do things that nearly made it blow smoke and cry… which in turn caused it to have issues that required me to blow smoke and cry! I spent MANY late nights learning coding and writing script to fix the problems with my Windows 98 installation that I didn’t have a disc to fix and couldn’t afford to buy. I was literally eating macaroni and cheese 4 nights a week out of a Frisbee with the same plastic fork. I had a special education degree to finish and well …that computer simply HAD to live and I was the only surgeon on call!
The same is true about photography (which I learned DURING the professional transition from film to digital), website building (back when we had to do it all in html code), and both riding and maintaining motorcycles.
Almost everything I know on a deep-understanding, passionate, and highly confident level with regard to all of those things...is self-taught for the reason that I HAD to fix things, learn things, try things, rebuild things, redesign things, and seek resources. These were (and still are) problems that I mostly made for myself. But many kiddos are not permitted the opportunity to create situations for themselves which require such trial and error type of learning. We have been taught to set them up for success, which isn’t entirely bad! But…
While this may sound a bit silly to some, I feel there's no better, deeper, more comprehensive or true way to learn something. …to fully KNOW something in a way that you feel confident in pushing it to it’s potential, than to experience breaking it …and subsequently repairing it, seeking resources, improving it, redesigning it, and ultimately gaining OWNERSHIP of experiential knowledge.
This is one area I think we often may fail our students. We care about our students and we want to protect them and keep the space in which they exist safe and secure. In doing so, we sometimes limit their space to ‘existence,’ which is not the same as ‘living.’ While I’d never advocate for creating an unsafe environment for a student, I undoubtedly feel that without allowing them the dignity of risk to fail, frustrate, and re-build, we are plainly denying them the opportunity to truly and deeply KNOW a thing at it’s core measure.
We CAN offer that opportunity to students in a way that props up curiosity and DEEP understanding of THINGS in a way that is secure and encouraging! We can! …and in doing this, we encourage independent people! I recently heard a speaker say something that nearly made my eyes too wet… “We don't have to TEACH kids CURIOSITY...they came to us that way. We have to NOT siphon it out of them!” Thanks @goursos.
We have to focus more on the result of the 27th re-build, when they finally “get it” and it works, than the 26 times we stepped on Legos, thought about the cost of dis-assembled ‘things,’ or placed our own value of whole-things over the value of BREAKING IT and learning to re-create, improve, re-design, rebuild that’s so essential to our job of building independent little individuals. Independent and proud little faces ONLY ever result from allowing the dignity of risk, which can require a difficult transformation of philosophy about what’s best for learners.
I’d go so far as to say that many education professionals have denied themselves or have been denied through a variety of reasons, the same opportunity to explore something, potentially break it, and subsequently truly LEARN it by having to re-construct it. Many who’ve heard me speak probably know my “just jump in the shark tank” philosophy.” If you don’t, just ask me sometime. I like to share.
Likely through a combination of policy, fear, and conditioning, many educators may feel discouraged from pushing anything to it’s limit without the confidence of being reinforced, propped up, and encouraged to struggle through repairing it.
When we consider the weight and prominence of “HIGH EXPECTATIONS” and “SHARED RESPONSIBILITY” for ALL STUDENTS set forth for us in both ESSA and the November 2015 Dear Colleague Letter, I feel strongly that we often have had safety goggles on when we should have been sporting binoculars, microscopes, and welding helmets! To arrive at achievement levels beyond what we currently are experiencing, we MUST value the dignity of risk in being the reinforcement for teachers to TEACH DIFFERENTLY, and for students to LEARN DIFFERENTLY, which might require rebuilding and redesigning, and we MUST value the opportunity for ALL of our students to feel absolute pride in THEIR confident stride toward independence through temporary downfall and subsequent, necessary, and repeated rebuilding!
It is only through this process of experiential acquisition of knowledge with an authentic purpose or audience, that one becomes an “expert learner,” which should be the ultimate goal of what we are trying to achieve through all educational experiences. The task, the tools, and the method can be counted on to evolve. Those things will not be the same in 5-10 years, I promise. The desire, passion, and experiences to be an ever-growing LEARNER is what separates existence from living.
So…Twist the throttle until something smokes. Smash the brakes until traction is temporarily lost. Take something apart solely for the purpose of knowing how it works in order to put it back together BETTER. Sit on the floor and just look at something that works OK as it is and IMAGINE what it COULD BE if you took off panel A and B and moved some things around between the two compartments or found a totally new component to install. Or …Just simply take it apart, look at the pieces, put it back together exactly as it was….and truly KNOW how it works.
PATINS has parts and pieces. We have passionate people who want to support your journey. We have high-fives, encouragement, strategies, data, opportunities to push expectations for yourself and for your students. In fact, THIS is WHY WE are here…we’ve taken ourselves and the things around us apart and we’ve arrived HERE to support you during your experiential road-trip. …just find one of us and say, “watch this….” We’ll be there. Break it.
Daniel McNulty is the State Director of the PATINS Project, an Indiana state-wide technical assistance network for the provision of assistive & accessible technologies, the acquisition, creation & implementation of Accessible Educational Materials, and Universal Design for Learning. Daniel regularly presents nationally and locally on these topics and advocates strongly for high expectations for all students with appropriate supports. Daniel holds a BA and MS in Education from Purdue University as well as a current Indiana Professional Educator license in K-12 Severe Disabilities. He’s been a K-6 classroom teacher, a 3-year UDL pilot school leader, and was chosen as Purdue’s Distinguished Young Educator of the Year in 2006. He created and operated a behavioral consulting service for children on the autism spectrum, and has provided respite care in Australia while at the University of New South Wales. Daniel represents Indiana in the National AEM Best Practices Cohort, is Indiana’s NIMAS Coordinator, and serves on the national NIMAC Advisory Council and the national CITES Advisory Board.