“Disassemble. Disassemble?” Why taking things apart is good for you.

If you have never watched the 1986 film “Short Circuit”, in which military robot Number Five discovers what it is to be alive and realises that disassembly equates with death,  I should get hold of a copy very soon as apparently a remake is on the stocks.   You will want to be able to draw informed critical parallels between the two versions, or maybe not.  Those of us who have children of our own will know that the urge to take things apart is deep rooted and often applied to the wrong stuff.  After all, when you have scrimped and saved to afford a piece of electronic equipment for your home and little Tabitha or Timmy have elected to find out how it works the old fashioned way it takes someone of real vision to step back and reflect on the learning opportunities that the little darlings may have experienced.

Picture the scene, a five year old me, nose pressed against a toy shop window gazing at the impossible prize; a tin plate clockwork tank!  (Alright, I have given my age away, if you don’t know what a tinplate toy looks like Google it now.)   Imagine the rapture when on Christmas morning the very same tank emerges from the wrapping paper, the thrill of winding the clockwork motor and setting it running over a small pile of books on the kitchen floor.  You might want to skim over the fear of the sparks being fired from the gun that made me insist that Dad remove the flint from the mechanism.  These sound like simple pleasures in the light of the electronic gadgets that from the bulk of most wish lists these days and perhaps the Kindle that you gave your child this year might not suffer the same fate as my tank.  You see I wanted to find out what made it go.  I can remember quite clearly settling down behind the sofa and figuring out how to unfold the tabs that held the parts together and getting inside the thing, I had worked it out for myself and felt the triumph.  I also felt the pain when my mother looked over the back of the sofa and realised that I had reduced the costly present to a small pile of component parts.

I learnt a lot about how things were made.   I learnt that if you are going to lever some tinplate up with anything sharp you had best keep your fingers out of the way.  I learnt that springs have a mind of their own.  I learnt that not every one trusts you to be able to put things back together and I learnt that they were right about that.  It was my first foray into what for me at any rate, was the adult world of the maker.  I grew up expecting to fix broken things, not throw them away and increasingly I find the sort of design that deliberately stops you doing that frustrating; you know the kind of thing, the moulded on 3 pin plug that can never be reused, the hair dryer with the special screws so that you cannot take it apart, the label over the case join that assures you that there are no user serviceable parts inside.

In education we managed briefly to get disassembly to feature in our curriculum.  It did lead to one or two aberrations such as disassembling a pizza when eating it might well have served the purpose, but it was a great idea if only we had been able to fill our schools with things that could be safely taken apart.  The second problem was very much the one my Mother experienced, how do you assess the learning value of taking something apart?  Piano smashing contests used to be a popular event, would that count?  Clearly not as the reflective care of discovering by reverse engineering is absent so speed cannot be used as a measure of success.  Nevertheless the process of reducing something to its component parts and eventually reassembling it to the point where it functions is a hugely significant one.  Find ways of getting children to do this if you can.

But this point underscores a far more significant one for education in th UK today.  How do you measure success in education?  Governments have generally relied on quantitative measures such as specific exam results.  Briefly we moved in the right direction by using a value added measure which at least payed some heed to the varied starting points for the children in our schools.  Alas we seem to have reverted to the most simplistic form of measurement under the current government, the English Baccalaureate.  Try this tomorrow; ask five colleagues what the most important learning experiences of their school careers were.  How many of them will regale you with tales of the lesson content they experienced?  The life changing moments are rarely encapsulted in lesson content, they are far more to do with the ways in which we change the architecture of our mental processes, our emotional or moral schema.  These are of fundamental significance but of course, they are damned hard to measure.

I cannot find it in myself to believe that anyone believes that education is about learning facts and yet governments continue to set targets in simplistic terms by which they will measure, publicise and reward success.  All too often they say, as this government does, that they want to give schools flexibility to shape a relevant and effective local curriculum that will suit the needs of the pupils in the school.  Can it be possible that any politician fails to understand that the criteria for success become the focus of your efforts?   My argument this week is that disassembling technology is a good way of learning about it but that, at least in the early stages you don’t always get the technolgy working again.  Let us hope that our politicians are not at that early stage of learning where they take apart that which they do not understand and fail to get it working again.

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