After undergoing open heart surgery, Ramsey Musallam, a STEM educator at Sonoma Academy, was inspired to reimagine the way his students learn in the classroom. Ramsey’s teaching now incorporates his physician’s rules for maximizing learning—be curious, embrace chaos, and practice reflection. In his STEM classroom, both lesson planning and student projects have become acts of making.
Ramsey talked to EdSurge about how he applies life lessons as a maker educator, how withholding information boosts creativity, and why students don’t need college degrees to make cool stuff. Read the excerpted interview below, and be sure to check out the full version here.
EdSurge: What advice did your doctor give you, and how does it play out in your students’ making?
Ramsey Musallam: Rule number one: curiosity comes first, so I have to be really curious about how I want to teach best. I also want to put my students in a position where they’re curious about the information. So I don’t ever give my students instructions to do anything.
Rule number two: I have to embrace the subsequent mess that’s going to happen when students are trying to figure out stuff they don’t have answers to—and it’s not going to look pretty. And students are going to have to embrace the fact that it seems disordered in their minds as well.
And then rule number three: practice reflection. They are now going to have to think critically about their own learning and be metacognitive. And I’m going to have to reflect on what worked and didn’t work in the process. This part comes naturally for students when they’re making. They reflect when they test their projects because there’s no other way for them to finish.
When you do it right, it’s a more motivating environment. They forget they’re in school. They understand the power of questioning and being curious and that they can actually enjoy learning when they’re curious about something . . . They want to know, “What’s going to happen next?” And for me, it’s a much more engaging way to teach.
What’s the most important skill your students learn through making?
Curiosity. One of the things I’ve realized—and it’s my 17th year now in the classroom—is just because kids are doing something with their hands doesn’t mean they want to do it. So I try to use curiosity as the tool to convince students to engage in something.
When you’re curious, your brain is more active and you have more cognitive power. You can actually solve more complex problems about anything, even if it’s not related to what you’re learning. Curiosity is a powerful skill in life; it might be the most important skill we have.
Doing projects with my students has forced me to think about the idea of withholding information. The less information you give students, the better. Trying to pitch situations where there’s a lack of resolution can create environments where students wonder what’s going to happen next. Whether they like it or not, the brain doesn’t like that tension and wants to find the answer.
For example, maybe students don’t know how a tool has been used before and don’t know what it does. If you give them a little bit of information, but strategically withhold a lot of it, you can get some authentic things. I’ll do a simple demo and then I’ll say, “Okay, now that you know this, go invent something that’s collaborative.”
Then you need to literally sit and watch the frustration evolve, and you need to choose when and when not to jump in. I’m not going to let students fail, but I’m going to let that space exist. When I do it that way, the products I get from them are way more interesting than if I showed a website with tutorials and ideas. I’ll get mocked-up security systems, photo booths, all kinds of really cool flight simulator controllers.