Testing False Theories on the Marble Machine

I have been thinking quite seriously about Papert's ideas about how children construct knowledge of the world, particularly what he calls "false theories" (132). 

Our educational system rejects the "false theories" of children, thereby rejecting the way children really learn. And it also rejects discoveries that point to the importance of the false-theory learning path. Piaget has shown that children hold false theories as a necessary part of the process of learning to think. The unorthodox theories of young children are not deficiencies or cognitive gaps, they serve as ways of flexing cognitive muscles, of developing and working through the necessary skills needed for more orthodox theorizing. Educators distort Piaget's message by seeing his contribution as revealing that children hold false beliefs, which they, the educators, must overcome. This makes Piaget-in-the-schools a Piaget backward—backward because children are being force-fed "correct" theories before they are ready to invent them. And backward because Piaget's work puts into question the idea that the "correct" theory is superior as a learning strategy (132-133).
I wish to further explore in a later post my thoughts about creating projects for learners that promote testing of false theories over working on a "uniform" and "correct" theory about how to accomplish a goal. However, I think that this evening's learning adventure with my son gave me the opportunity to start putting some of my thoughts into action, or non-action, as I will demonstrate.

First, with three exceptions my son led this learning adventure and the placement of objects on the Marble Machine. The first exception was initially helping him get the dowels inserted through both layers of the peg board. I did this to prevent frustration from ramps or tubes falling off dowels that were not level. Within a few minutes he was accomplishing this on his own. My second exception was showing him how he could hold things in place on the dowels against the Marble Machine by attaching clothes pins to the dowels.

He determined the placement of the materials. We did not dump out the box of ramps, tubes, clothes pins, tape, and other upcycled materials because it was close to his bedtime. Instead, he dug through the box, handling each piece and considering its placement on the Marble Machine. The facility of swapping out pieces contributed to the ease of iteration.

Some materials in the box became unexpected additions. This piece of trim, for example, became a pointer that he could use to draw attention to parts of the Marble Machine.

Interestingly, he found the PDF of the Exploratorium build instructions and declared that he found the "directions." He spent a minute looking through the pages (he cannot read).

After consideration of the "directions," he declared he needed a bent tube by stating he knew what part he needed and pointing to its photo. We don't have one of those, but I asked him if we could bend anything that we did have.

It took a minute and a little prompting, but he decided a foam tube had flexibility. I offered to bend it for him, my third exception to him leading the project and testing his false theories. I knew that it would take a little experimenting to get the proper amount of curve to the foam tube that still allowed the marble to pass through it and bedtime was very close, followed closely by tiredness and frustration.

I took several iterations for dad to get the foam tube bent so the marble consistently entered and exited without getting caught in the bend.

With that it was time for him to go to bed. More engineering another day!

Here are my observations on this learning adventure:

  • He chose to take on this learning adventure, so he had personal investment in the challenge.
  • I have yet to offer any challenge. He seems to think that the marble should be traveling from the top of the peg board to the bottom on a series of ramps and tubes, but I have not stated any goal.
  • "Limiting" the choices of materials by keeping them in their storage box encouraged him to consciously choose different objects after consideration. Instead of an overwhelming collection, he handled each object he experimented with using in his Marble Machine. Handling the objects increases fluency of use.
  • Offering very few suggestions encouraged him to iterate more than if I offered suggestions, as in previous projects. Perhaps suggestions are interpreted as the "correct" way to do something? Maybe the suggestions are too difficult for him to understand or build on his own?
  • Knowing when to intervene, as in the case of leveling the dowels early in the build (a skill he quickly picked up) or bending the foam tube, helped keep his momentum and allowed him to continue iterating the design of other parts of the Marble Machine that he was more comfortable or able to work on.
How do you help learners test their false theories?

Works Cited: 

Papert, Seymour (1993). Mindstorms Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.


Del Shortliffe said…
Great blog entry. The bulleted conclusions are obviously sound. They also make me think of their relevance to all sorts of learning, including that of high schoolers, the group I've worked with most.

And mighty fine parenting, too.