The Joys and Benefits of Learning Chaos

December 18, 2012

Guest post by Karen P. Kaun, EdD, Maker Kids program founder

Maker Kids engages students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through do-it-yourself (DIY) or “making” experiences. The program’s activity units, aligned with The Common Core State Standards and NYSED science standards, establish making as a tool to increase the cognitive rigor of instruction across curriculum. In New York City we are also in keeping with the NYCDOE pacing calendar for science, by  immersing students in water, not only learning about its properties, but about its importance to people on this planet. Nearly 1.8 million children die each year from diseases related to unsafe drinking water.  One way that development agencies, like UNICEF, work to get more clean drinking water to children is to install water pumps in communities.


At PS 107, our 4th graders are building various water pumps that can extract water from a water source and propel it out of a pipe to power a water wheel. We have no desks in our classroom Maker space, just chairs in a circle where we meet for a few minutes before and after our sessions to share-out ideas and learnings. When visitors pop heads into the room, they will see quite a bit of movement and hear much talk.  By certain measurements of what it means to be on task in school, outsiders who see and hear students moving about and laughing may register “difficult to manage” or “problem.” These ideas are possibly by-products of, not too long ago, when certain visions of “good learning” included students sitting neatly in rows either reading silently from textbooks or listening intently to teachers while taking notes. In our classroom Maker space, students build the water pumps by themselves (in small groups) with minimal support from the adults.  Students begin by researching water pump designs together on Arvind Gupta’s Toys from the Trash. They negotiate meaning and agree on an approach based on their understanding of the information provided. The students discuss and select the materials used to build the pumps such as soda bottles, PVC pipe, dowels, foam rubber and straws, and sketch a design that they build out.  They estimate, measure, mark, cut precisely, assemble, try the mechanism, sometimes fail, and re-iterate to complete the task.  They make predictions about what the pumps will do and why and compare their predictions against results.  This calls for discussion, negotiation (which materials), measurement and argument (reasoning) which is essential to science.

I believe that a certain level of chaos is essential to learning, especially when students are engaged in tasks that, by their nature, require them to analyze, synthesize and create to reach the goal or next level.  Learning chaos forces students to think for themselves and this builds self-esteem and confidence.  When learners build “competence” and have a sense of “control” over their own learning, and enjoy “belonging” in a community (National Research Council et al, 2004), their motivation to know and achieve more increases.  Studies also show that “contextualization, personalization, and choice all produced dramatic increases, not only in students’ motivation but also in their depth of engagement in learning, the amount they learned in a fixed time period, and their perceived competence and levels of aspiration” (Cordova & Leper, 1996, p. 715).  Above all, our students enjoy learning in this kind of environment because it is fun.

A working water pump in action

In conjunction with this project have launched a penny harvest at PS 107 where all proceeds will be donated to a charity to bring a water pump to a community that needs fresh water for its children.  In this way, we are not only learning to engineer our futures, but also to do so for the good of humanity.


National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Cordova, D. I., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning:

Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 715-730.









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