Thursday, August 23, 2012

The conveyer belt that never was....

We are getting geared up to enjoy another year together and I am collecting all sorts of items for our open-ended projects. I have no idea which direction our curriculum will take us but I am really excited to see what the kids and I come up with. Families who have been with us a while are somewhat familiar with the evolutionary way in which our projects move forward but for those who are new to daycareland I would like to recap on a project from last year to illustrate process based approach to teaching.

The project I am going to tell you about is a conveyer belt that the children never finished engineering. It is significant because it demonstrates how process based teaching occurs and why it isn’t even necessary for the original goal to be achieved in order for a project to be considered a success. 

Process over product

If we were to describe teaching in a very literal way and say it is the act of bringing children to a new understanding, then process based teaching would be described as following children’s interests on a beautiful winding pathway. In this case, the teacher allows the children to explore, run ahead, ask questions and even to wander off the path but always the group is moving forward in the general direction of understanding.

In process based teaching there may not be any “thing” proving that the teacher and her children ever walked on the path to understanding but if you watch the children work there is always evidence that learning took place. The children are reflective in their thinking and try new ideas rather than give up at the first failed attempt. These children have a unique ability to link ideas together so that  ideas give birth to other ideas causing an ever evolving stream of creative thoughts.
These children have a tendency to try things independently rather than wait on an adult to do things for them.

In contrast to process based learning is the product focused teaching model. Teachers have a a set course in mind with specific stops along the way to understanding. She leads the children forward on a linear path to her destination directing and overseeing each step of the way. When children get off task or become uninterested these teachers nudge them forward from point A to point B without stopping along the way. At the end of the path there is always some “thing” to show that the children have achieved the teacher’s set goal for learning. Children in these settings are good at following directions but sometimes find it difficult to be innovative. Likining ideas together in a meaningful way may be more challenging because they have not had as many opportunities for gathering interesting bits of information through trial and error. 

In both cases most of the children will get to where they are going but which teacher do you think they want to follow? Which teacher shows them that they are a valued participant in the learning process? Which teacher actively demonstrates the value of being a life long learner?

The following collection of projects illustrate how children scaffold little bits of information each day until they developed a greater understanding of how things work. 
This process takes time to unfold and far more in depth than typical thematic product based teaching practices. It also requires the children to try new ideas, reflect on past experiences, make connections and to see "failure" in any endevor as an invitation to change perspective or try something new. 

The Conveyer Belt That Never Was.

One day while we were at the grocery store the children asked me how a conveyer belt works. I did my best to describe how I imagined the process in my very limited, very girly understanding of all things mechanic. I told them that I imagined the conveyer belt has at least two rollers which must be anchored inside the counter somehow and that the rubber belt is stretched tight so that it wraps around them. Somehow a motor moves one or both of the rollers, which moves the belt, which moves the groceries up toward the cashier. 

They were all impressed with my AMAZING understanding of how conveyer belts work and they wanted to build one for themselves. I had no idea if I was right so we set off to learn something new together.

In order to even start work on our conveyer belt we needed to review some of the other simple machines and building explorations we had worked on throughout the year. We did this by reviewing photographs of previous projects and discussing what we learned from them. The photographs were a great tool for them to recall what they learned and apply that understanding to the new task at hand. 

Two simple machines that were of interest were a crank made from a ribbon with a bucket suspended between two chairs and a simple pulley system to move guys up and down in the window well.
We decided a crank might be a good way to move the conveyer belt so we looked at our crank projects for ideas on how to design a conveyer belt with a crank. Our previous constructions from PVC pipe and painters tape allowed us to add weight to our projects so we decided to start there. (Learning to cut tape was very tricky and took lots of practice!) 

This is one of the photos we refered to for our conveyer belt inspiration:

I added bells to draw attention to the movement of the pipes so littlest children could see the cranks and predict the direction the crank would move in. They learned when one side is up the other is down and that both sides of the crank move in opposite directions.

Finally we reviewed our study of PVC pipes, rods and cardboard tubes to come up with the design for half of the conveyer belt. Once it was finished we took a few days to see how it worked. We hung it from the ceiling calling it the spinning easel,

...then we took it outside to roll all over the concrete.

It fell apart by the end of our experiment and the kids decided full body painting with rollers was even more fun than working on the conveyer belt!

Our project was only half way complete as the school year was drawing to a close and the children dispersed for the summer. I tried to revive the conveyer belt exploration twice but the magic of that group of children coming together in that space for the purpose of building a conveyer belt was broken. 

In it's place full body painting dramatic play scenerios took over and oh what fun we had! 


  1. I love that you allow the children to explore their own creativity. Even if it is just body painting!

    1. Thanks Danielle, its SO much easier to turn them loose outside in the yard then hose it all off when the fun is done. It also rocks to have parents who know that full body painting experiences are WAY more important than clean clothes at the end of the day! (wink, wink)