Re-examining the D in DIY

I came face-to-face with the DIY movement this weekend.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, DIY refers to “do it yourself,” a phrase that is used broadly to describe any action where a person tackles some project without the help of trained professionals.  For instance, the DIY Network features a host of programs designed to help every day homeowners tackle home improvement projects on their own.  Want to learn how to replace an electrical socket or a ceiling fan?  The DIY Network can help you “do it yourself.”

But the term DIY encompasses more than just home improvement, which brings me back to my DIY encounter this weekend.  My nephews were in town for a visit and the boys are heavily into DIY.  In their world, DIY refers to the multitude of projects available online which they can assemble on their own.  The boys, all pre-teens, have built their own RC airplanes, projectile launchers and motorized vehicles, among other slightly dangerous and fast-moving objects.  If it explodes or moves, my nephews have probably looked for DIY plans to construct it.  To build a DIY project, they visit YouTube to find tutorials or search online for step-by-step plans.  The boys also subscribe to Make magazine to get new ideas for things to build.

The boys have always been precocious, active and industrious.  To be honest, however, I was pretty amazed at the projects they had constructed.   Almost as soon as they arrived, they were pulling out their iPods to show me several short videos they had recorded to showcase their work.   My brother (the boys’ father) was trained as an electrical engineer and was always interested in building things himself.  I wasn’t very surprised that his sons had taken on his interests.

After discussing some of the projects with my brother, we began checking out some of the DIY projects the boys wanted to tackle this summer.  Examining the plans for an upcoming project, I wondered if the boys had planned to modify the project design so it could complete another objective.  To do that, my brother explained, the boys would need to understand some pretty complex electrical theory, which they don’t learn from building the projects.  The boys can follow directions and build the projects, my brother explained, but they won’t develop into “practitioners” without some understanding of theory.  They can follow the plans and “do it” themselves, but they don’t have the theoretical background to tackle design.

While the DIY conversation with my brother wasn’t really about education or pedagogy, I began thinking of how we train teachers and plan professional development activities.  To become practitioners, educators need to learn more than just a bunch instructional strategies. Yet schools are increasingly adopting professional development programs that provide strategies without outlining the theoretical foundations upon which the strategies are built.  Consider the “Learning Focused” model which many schools across the country have adopted.  Billed as the “#1 model for closing achievement gaps, increasing overall achievement, and ensuring hard working teachers and administrators are successful on new performance evaluations,” Learning Focused offers a slew of DIY-type strategies that educators can employ to help their students learn.  While these instructional strategies can help educators “do it” themselves, practitioners need more.   Without a foundation in learning theory, I wonder whether educators would be able to modify instructional strategies to fit the multitude of contextual factors they’re likely to face.  While “do it yourself” plans are great for building guns that shoot marshmallows, educators need to have a strong theoretical foundation to “design it” themselves.

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