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It has been a mantra for years at Sabot that “The story of one child is the story of all children.” meaning that focusing in on one learning experience helps us understand more about learners in general. I think it could also be said that the story of one bridge building group is the story of all bridge building groups. By telling the story of one group, we hope to highlight the type of thinking and work we see going on in all. While all groups’ experiences are not identical, we see common threads of planning, building, testing, communicating, learning to let go and revising. We see each group needing to come to the question of what is best for their bridge. Below is a story of revision.

One group was given the assignment to build a bridge that went from the bottom of a cliff up to the top. After working for a while, the group had finished their first version. As they tested it, they noticed that it wasn’t really working very well. It wasn’t very stable and it collapsed easily. The car also had to drive almost vertically to the top of the cliff.

Eventually the group decided to scrap that idea and began to build bridge number two. It was really solid, but also REALLY heavy. There were several other design features that the group wondered about. It wasn’t a very smooth ride and there was the potential for the road to flip over off to one side.

While waiting for group members to finish a critical part of bridge number two, one group member designed a new tile inspired from things he had seen in other groups' designs. The new tile incorporated the X shape the children had noticed so frequently on our field trip. The new tile was sturdy but also light, much lighter than a similar sized section of their current design.

Many of the team members seemed to instinctively understand that this new tile design was going to be useful but without even a conversation about changing or without a concrete plan of any kind, three members of the team sat down and started making one tile after another. It was interesting that even during their work they mentioned how they were NOT going to use these tiles. Eventually, when they had made as many as they could, they showed their work to the rest of their team. There was instantly a unanimous decision to switch to a third plan...well almost. There was one child who had been very invested in the making of bridge number two. It was four against one. They reminded the one teammate that if put to a vote they would easily win, but the team also seemed to really want consensus so they continued discussing rather than voting.

It was interesting to see how much of the negotiation skills that had emerged during "The Game" resurfaced during this work. ("The Game" is a reference to Settlers of Catan, a game 3rd graders play at the start of the school year.) After finding the group in deadlock, I was able to bring them back to times in the game where explaining the thinking behind the changes they wanted to make had actually helped to change the people’s minds. Back in the bridge group, each side started to explain what they thought was best and why. As soon as they put less attention on who had made which pieces and more attention on what was best for the bridge, the group quickly came to an agreement to start completely over again with a third design. They commented several times about how they couldn’t believe they were starting over AGAIN!!

As a side note here, I stop to applaud the bold decision to start again. It is not easy to let go of things they had labored over for days. What a courageous move. I admire the tenacity.

As they thought about how to connect the tiles, the design changed AGAIN. They went from separate square tiles to pieces all connected into a long road.

Within fifteen minutes they had a single span large enough to reach floor to cliff. Light. Strong. Stable.

They put the finishing touches of railings and an anchor at the top. In a fraction of the time, they had created a bridge far superior to either of their previous designs. But would they have been able to do it without the experience of the previous two models? Their new found skill had emerged from the work that had gone before. It was actually their failures that had created this new design.

We talked about the journey of this group together as a class, reflecting on the process of revision and how it links to our guiding question, “What do good engineers do?”

Noah: When we were first doing our bridge, one of the reasons we decided to make a new one cause...if you touched it barely it would all fall. You didn’t even have to put your car on it, it would just fall anyway.

Nora: One time I touched their old bridge and it literally just went voom [shows collapsing hands]

Ella: You need to try over a ton of times to actually get it right.

Teacher: What if they were on their first version of their bridge that wasn’t really working very well?

Will: We would not have a lot of progress.

Lydia: Now, like everybody is working on it. Last time some people were working on it but some people weren’t. Then the next time nobody was working on it but the third bridge is everybody working on it.

Ian: I think they made a smart decision to rebuild because if they stuck with one bridge and you just tapped that bridge it would go pshhhhh [hands show a bridge collapsing].

Teacher: It was more work...

Jesse: But it paid off in the end!

Will: Like the writing...the editing your story.

Ian: Like the writing and revising...you did so much work and it is really...you don’t like it, but it is better in the end.

Teacher: I see a connection. With the more bridges they were building, the faster they were getting at trying new things. I think that is what is going to happen with your revising in writing, too.

Will: We kept on getting faster at building.

About the Author: 

Andrea was drawn to Sabot at Stony Point by the school’s respect for children’s interests and ideas, by the opportunities for students to make connections between subjects and disciplines, and by the ties to nature that the program fosters. She used to dream of starting her own school, but no longer needs to now that she’s found one that matches her own vision! Before joining our faculty in 2009, Andrea taught first and second grade for three years in Utah.

Andrea’s work was presented at the Journey of Possibilities Conference in Calgary, Canada in 2011 and in 2012 at Lesley University. Most recently, Andrea presented Shadow Thinking: Third Graders Explore the Physical World at the 2013 Sabot Institute and at William and Mary's SURN Leadership Academy. She holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in elementary and early childhood education from Brigham Young University.