Creating an Engaging and Effective Classroom Experience by Thinking with Things

Credit: iStock.com/mgstudyo
Credit: iStock.com/mgstudyo

Several years into my 30-year career as a professor, I had an experience that ultimately upended my entire approach to teaching. I came to see the conventional classroom in a whole new way—as a sensory deprivation chamber—and developed a hands-on antidote I call “thinking with things.”

As is true for so many good ideas, this one began with a failure. I was a harried assistant professor with two young children at home, teaching a course on sustainable development for which there was no textbook. In those days before everything went online, I was handing out photocopied readings a week or more before the assignment was due. But on this day, as I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that I had forgotten to distribute the article for that day’s class. It can be hard enough to spark a class discussion of an assigned reading under the best of circumstances, but on this day I knew that no one could have done the reading. Casting around desperately for an alternative, I spotted the tub of Lego in the back of my car (doesn’t every parent of young children have Lego in their car?). I’d been curious about what would happen if I brought physical materials into my classroom and decided on that day that I really had nothing to lose.


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