What students can learn from taking things apart

For five summers, I watched an outside dining set melt in the Vegas sun. We don’t have many gray skies through the year but the summers are particularly punishing, topping out at 117 degrees for at least two weeks in July. I knew the chairs were toast when a couple of friends sat down and they fell into the frame as the seat disintegrated beneath them.

I was ready to put the furniture on the curb when I took a moment to examine it closely. Most pieces were actually in great shape despite being in a furnace for years. The metal wasn’t very rusted and I still had some white chalk paint left from a project that I could use to give the frames new life. The glass top of the table was perfectly fine. The seats were the only things that needed mending.

I flipped the chairs over to try to figure out how they were put together. I found four long screws went through cloth then what appeared to be some kind of thick particle board, in order to affix the seat to the metal frame. There were four holes in the frame, one for each screw. Wow. This is an easy fix, I thought. I just need to buy some wood pieces roughly the same size and some thick outdoor cushions to go on top.

As I went through the process of rehabbing these chairs, I felt a great sense of success. “I did this all by myself!” I thought. I wondered how I could replicate this feeling with my students. What experiences did I have in life that led me to tear the furniture apart and inspect it first instead of scrapping it?

There’s a big emphasis on innovation and makerspaces in today’s education circles. And it is a great first step in getting students to use design thinking in their everyday lives. But I think equally important is providing students opportunities to tear things apart and see how they work. Give them time to examine things and make improvements to existing products. In their future lives, they won’t always make things from scratch but they will often fix something that’s broken, whether it’s code, a system for getting messages to colleagues, or even the coffee maker in the lounge.

While thinking about this idea, I stumbled upon some resources from Harvard’s Project Zero – Agency By Design. Harvard has developed several thinking routines around this idea of investigating objects and systems. Their routines ask students to look closely, explore complexities, and find opportunities.

For example, one routine called “Parts, Purposes, Complexities – Looking Closely” asks students to choose an object or system and ask:

What are its parts? What are its various pieces or components?

What are its purposes? What are the purposes of each of these parts?

What are its complexities? How is it complicated in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways?

In another thinking routine called “Imagine If – Finding Opportunity,” students select an object or system and ask in what ways could it be more effective, efficient, ethical, and beautiful?

But the routines don’t just focus on objects. There are also ones, like “Parts, People, Interactions,” that ask students to analyze the parts of a system, how people are connected, and how changes in one part could change the whole system. I can see many applications for this in every subject area but especially in some of the crucial political conversations of our time.

I haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate the thinking routines into my instruction yet but it’s something that I think could be modeled and taught and then used throughout the year. It is critical thinking at its finest.

My dad recently retired from respiratory therapy in a hospital after 35 years. Therapists give breathing treatments to patients but are also responsible for setting up and maintaining life-saving ventilator technology. I once asked him how he became such an expert at his job and he credited one teacher he had early on in his training. The teacher made him take the whole ventilator apart so he knew what was inside and how it all fit together.

“My instructor told me, ‘Your job is to be the expert in the room regarding this machine,'” he said. “And I was, because I not only took it apart but had to put it back together as well.”