Documenting a project using a “failures box”


by Susanna Tesconi -

At Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, I worked with 6 groups this year from primary school to high school, each one with a different project. Consequently a lot of prototypes are hanging around the fabLAB. In order to keep the lab not too messy I decided to have each group fabricate stackable boxes by modifying a design from thingiverse. Modifying and fabricating the box is the first group activity I run with each group, so it also serves as an introduction to laser and vinyl cutting.  

After each session the kids put the stuff they make into the box/boxes (depending on the dimensions).  The project/prototype “has the permission” to stay out of the box only when the kids consider it shareable. So when we get to that stage, I ask the kids to empty the box and reconstruct the evolution of the project by using the previous prototypes/failures as ‘chapters’. They can make photos, videos, write text, dramatize, dance etc. in order to explain what they did and how they feel about each step.

Generally they have a great time doing it, and they understand the importance of documenting in order to tell someone how to do something. Also they became aware of what they have learned. They laugh a lot about the previous failures and dead-end solutions. They seem to be more comfortable about previous feelings of frustration. It makes them more motivated to own their own projects and take risks.

Documenting something you made in order to share it is one of the most constructive practices of the maker culture.  Thanks to documentation, a lot of people all around the world can learn, experiment, remix, and re-design building on the base of other people’s work. I like to think of knowledge sharing as the action of feeding a global shared brain that makes all of us smarter and wiser.

During an inspiring conversation about hands-on learning activities, FabLearn Fellow Susan Klimczak told me: “In experiential learning, you know exactly what you have learned when you document it.” Documentation is the missing ingredient in traditional thinking about assessment and self-learning. Many teachers involved in “maker” programs and schools are familiar with the idea of documentation as base for assessment and formative (pedagogical) evaluation, but I think we can take advantage of the benefits of documentation in more ways.

I believe we need to integrate documenting practices as part of making activities as well as designing, tinkering, digital fabrication and programming in order to enable students to document their own learning process and experiment with the beauty of building shared knowledge. Documentation is a hard task even for adult, but it is not so hard if you design a reason and a consistent expectation that everyone will collect and organize the things they will share. This expectation of students contributing to the failure box is that it will help them tell the story, chapter by chapter, of their project.

The “failure box” documenting tool is still a work in progress. The sharing part of it is still not as natural and as integrated into the process as I would like. I hope to continue to experiment with documentation and ways to improve the learning process.