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What is Material Inquiry?

Material Inquiry is a learning methodology that explores the way tools and materials spark curiosity, wonder and a need to know.

The heart of this idea is something we call material learning. But talking about material learning is challenging because putting materials into words is difficult.

One reason for this difficulty is that the kind of learning we’re pointing to is based on participation with materials, rather than working on materials. It feels counterintuitive to try to ‘explain’ something that is fundamentally experiential. It's like wishing that a description of music could substitute for hearing that music.

And even that analogy falls short because while we acknowledge that music is a kind of knowing that cannot be translated into words, we generally think of knowing itself—the thing that contains music, math, science, art—in language; and many of us are skeptical of ways of knowing that can’t be reduced to words.

Nevertheless, we can point to characteristics of material learning with confidence: surprise and sudden breakthroughs (e.g., aha moments), a sense of shared agency (e.g., “the melody was in the air”; “the characters in my novel spoke to me”), a sense of time and space disruption (e.g., flow), and unexpected mistakes, errors and screw-ups (e.g., the happy accident). This is what we hear when artists, scientists, and inventors talk about their work.

In a recent New York Times article, Evelyn Hu, a professor of applied physics at Harvard University, said, “‘I think serendipity happens more often than not if you go into the history of science. The extraordinary thing behind every important discovery is not that it happened accidentally. The extraordinary thing is that the researchers noticed.’”

This is the question that fuels our research: How do we design learning spaces that invite accidents and, at the same time, teach students to notice them?

This is why maker education excites us, in all its guises—the makerspace, the digital fabrication lab, computer science, digital media and learning, hackathons and art studios across the curriculum. That is, we might indeed be crossing a threshold of knowing and learning that will help us reform teaching and schooling.

But we are skeptical about aspects of the maker movement that don't aspire to the kind of serendipity that Professor Hu talks about. Too often we find maker educators and maker kids striving after kits with pre-fab pieces and done-that instructions, which we think of as make-to-illustrate, or, innovation-in-a-box. But this build-a-kit trajectory seems to us more like a worksheet than a journey toward innovation.

Now, worksheets can be terrific too, absolutely, and very useful in the right circumstances. But we don't think that artists, poets and mathematicians are talking about worksheets when they’re being interviewed about their latest innovations.

And this is where material learning comes in—we want room for make-to-learn practices in schools. And make-to-surprise yourself. We understand that school needs lesson plans, with carefully charted objectives and outcomes. But we think students need open-ended accidents and aha moments to spark their curiosity and help them learn how to wonder about the world. We think this is what leads to true innovation.

And we think that leading with materials, listening to their voices, collectively, is the best way to take the first step on that journey.

So, what do children and adults need to know in order to experience the power of material learning, of make-to-surprise yourself? This is the question we’re working on from several different angles, and it’s the animating force behind the Material Inquiry workshops. We don’t have a final answer yet, and maybe we never will.

Although, for us right now, we think that learning to innovate begins with the participatory, sharing agency that comes from working with materials instead of on them.

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