I like to build things. Robots, space guns, go-carts, anything cool and fun. I like fixing things, too.

Building, fixing and tinkering. BFT. It's a form of literacy, isn't it?

Other types of literacy include digital literacy, computer literacy, technological literacy, political literacy, cultural literacy, visual literacy, quantitative literacy, prose literacy, document literacy, scientific literacy, academic literacy, emotional literacy, and probably several others. So why not BFT?

An interesting classroom experiment occurred in 1976. Seven kids with failing grades were paired with seven high performing kids in a separate, small, one-room schoolhouse that sat across the street from the regular school on a country lane in Bracebridge – a northern Ontario town of 3,500 people, at the time.

There was a mothballed library in the basement, only two tables in the classroom and you sat wherever there was an empty seat. Students were encouraged to change their seat position every so often. They did not form groups defined by academic record, socioeconomic standing or anything else.

There was a girl, so painfully shy and withdrawn that some thought she could not speak because none had ever heard her do so. Another girl appeared angry and bitter, and another, argumentative, physically aggressive, vocal and forward. There was a boy with anger issues and a hair-trigger temper, another who was silent and brooding, one who was easily distracted, unfocused and impatient, and one who would do anything to get attention - and not always the good kind.

Other kids had good grades, loved school, and were generally positive minded and played well with others, regardless of where they fit into the schoolyard social landscape.
The kids were free to interact with the kids from the “regular” school during recess.

Where the typical grade seven classroom structure involved a lot of time spent sitting in class, staring at the chalkboard or listening to the teacher lecture, this one was much different. As little time as possible was spent in the actual classroom, sitting at a desk. When possible, classes were held outdoors. A great deal of time was spent doing hands-on projects. The kids built a cedar strip canoe under the guidance of a skilled outdoors-man. They skinned the canoe in canvas, painted it bright red and shellacked it, then built their own paddles and went on a canoe trip to study biology, surveying, topological mapping, orienteering, science and geography. They returned and worked in teams to organize a gala, design, print, and sell tickets to raffle the canoe and raise money for charity and the school. They refurbished a mothballed darkroom then built their own cameras, tinkered with them until they were functional, then took photos and developed them. They used power tools, learned safety, estimation, measurement, engineering, and process. They learned to play bridge, and chess, and memory and categorization games. They learned to compete in a positive way, to help each other and to research and organize. They built large dioramas, camped in the fall and winter, took road trips to study native history, archaeology, science and botany. Some of them made their own skis for a class ski trip. Others fixed or refurbished old skis.

Building, fixing and tinkering.

During these activities or events, the teachers talked about glaciation, classification, taxonomy, history, science and anything else that seemed interesting. The students did not always know what was curriculum and what wasn’t. It didn’t matter, it was all interesting. The students interacted closely with the teachers and each other, they cooperated, mentored, shared ideas, methodologies and processes, encouraged each other and in turn were encouraged.

If memory serves correctly, after only one school year, the average academic grade for these previously failing kids was B plus - higher than the average for the school across the street. These grades primarily reflected the academic curriculum but I argue that the students learned much, much more than what was reflected in the report cards. In one school year, the girl who some thought could not speak became talkative and smiled often. The ill-tempered kids calmed. The unfocused ones became focused. The kids developed respect for each other and each exhibited great confidence after discovering their competence. Everyone made things with their hands. Problems encountered were real and solvable, not abstractions. The teaching process cleverly involved activating all the five senses instead of just sight and sound. Information thus became stickier because it had context. The program was a success and it was really something special to experience. The students came away with academic skills, social skills, practical skills and a noticeable increase in BFT literacy. Pretty impressive.

In spite of this, it was a one-time deal. The program was dropped the following year. I don’t know why.

Since then I met a fellow named Gever Tully at a conference. Gever teaches students in this manner.

Way to go, Gever.

BFT literacy is a beautiful thing.

It would be great to see more of it.