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Connect the Dots

Sir Richard Branson has a mantra that runs through all his endeavors – “ABCD” or “Always Be Connecting the Dots”. And Seth Godin notes that “The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”  (Fast Company November 2013). Whether you think of information as dots or facts or even grades, is the culture in your classroom one of collecting or connecting? Are your students engaging in the messy process of connecting dots or are they moving along a very structured path from A to B to test time, and simply picking up pieces in order to fill in the correct blanks on a piece of paper? Are they learning techniques and processes that will help them to tackle any problem, now and in the future?

With the holidays approaching and the first half of the academic year wrapping up, it is a good time to reflect and re-assess. You know your students well by now so identifying what works and what doesn’t is a bit easier. Take the time to think about whether the culture in your classroom supports collecting or connecting. Step back and look to see if your classroom culture encourages learning from failure, student-directed learning, multiple solutions, and systems thinking. And if you decide it is time to change to a more dot-connecting way of doing things, consider using Engineering Design challenges and activities to give you the framework you need to move forward. But create a culture shift before you change your curriculum. Failing forward, making choices, and looking at implications and consequences are at the heart of the Engineering Design mindset; they all go a long way to encouraging dot connecting, not just dot collecting.



 EducationEngineering Design Culture

Acceptance of Failure

Not an option; reflected in low grade

Learning from mistakes; room for improvement; failing forward

What needs to be learned



Possible Solutions

Quest for one right answerMany options/identifying optimal solution

Path from problem to solution Linear

A →B →CLateral; synergistic;



Taking a test

Developing best solution given needs, constraints, and criteria; always room for improvement

Unfortunately, the traditional model of education is a highly linear system that is segmented and siloed. Most classrooms still follow a centuries-old compliance model of education. And while this compliance model does little to support risk-taking and creativity, it does reward dot- collecting as evidence of success. If we hope to equip students for a rapidly changing world, we need to allow time and space for dot connecting. Tony Wagner notes that “Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today.” (Creating Innovators, 2012).  Bringing Engineering Design into your classroom empowers students to apply what they know and engages them in deeper learning more as they seek to develop innovative solutions to challenges. Engineering is all about using facts and ideas to develop solutions to real problems. The most effective solutions connect a lot of the facts that have been collected, requiring learners to engage with ideas on a deeper level.

Think culture first and curriculum second. Trying to insert an Engineering Design project into an environment that lacks collaboration, respect, and creativity is rarely successful. It is very much like trying to wear the wrong size shoe. It might work for those first few steps, but you will never get very far without a significant amount of pain. Be intentional about including some of the hallmarks of Engineering Design listed in the table and start thinking of your classroom as one of dot connectors, not just dot collectors. Move from “failure is not an option” to “failing forward”; from “learn this” to “what do you think you need to know?”;  and from one right answer to limitless possibilities. Once an Engineering culture begins to take root,  design challenges and activities can blend in with what you already teach in order to enhance the learning experience for your students, and for you as well. And more of the dots will start to become connected.


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