Turning a pallet into a window box, or, Project-Based Learning is tougher than it looks

April 26, 2011 at 9:20 am 1 comment

by Alec Patton

Dreaming of Pallets
On Saturday, my neighbour and I shifted two tons of soil from the pavement out front to another neighbour’s back garden, where we are growing vegetables in raised beds (I know, I know, the Big Society lives). When the soil arrived, we also got the pallets it came on (my neighbour had the presence of mind to ask if we could have them).

Now, pallets occupy a particularplace in my imagination. This is because of construction projects that get suggested in a certain genre of hip, ethically-minded DIY books that I have flipped through in shops like Urban Outfitters (which I now boycott, because they fund homophobic politicians). These books are FULL of things that you can build using reclaimed wood from pallets. They give the impression that pallets are as ubiquitous as toilet-paper tubes and empty milk cartons in the average home – which, unless people are bulk-buying at a scale that I’ve never yet imagined, doesn’t strike me as very likely.

I would go so far as to say I’ve held back from buying any of the aforementioned hip DIY books specifically because I didn’t know how I’d get my hands on a pallet. So having two pallets in the back garden was something of a coup. I decided to use one of them to build a window box – it sounded so easy at the time.

My newfound Ethic of Excellence
I was inspired to take on this project partly because, well, pallets, how could I resist?, but also because I’ve been reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, and it is now influencing everything I do. Ron Berger is an American primary school teacher who is also a professional carpenter, and whose school is almost entirely project-based. I came across the book because High Tech High’s Rob Riordan told me it was their ‘bible’ (there’s a great intervew with Berger in High Tech High’s journal, Unboxed). An Ethic of Excellence describes the beliefs and methods that drive Berger’s school, and is full of anecdotes and descriptions of projects. In the first chapter, Berger describes giving a presentation to a group of teachers in Pittsburgh:

I show slides of my sixth-grade [year 7] students managing a scientific project, done in collaboration with a local college laboratory, done to test the town’s homes for radon gas. The slides show students preparing surveys, kits, and informational packets for the families in town, learning the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program to do data analysis of results; and show pages from their final radon reports for the town. The report turned out to be the first comprehensive radon picture of any town in the state.  […] The slides show a classroom transformed into something like a non-profit company, printing copies of the report, responding to requests and questions with individual cover letters, and mailing off copies. All this run by students (p. 17).

My partner just finished the book, and as a teacher, she was inspired to further develop her practice. I’ve had a slightly different response – as an adult, I feel like I need to raise my game if this is what eleven and twelve-year-olds are doing.

So building a window box out of a pallet is my project. It will require maths skills that I haven’t used for years, and an understanding of materials and design that I have never had (my previous attempts at construction all began with a flat pack).

‘Just in time for next time’
The first thing I’ve learned is that taking apart a pallet is much more difficult than the hip DIY books imply. I’d imagined taking apart the pallet as step zero in the process – a sort of formality before the real work began. Well, after prying off one board, failing to get any others, and doing a decent bit of damage to the pallet, my body, my tools, and, at one point, our fence, I took another neighbour’s advice, borrowed an electric jigsaw, and just sawed the boards off at the ends. Even then, it took a lot of work to get all the pieces separated and nail-free. In the interest of full disclosure, this is as far as I’ve got: the pallet is in pieces, and free from nails (except when one snapped off and the shaft remained embedded in the wood – for my purposes, that counts as ‘removed’ – my ethic of excellence has its limits).

Since then, I’ve found a great website called pallets to palaces. Of course, it features advice on taking apart a pallet. I wish I’d read this before, but I now recognise its value in a way that I never would have in the past (yesterday as I hammered a screwdriver into the pallet, I thought ‘there must be a better tool for this’. It turns out there is: it’s called a bolster chisel).

In enquiry- and project-based learning, we talk about ‘just in case’ learning (finding out about something in case you need to know it in the future) vs. ‘just in time’ learning (finding out about something that is immediately relevant to what you’re trying to do). In the workplace, ‘just in case’ learning is all the stuff you get told in your first week, and immediately forget. ‘Just in time’ learning is when you ask the person sitting next to you how to use the scanner, because you need to email a bunch of documents that you’ve only got in hard copy. What I’m now experiencing is ‘just in time for next time’ learning – it’s too late to implement what I’ve learned, but I now know where to go for information when I do this again, and I know I need to get a bolster chisel.

I’ll let you know how it goes as the window box project progresses. And there may be photos.

Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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