Letting go of ‘Safe’ Electronics Projects!

PCBWhen I first began teaching Key Stage 3 electronics, I felt it was important to write my schemes of work in great detail. I pre-planned activities in  considerable depth to make sure I  could manage the class and keep everybody busy – especially if I was to be observed by senior management who favoured well-ordered, structured lessons that were firmly controlled.

As there was a strong emphasis in our department for learners to acquire skills and take their projects home, I believed highly steered lessons would be necessary to meet these objectives and that students would need to know precisely what they would be doing. I had wanted to avoid teaching classes where students would come back to me at the first hurdle or difficulty and expect me to sort out their problems. I felt that if they had been given clear instructions and knew what they had to do, then they would be able to get on and work in a more independent manner.

Despite my careful lesson planning, when students had difficulties making the circuits I had given them, they would often come back to me in droves rather than spend time rectifying the mistakes themselves. In many instances I found I had to use much of my teaching time to troubleshoot and deal with their problems individually. I did this as I wanted my students to experience success and believed (by giving them individual help in the lesson and during lunch breaks) I would keep all of the class motivated.

Every summer term, as timetables grew lighter, there was time for our department to review the previous term’s projects. After several years of updating or changing our department schemes, I realised we were actually making our projects even more rigid; with most outcomes pre-determined by us -either through restrictive specifications or the “kit” projects and components we were providing. Our main aim had been to ensure problems or difficulties couldn’t arise so that more immediate “success” could be guaranteed. We had developed a  “no risk” teaching ethos, based on our safe “off-the-shelf” styled projects.

We had locked our teaching down to pursue what we had come to believe was the perfect project. This was at the expense of providing opportunities that really enthused or encouraged original design and problem solving. The only nod in the direction of creativity or originality was to allow limited design input into a vacuum formed case or a laser cut logo for the electronic product we were asking them to make.

My earliest electronics teaching was based on heavily prescriptive projects so that I could minimise uncertainty and possible failure along the way. By doing this I had inadvertently put up boundaries to creative working and independent learning; the very things I had actually been seeking in the first place. It was no wonder the students didn’t take ownership and kept coming back to me to troubleshoot their circuits –they were all making the same product and it was mainly based on our design and not theirs!

I felt a new approach was needed to inspire the students, so (ten years ago) I produced and obtained a patent for a quick no-connector pcb linking system for the classroom and began developing teaching software. The aim of this was to deliver the essential core knowledge of electronics/ systems & control and also provide learners with useful system designing tools, skills and resources to independently manage more-open, creative projects that they wanted to make.

From my more recent teaching experiences I found students work with far greater motivation and enthusiasm in electronics when they are given greater autonomy and sense of ownership over their projects. This inspires them to be more engaged, better behaved, eager to learn and up for overcoming obstacles when they arise. To achieve this I found it is important to “let go”, and through a systems’ approach provide more-open, varied activities or challenges for learners to navigate themselves.  The reasons: they inspire at a much deeper level, can still be manageable and if well structured & resourced, result in more successful outcomes that learners can take great pride.

To finish, you may be interested in the following quote I read recently from a head inspired by research from Dan Buckley, Cambridge Education; looking at students as peer teachers and the consequences of “letting go” in classes:

‘When you first give children control over their own learning, it’s scary because you realise that they can’t do all those things you thought they could do. Everything has been broken up by teachers so much that it only looks like they understand. They’re actually following menus, not really thinking it through’.

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Further reading:- GTC case study:
– Students as peer teachers – Dan Buckley, Cambridge Education (Future Lab):


About Quinn

Designer and founder of QuickLink Systems
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