Library Research and an Updated Squishy Circuits Project

After completing my maker kit project with Squishy Circuits and writing a lesson plan that was both content- and collaboration- based, it was time to contextualize the project with the analysis of two peer-reviewed, scholarly research articles. The task was to be completed using the expansive MSU Library education division. I began by examining the research guide and watching the Fast Track to to Library Research I and II videos, which were very clear and informative. I watched them first on their own for an overview, and then bounced between the videos and my own library screen to improve my facility with the library site. Using the Getting Started Guides was especially helpful for this process. The video instructor reminded me how important research questions are, so, with consideration for my maker kit project, I began to narrow my focus on learning theories to write a few questions of my own.

Initially, when I wrote the Squishy Circuits lesson plan, I knew I wanted to make the aims two-fold; I wanted students to achieve goals in science content and processes, as well as in cooperative, collaborative learning. I have long embraced social constructivism; my classroom, a coach-teaching inclusion environment servicing students with three academic qualifying areas, as well as students with advanced learning profiles, and many more students with disparate needs, demands it. Additionally, further reflection on both the assignment this week as well as the overall play- and exploration-based nature of the MAET program dictated that I would highlight the element of play in my lesson and revisions. Upon reviewing the Learning Theory Cmap, I decided that experiential learning and social constructivism were most applicable to my Squishy Circuits lesson plan and would, therefore, become my focus.

I contacted Jill Morningstar at MSU and she provided me with some help getting started with research. I selected two articles: “The Importance of Self-Directed Play” (Schwartzmueller & Rinaldo, 2013) and “An Educational Psychology Success Story: Social Interdependence Theory and Cooperative Learning” (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). During a critical reading of each article, I found that the former largely supported my pedagogical decisions and the latter informed what would become my revisions.

Given that I wanted my students to embrace play as part of the creative and problem-solving process, the first article proved highly relevant. One of the very first lines resonated specifically with me in light of my maker lesson plan, regarding the American excess of standards-based education: “This overemphasis on accountability has resulted in a paradigmatic shift away from experiential learning; student-centered instruction has been supplanted by curriculum-based evaluation” (Schwartzmueller & Rinaldo, 2013, p. 1). Furthermore, Schwartzmueller and Rinaldo state that “play allows the child to learn by trial and error, and heights mental dexterity and flexibility'” (p. 2). Reflecting on my own process through the design of the Squishy Lamp lesson, it was clear that trial and error had been my dominating experience! Gauging my level of efficacy from almost nil at the beginning to increased confidence, I realized I wanted my students to benefit from a similar experience, which is the reason I minimized my own direct instruction in my lesson plan.

I decided, however, that the conferring portion -in which students would be building their integrated circuits and I would be monitoring and coaching- of the lesson needed a bit more clarification based on Schwartzmueller and Rinaldo’s instruction that “The educator first should observe the child at play and then provide constructive intervention toward a learning objective– whether in the form of questioning, suggesting, modeling, participating, or the creation of cooperative groups” (p. 4). Even though self-directed play occurs with greater frequency in the earliest learners, I began to see that there is no reason that I cannot incorporate play-based elements for my third graders.  I had designed the lesson with this intention; however,  the plethora of teacher interactions listed in the article encouraged me to add further verbiage to the teacher interaction portion.

Given that I work in a building with more than 50% free- and reduced-lunch eligibility, I was further convinced by Schwatzmueller and Rinaldo: “While children who come from advantaged backgrounds may not need much guidance, those from disadvantaged backgrounds may require higher levels of intervention from the educator” (p. 4). Overall, I was largely affirmed by Schwartzmueller and Rinaldo in my decision to make this lesson play-based and exploratory;  After all, students who engage with this type of learning “attain a depth of understanding that serves them for years to come– beyond the short-sighted goal of passing the next test” (p. 5). This type of nuanced understanding is certainly what I was driving at during the initial writing of my lesson plan.

The second article by Johnson and Johnson supported both the social interdependence theory as well as cooperative learning, both of which were central to the design of the Squishy Circuits plan (2013). I was less familiar with these theories, however, so I was able to glean several helpful ideas from Johnson and Johnson. I learned that a key component of social interdependence is positive interdependence which “exists when there is a positive correlation among individuals’ goal attainments; individuals perceive that they can attain their goals only if the other individuals with whom they are cooperatively linked attain their goals” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p. 2).

While my original thought was that students would glean valuable collaborative skills from working on this project in teams, the following statement by Johnson and Johnson gave me pause: “There is evidence that group membership in and of itself is not sufficient to produce higher achievement…Knowing that one’s performance affects the success of group mates seems to create responsibility forces that increase one’s efforts to achieve” (p. 3). Where I had previously planned to simply use table groups, I decided to pre-assign mixed-ability groups. Johnson and Johnson also note that “As a group size increases, individual members tend to communicate less frequently, which may reduce the amount of information utilized in arriving at a decision” (p. 4). Since my table groups are typically built of five or six students, I reduced the group size to three or four group members to facilitate clearer communication and effective collaboration. I also added communication goals to my essential questions.

Further informing my revision of the lesson parameters was the juxtaposition of the pedagogical methods of cooperation and competition Johnson and Johnson offered: “Working cooperatively with peers and valuing cooperation result in greater psychological health than do competing with peers or working independently… cooperativeness is positively related to emotional maturity, well-adjusted social relations, strong personal identity, ability to cope with adversity, social competencies, basic trust and optimism about people, self-confidence, independence and autonomy, higher self-esteem, and increased perspective taking skills” (p. 372). That extensive list of benefits was hard to  ignore!  Granted that the competitive element of my lesson came after all of the experimentation and creation, I began to re-evaluate the necessity of competition at all. Pedagogically, was there really a need for it? Why couldn’t my lesson be revised to keep inquiry at the center, to make the focus the proverbial journey instead of the destination? Pedagogical choices like this are central to the effectiveness of instructional: “A teacher with deep pedagogical knowledge understands how students construct knowledge, acquire skills, and develop habits of mind and positive dispositions toward learning” (Mishra & Koehler, 2006, p. 1027). Making the decision to eliminate the later use of the device in a competitive format for students in favor opening the creative process up for further investigation resulting in elevated scientific -and cooperative- understanding was an easy one, a decision I feel would result in more complex investigation of both the light and sound aspects of the Squishy Circuits.

To increase the cognitive load for students, (as well as the number of opportunities for collaboration), and to increase the level of complexity in the task, I elected to include a buzzer as one of the project criteria. A quick tutorial of the metal grinder from my dad’s workshop reduced the brushed finished on the metal and made the conductive material more accessible for students. Moreover, shifting the focus from product to the process would free students’ cognitive space to focus on the collaborative aspects of the project, as well.

My final revisions to the lesson plan arose from Johnson and Johnson’s emphasis assertion that students require explicit instruction in teamwork skills: “Unskilled group members cannot cooperate effectively. Effective cooperation is based on skilled team work as well as task work. Students, therefore, must be taught the interpersonal and small-group skills needed for high quality cooperation” (p. 369).  Additionally, to receive the lesson’s highest benefits, students must engage in group processing, which “occurs when group members (a) reflect on which member actions were helpful and unhelpful and (b) make decisions about which actions to continue or change” (Johnson & Johnson, p. 369). Mishra and Koehler explain that “the TPCK approach helps us identify important components of teacher knowledge that are relevant to the thoughtful integration of technology in education” (p. 1044) and one of the most important components for me is the inclusion of students with special needs. Johnson and Johnson described one study in which “more positive relationships developed between participants who were disabled when they were taught social skills and were engaged in group processing” (p. 369). With this revelation, I elected to include an initial mini-lesson on group processing and teamwork skills, as well as opportunities for reflection, specifically “3-5 minute focused discussions before and after a lecture and 2-3 minute turn-to-your-partner discussions” (Johnson & Johnson, p. 374).

Weighing the intentionality of the decisions I made during the initial writing of the lesson with the revisions in content and pedagogical complexity informed by close reading of recent research, I see the strength of integrating technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge. I feel I have developed a final project that is research-based, strong in content, and bolstered by TPACK concepts, which will be engaging, productive and fun for students.

Read the revised lesson plan here in Google Drive (revisions done in blue).

View the video in which I explain my thinking behind some of these revisions on YouTube:



Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365-379. Retrieved from

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A new framework for teacher knowledgeTeachers College Record, 108 (6), 1017-1054.

Schwarzmueller, G., & Rinaldo, V. (2013). The importance of self-directed play. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(1), 37-41. Retrieved from


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