Most of them have never held a screw driver before. But that is to be expected from primary school children. How many of your classmates had experience with using screwdrivers at the age of 12? So where do I begin, if I want to teach them something about technology?
In May 2021 I gave a workshop to a group of 11-12 year olds. It was my daughter’s class, in the last year of primary school. The teacher had asked the parents if anybody wanted to give a workshop. The only requirement was that it was not supposed to be just a PowerPoint presentation or something like it, but that the children were actually going to use their hands.
Of course my daughter immediately volunteered me, thinking I could teach her class about old telephones.
Great, but what was I going to teach them that would be relevant for them in the future and what was I going to have them actually do with their hands? I couldn’t have them all clean and polish a bakelite telephone. To have them disassemble an dial and re-assemble it again would not be brilliant either. Not only because most grown-ups are unable to do that, let alone 12 yr olds. But there is also the matter of that sharp leaf spring which has a tendency to fly across rooms. Or into eyes. Or soft body tissue.
Obsolete and useless
Let’s face it, rotary telephones are useless and no longer relevant and won’t be in the foreseeable future. At least not where I live.
No, the apocalypse will not come and we will not revert back to rotary dial telephones or even manual exchanges. And in case of calamities where the infrastructure is damaged, people only have their smart phones and nothing else really. After all, phone booths are gone, most modern land line telephony goes through an ATA via a digital system that stops working as soon as the power goes out.
And I am quite sure that most of the kids are sane enough to not start collecting old telephones. So learning how to use a rotary dial is not very useful for them.
Kids today, what do they know?
With regards to old technology, not much. Like I did not know much about steam engines and making flint tools at that age. What they know about technology is about the modern kind.
So they do not have much hands on experience with screws and bolts and perhaps have a vague idea how electricity and current works. Most of them have never taken apart a household appliance, fortunately I must say, as a dad.
That is no different for people of my generation when they were that same age. I had started taking apart old appliances I got from family and neighbors, when I was that age. But few kids did things like that, back then.
Getting a feel for technology
I decided that the most useful I had to offer was some hands on experience with technology in general. But how was I going to put that into practice using old telephone technology? Basically I was going to divide them up in small groups and have them cooperate on something.
The first idea I had was to have them connect a phone or make a small telephone network. Have them mess about with wires. But perhaps that would be too simple. Especially because I couldn’t have the whole class stripping wires with sharp tools. I’m sure that would not come to a good end.
Repairing a telephone would be too complicated and restoring one would take too long. Having them work on bakelite telephones would be too risky. I would not want the bakelite getting damaged in the process.
After a while I had the idea to put them to work with telephone stuff that was practically feasible and that would result in something actually functioning and that the kids could test and play with.
And if they would survive this with all their limbs still attached, that would be great.
Theory and practice
So there I went, explaining about the development of the telephone. I made a simple presentation, but I mostly used real objects. I showed them a string telephone, how a wire coil turns into a magnet, a telephone receiver with a metal diaphragm, real rotary dials and many other things, accompanied by photographs.
Throughout the lesson I showed them the origin of many words we still use today that have their original in the history of the telephony, like the Dutch word for making a call is “bellen”, directly derived from the name of Alexander Graham Bell, where the Dutch word “hoorn” (handset) comes from, dialing is “draaien” (turning) etcetera.
After that I divided them into 5 groups and gave each group a tray with telephone parts and every pupil a screw driver. Their mission was to reassemble the telephone and test it on the small electronic exchange that I brought.
I explained to them that the phones go together in one way, that there are a lot of hints on the parts themselves, like tabs, holes, stickers, colour-coding and even writing. And that I had brought a clear T65 for them to have a look, if they needed to.
To my surprise they got really fanatical to make it work and they had great fun. Apparently everybody enjoyed it, including the teachers that walked past and lingered a while to see what was going on. In the end the all got their phones working.
I did make a mental note that if ever there was a next time I should tell the kids that the screwdriver is only for fastening screws and not for making stabbing motions or for attacking the furniture.
Again this year
This year my son is in the last term of primary school. So I had the opportunity to do it again. It had been 1,5 years after I had done the previous session. Luckily I had kept everything, except the string & cans telephone. A new one was easily produced, though.
So I reviewed my presented and sorted out all the telephones that the previous group had reassembled and did another workshop.
This time I did ask them not to use the tools as swords and to minimize contact between the business end and the furniture. Of course this did not have any discernible effect. However, there was no leaking of any vital bodily fluids and no case of rapid unexpected disassembly of school property.
Note to self, if there is ever a next time, tell them before giving them the tools.
And again and again….
I had a great time doing these workshops and I was not the only one, as they asked me to do another two groups. They were doing a program about inventions and about telecommunications in particular. So: once more into the breach!
This time I was really sharp. I told the kids not to use the screwdrivers as instruments of impalement and that the school furnishings did not need maintenance right now and certainly not by them. Of course this yielded the same result as last time.
We all had a lovely time like all the classes before: me, the kids and the teachers involved. Nothing stained red and there were almost no scratches on the tables and chairs.
New note to self: if ever there is a next time, have them repeat the instruction back before giving them tools. That will surely do the trick. Right?