The tables are covered with thin plastic sheets like those in an evidence lab. Before each chair sits a pair of latex gloves, and on the floor next to each table waits a black dustbin bag.
This is the scene that has faced learners and teachers as they arrive for a MindBurst Workshop garbology session. It is the setup for an immersive, investigative exercise inspired by archaeologists and detectives.
Garbology is the branch of archaeology that studies the waste left behind by human beings. Traditionally archaeologists have always seen great value in the study of domestic waste dumps common in human settlements. They call these dumps ‘middens’. Middens may contain animal bones, plant seeds, human excrement, pot shards and other discarded items that are all clues to the lives that humans in those settlements lived. Garbology refers more specifically to recent or ‘modern’ dumpsites. It began as an idea of two University of Arizona students for a class project in 1974. It is now an acceptable practice for obtaining information about the changing patterns of modern human society.
In MindBurst’s adaptation of this archaeological practice, groups of participants play the role of investigative units given a certain crime or individual to look into. The only evidence the groups can draw on is the refuse of the suspect.
Beforehand, the dustbin bags have been painstakingly assembled in order to tell a specific narrative. The narrative can be anything as long as it engages and is relatable to the participants. The rubbish must be designed in such a way so as to only allow one justifiable story to be told from it, but at the same time it must not give away its secrets too easily. In our experience, learners will manage to find even the smallest inconsistencies in our stories, so a lot of time must be spent on the design of the rubbish, even if that means designing fake business cards and logos, making fake handwritings, or Photoshopping maps.
Once the participants receive their brief, they then sort through, organise, and integrate the rubbish in order to find evidence for or against whatever hypotheses they have generated about the investigation at hand. Their strategy for doing this is entirely up to them and a group’s ability to organise their own process plays a large part in their success or failure in unravelling the story. It can be a frustrating and messy process, but the sense of intrigue created by the setup provides ample motivation for the learners to engage all their perseverance and critical faculties in order to come to a justified conclusion.
The garbology lessons explore the participants’ abilities to:
- create an effective group strategy for collaborating on a complex task;
- identify relevant information and separate it from irrelevant information;
- structure information usefully;
- ‘zoom out’ and see the big picture – ‘zoom in’ and see the detail;
- find connections between diverse sources of information in a short time;
- create a working hypothesis of what the information might point to.
As in all project-based learning experiences, the job of the facilitators is to hold the space. It is a bit like designing a playpen. Once the playpen (the rules, the process and the materials of the exercise) is built, participants are free to do what they feel inspired to do within it. The playpen should constrain them appropriately in order to facilitate the acquisition of the desired transferable skills. If designed well, this kind of exercise gets the learners to work from the bottom up, with minimal instruction, and gets all the learners to participate. It is important to allow time for learners to reflect on the process and identify the skills they have been practising.