HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

What Schools Can Learn from the “Maker Movement”

by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager Issue: Rising Ed Trends

Two leading proponents of “making” and “tinkering” in education explain the nature of this movement and the principles behind it, while offering advice and inspiration for re-making your school into a maker school.

There’s a technological and creative revolution underway around the world that educators should be aware of: the Maker Movement. The Maker Movement advocates a DIY (Do It Yourself) attitude towards the world, especially the technological world. Makers worldwide are developing amazing new tools, materials, and skills and hoping the whole world joins in the fun. Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings gee-whiz excitement, engineering, design and computer science to the masses.

The Spring 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire, organized by Make magazine, attracted over 100,000 children and adults who came together for a weekend of tinkering, crafting, inventing, showing-off, learning, and making together. Communities around the world are holding their own Mini-Maker Faires that bring people together to share what they know and can do. Community-run spaces called hackerspaces, fab labs, and tech shops are popping up all over the world, offering remarkably rich learning environments where novices learn alongside experts. These communal learning spaces are a model of what is possible when we rethink education for the 21st century. Remarkably, it’s not a sterile, high-tech vision of solitary computer users clicking away on canned lessons. The Maker vision of learning is vibrant, whimsical, communal, and driven by personal interest.

A growing library of literature inspires learners of all ages and experiences to become inventors and seize control of their world. Online communities serve as the hub of a digital learning commons, allowing people to share not just ideas, but the actual programs and designs for what they invented. This ease of sharing lowers the barriers to entry as newcomers can easily use someone else’s code or design as building blocks for their own creations.

Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. It holds the keys to reanimating the best but oft-forgotten learner-centered teaching practices.

The ethos of the Maker Movement is to “give it a go,” an attitude that many young children have about the world, yet seems to diminish with each advancing grade. Another saying popular among Makers is “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” which embodies both a recycling ethic that resonates with young people and what we know about learning. If the learner doesn’t own their own learning, the memorized factoids fade away all too quickly.

In his book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld describes the next technological revolution as one in which people will make anything they need to solve their own problems. Gershenfield predicts that for the cost of your school’s first computer, you will soon have a Fabrication Lab or fab lab—a mini high-tech factory—capable of making things designed on a computer.

Three forces have made his predictions accessible and affordable today:

Computer controlled fabrication devices. Over the past few years, devices that fabricate three-dimensional objects have become an affordable reality. These 3D printers can take a design file and output a physical object. Plastic filament is melted and deposited in intricate patterns that build layer by layer, much like a 2D printer prints lines of dots that, line by line, create a printed page. With 3D design and printing, the ability for students to design and create their own objects combines math, science, engineering and craft.

Physical computing. New open source microcontrollers, sensors and interfaces connect the physical world to the digital world in ways never before possible. Many schools are familiar with robotics, one aspect of physical computing, but a whole new world is opening up. Wearable computing, where circuits are made with conductive thread, makes textiles smart, flexible, and mobile. Plug-and-play devices that connect small microprocessors to the Internet, to each other, or to any number of sensors mean that low-cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, and explore the world.

Programming. There is a new call for programming in schools, from the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House. Programming is the key to controlling this new world of computational devices and the range of programming languages has never been greater. Today’s modern languages are designed for every purpose and every age.

You may be asking, “All that tinkering and high-tech wizardry may be fine for MIT professors and students, but what does it have to do with my school?”

The most obvious implication is for the ways computers are used in school. Making and personal fabrication are a clear departure from the status quo. Instead of training another generation to perfect secretarial skills via word processor instruction or drilling basic skills, computers can and will be used to shape the world of the student.

Kid makers possess a skill set and self-efficacy that will serve them well in school, as long as they are engaged in interesting activities worthy of their capacity for intensity. Despite the swirling politics and external pressures on schools, the maker movement may offer teachers cause for optimism. The stuff of making is super-cool and gives those teachers so inclined another chance to reanimate progressive education. If your administrator likes to buy shiny new things, then there are plenty of things to buy that actually amplify the potential of children. Silicon Valley billionaires are endorsing the nonprofit Code.org, which advocates for kids to learn computer programming. President Obama, Bill Gates, the CEO of Google, and the Association for Computing Machinery are campaigning for computer science to be a curriculum staple from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

None of these experiences or the materials that enable them are inconsistent with the imaginations of children or with the types of learning experiences society has long valued. Making is a stance that puts the learner at the center of the educational process and creates opportunities that students may never have encountered themselves. Makers are confident, competent, curious citizens in a new world of possibility.

Tinkering is a powerful form of learning by doing, an ethos shared by the rapidly expanding maker community and many educators. Tinkering is the process of design, the way that real science is done. It is not unstructured, but a process of iteration towards a goal that may not be well defined. Many inventions were created on the way to somewhere else, or were “mistakes” that turned out to be valuable. We owe it to our children to give them the tools and experiences that real scientists and engineers use, and the time is now to bring these tools and learning opportunities into real classrooms. There are multiple pathways to learning what we have always taught, and things to do that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Project-based learning is a term that encompasses how all this can happen in a classroom, and fortunately also provides a deep and rich library of research and teaching techniques to support deep learning through making and tinkering.

We unabashedly believe in kid power and know that teachers hold the key to liberating the learner. The values, tools and activities of the maker movement enrich and accelerate that process.

With prices falling and options multiplying by the minute, these futuristic technologies are within the reach of the average classroom. Nevertheless, technology by itself is going to change not how students learn, only the conditions that teachers create in their classrooms. A “makerspace” is a state of mind as much as a space or the stuff in it. A makerspace invites creativity, messing about with tools, materials, and big ideas—all driven by a wise leader who steers students towards meaning.

Teachers can make their classroom a makerspace by providing these four crucial elements:

  • A good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
  • Appropriate materials
  • Sufficient time
  • Supportive culture, including a range of expertise

The genius of this approach is that it is self-evident. If you lack one of the four elements, it is obvious what needs to be done. Teachers who provide these elements will start to see their students become confident makers and creative learners.

Options for makingspaces vary widely depending on the classroom (or other space), the teacher, and the students. If the library is an option, build on the existing advantages. Libraries are cross-curricular, multigrade, and often have extended hours. All these are advantages for a makerspace. In the past decade, many librarians rebranded themselves as Library Media Specialists; now without changing the acronym, they can be Library Maker Specialists—making meaning, making learning possible, and making things.

Maryann Molishus, a teacher in Pennsylvania who has taught both second and fifth grade, shares this:

“What do you want to learn and how do you want to share it with the class?” This is how I began second grade for many years. The ideas would start off ordinary. “I want to learn about tigers, and I will write a book about them.” Then, there would continue to be requests to make a variety of animal books. Eventually there would be a child who seemed to want to challenge me—did I really mean ANYTHING? “I want to be a book critic and make my own television show,” or “I want to be a scientist, mix things up, and see what happens,” or “I want to make a video game.” There would be a collective gasp. Surely that’s not what I meant. But, I’d casually write down the requests, give a nod, and continue on with more requests until the animal book authors would begin asking to change their ideas to less traditional projects. It happened every year. And knowing that students, both in second and in fifth grade, are surprised by what they can do means that each year my goal is always to make what seems to them to be the extraordinary the norm for my classroom.

Other options would be to create a “maker cart” that moves between classrooms. Josh Burker, a technology resource teacher in Connecticut, uses the free computer programming language Scratch and a clever interface device called a MaKey MaKey to create projects that are completely customizable for each classroom. Students can write their own programs that interact with real world objects to create games that interact with the real world. Imagine a video game of your own invention that uses bananas as the controllers, or a custom-built Operation game! Each game is unique and different, but every student must grapple with the design process, engineering challenges and real world math along the way. Josh works with individual teachers to integrate these projects into the curriculum and themes of each classroom, and uses older students as beta testers and peer mentors.

In secondary grades, the subjects are often taught separately, diminishing the time for students to experience science and math as integrated areas. Making is a way of bringing authentic design thinking and engineering to learners. Such concrete experiences provide a meaningful context for understanding abstract science and math concepts. Creating opportunities for making with imaginative new materials and technology makes learning come alive and cements understandings that are difficult when only studied in the abstract.

Often the results of bringing making into a school are powerful but disruptive. Making creates a need for expanded time schedules, more options, and greater flexibility on the part of teachers. It means that administrators need to trust teachers (and students) that the complexity of project-based learning is purposeful, not chaotic. It may be out of the comfort zone of some that not every student does the same thing at the same time. However, the rewards of creating powerful learning opportunities for students should overcome temporary discomfort. We must reimagine school not as a place to prepare students for some future experience, but as a place where students are inventors, scientists and mathematicians today.

The tools and ethos of the maker revolution offers insight and hope for schools grappling with what it means to be educated in the 21st century. The breadth of options and the “can-do” attitude is exactly what students need, especially girls, as they tend to opt out of science and math as time goes on. But hands-on making is not just a good idea for girls; all students need challenge and “hard fun” that leads to big ideas and inspires them to dive deeper. Making school subjects interesting and fun is not pandering to young sensibilities. It honors the learning drive and spirit that is all too often crushed by endless worksheets and boring vocabulary drills.

Even if educators don’t have access to expensive (but increasingly affordable) hardware, every classroom can become a makerspace where kids and teachers learn together through direct experience with an assortment of high- and low-tech materials. The potential range, breadth, power, complexity and beauty of projects have never been greater thanks to the amazing new tools, materials, ingenuity and playfulness found in todays maker materials. Turning every classroom into a makerspace and every child into a maker is the path to creating truly personal learning for every student.

Sylvia Libow Martinez is currently president of the nonprofit Generation YES organization, a maker, mom, video-game designer and electrical engineer. sylvia@inventtolearn.com

Gary S. Stager PhD is a veteran teacher-educator and speaker who has taught making in the classroom for more than 30 years. gary@stager.org

Additional resources

Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Education in the Classroom http://www.inventtolearn.com - This website is the home of a groundbreaking book by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager. Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom gives educators a practical guide to bringing 21st century tools, technology, and pedagogy to any classroom. The website also includes recommended books and hundreds of links to resources and professional development for making, tinkering, and engineering in the K-12 classroom.

Video – Making in Education – Gary Stager’s interview with Steve Hargadon at the 2012 San Mateo Maker Faire

Constructing Modern Knowledge – premier event for teacher professional learning with the tools and materials of the 21st century. http://www.constructingmodernknowledge.com

Learning by Making: American kids should be building rockets and robots, not taking standardized tests by Dale Dougherty (Slate magazine online) http://slate.me/132EezD

Make magazine The bible of the Maker Movement.

Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show is a video series produced by Sylvia, an 11-year-old maker, and her father. The videos are youthful and vibrant examples of playful technology.

Why I LOVE My 3D Printer (and you will too!) is a video of a passionate talk by 12-year-old Schuyler St. Leger.

Joey Hudy Goes to the Whitehouse Joey Hudy is a young maker and entrepreneur who surprised President Obama with a homemade marshmallow cannon in the White House.

The Story of Caine’s Arcade http://cainesarcade.com/

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