Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

The ‘Maker’ Movement Is Coming to K-12: Can Schools Get It Right?

By Benjamin Herold — June 06, 2016 7 min read
Shemya Key, 17, left, and Nele Dixkens, a 16-year-old German exchange student, use a drill press to perfect their miniature-golf project in the engineering room at Monticello High School in Virginia’s Albermarle County school district.

The maker movement is going mainstream, migrating from museums, garages, and informal “faires” into the highly regulated world of K-12 education.

For fans of hands-on, student-driven learning, the shift presents an opportunity to breathe fresh life into old teaching philosophies.

And for the maker community, too often focused on the interests of middle-class white men and boys, the move into public schools marks a chance to diversify.

But as districts rush to embrace the trend, some key observers are also worried.

Can schools, with their standards, state tests, and bell schedules, maintain the do-it-yourself, only-if-you-want-to ethos that fueled making’s popularity in the first place?

“There’s an amazing grassroots effort underway to bring the maker movement into education,” said Dale Dougherty, the founder of MAKE magazine and godfather of the modern maker phenomenon. “But if schools don’t get the spirit of it, I don’t think it will benefit them a whole lot.”

Undoubtedly, making is having a moment. Beginning June 17, the White House will host its second National Week of Making. The U.S. Department of Education is supporting efforts to rethink career and technical education through the creation of high school maker spaces. And nonprofit advocacy groups such as Digital Promise and Dougherty’s Maker Education Initiative are encouraging districts to champion making inside their schools.

For all the excitement, though, there are also hurdles.

One of the biggest: “Maker education” itself is a highly squishy concept.

In general, the term refers to hands-on activities that support academic learning and promote experimentation, collaboration, and a can-do mindset. But in practice, educators use “making” to describe everything from formal STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula to project-based classroom lessons to bins of crafting materials on a shelf in the library.

As a result, it’s difficult to say how many schools have adopted a maker approach, and their efforts are often messy. Two unresolved tensions loom especially large:

Should making happen primarily in a dedicated space or inside every classroom? And is the purpose of maker education to help students better learn the established curriculum or to upend traditional notions of what counts as real learning?

For now, at least, schools are well-served to take an all-of-the-above approach, said Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the 14,000-student Albemarle County, Va., schools and a national leader in maker education.

“Some people approach making by building a curriculum and defining experiences and attaching it to workforce development,” Moran said. “We’ve tended to let the work evolve up organically. The result is I can see making happening in any of our schools on any given day. But we’ve also got teachers who are on very different points of the continuum.”

On a warm April afternoon, signs of what maker education can be are evident throughout Albemarle’s 1,100-student Monticello High.

Baker-Butler Elementary School librarian Anita Mays congratulates 3rd grader Jacky Gao, after he successfully completed a “maker” challenge. The local school district has taken an aggressive approach in integrating maker spaces into classrooms.

In 2011, the school converted its quiet library into something that now resembles a hipster co-working space. Students staff a technology help desk, work independently in a “writer’s cafe,” and putter in an open work space with circuits, programmable microprocessors, and art supplies.

More recently, the school has focused on pushing making into other parts of the building. Now, a woodshop-turned-engineering lab is full of teenagers on laptops working intently on projects such as developing a first-person shooter video game. Their introductory computer science course is built around a simple question: What do you want to create?

Upstairs, meanwhile, 16-year old Ray Thomas sits in front of a microphone and monitor, using his audio-production class to finish a new rap song.

“I have a hard time focusing, but this class kind of calms me down and keeps me motivated,” Thomas said. “There’s lots of reasons I can come up with not to come to school, but then I’m like, ‘No, I have to finish my song.’”

It’s all music to the ears of Jesse Turner, Monticello’s bowtie-clad principal.

The whole point of maker education, Turner said, is to find new ways to engage students, especially those who have struggled to find a comfortable place inside school.

It’s a belief increasingly borne out by research.

Academics have consistently found that making “gives kids agency” over their learning in ways that traditional classes often don’t, said Erica Halverson, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There’s also mounting evidence that making is a good way to teach academic content. “The fear out there is that schools have to choose between making and academic work, but empirically that turns out not to be true,” Halverson said.

As schools like Monticello High embrace maker education, equity is also becoming a priority.

It hasn’t always been the movement’s strong suit: A 2013 analysis, for example, found that MAKE magazine overwhelmingly portrayed making as involving middle-class white men and boys working with electronics, vehicles, robots, and rockets.

But now, activities such as sewing and ceramics are also being recognized as forms of making. New attention is being paid to designing spaces that are welcoming for girls, students of color, and immigrant and refugee students.

See Also

EQUITY CHALLENGES: For more on equity issues in maker education, read this researcher Q&A on the Digital Education blog.“The Maker Movement, Equity, and Schools: Researcher Q&A”

And many observers believe such developments are likely to accelerate. To date, for example, hundreds of districts have signed a Maker Promise promoted by nonprofit Digital Promise and the Maker Education Initiative, one of a number of signs that point to the potentially rapid growth of making in K-12.

At its root, the trend is being fueled by widespread fatigue with high-stakes standardized testing. The administration of President Barack Obama has also provided a policy boost, giving strong backing to STEM and computer science education and the redesign of schools. The sudden affordability of technologies such as 3-D printers, sensors, microprocessors, and laser cutters have exponentially expanded access to the tools for making.

And, perhaps most importantly, the maker movement has also tapped into a deep desire among many educators to return to the type of instruction that drew them to teaching in the first place.

Although the convergence of those factors has led to a flourishing of maker-related activity in places such as Albemarle County, schools are still wrestling with the tensions that result from bringing a defiantly informal movement into a highly regulated system.

At Monticello High, for example, only a small number of students can use the new engineering lab, thanks to federal regulations limiting the number of students who can be in a such a space at a given time. And while students such as Thomas love audio production, they lament that other classes aren’t nearly as hands-on.

Even Principal Turner acknowledged that it’s been difficult to spread making beyond an enthusiastic group of early adopters.

“People are trying,” he said. “But I’d say only about 10 percent [of Monticello teachers] are bringing maker ed. into their classrooms on a consistent basis.” And that’s at one of the district’s most-advanced making schools.

Twelve miles across the county, at Baker-Butler Elementary, the challenges are even more pronounced.

During the 2013-14 school year, the 600-student school started by converting a computer lab into a maker space—only to find that teachers and students rarely used the room.

Not long after, librarian Anita Mays began collecting everything from LEGOs to circuit kits to seashells for students to use on self-directed maker projects—only to find out that many of the children weren’t sure how to get started.

And second-year Principal Stephen Saunders sounded decidedly conflicted when describing his school’s efforts to make “making” make sense.

“At the end of the day, what I care most about is that these kids know how to multiply and can tell the difference between Greece and Rome,” Saunders said. “If making is a way to get them there, then we’ll use that as a tool.”

That’s a far cry from educational vision that Dougherty of MAKE hopes to promote. Standards-based instruction isn’t working for most students, he believes, and schools need to be fundamentally reorganized.

“Will that happen? Probably not,” Doughtery said. “But if we allow this movement to become, ‘OK, everyone gets a period of making, and it’s this formulaic thing where everyone is treated basically the same,’ I think we’ve lost an opportunity.”

Moran and her team aren’t discouraged, however. Meaningful change takes time, the superintendent said, and it can’t be mandated from above.

So at Baker-Butler, when 2nd graders work on structured “maker challenges” instead of self-directed projects, it’s seen not as a failure, but as a start.

When Saunders talks about a teacher-led unit in which students learned about Egypt by building sarcophagi, it’s treated not as a shortcoming, but as a step in the process.

And when Sarah Fagan’s 3rd graders work in small groups to turn empty cardboard boxes into something of their own imagining, then use their creations as the basis for a collaborative creative-writing project—well, that’s a sign of what’s really possible once space is made for children’s choices, interests, and enthusiasm.

Efforts to bring maker education into schools might be messy and uneven. But so far, at least, the process has often been characterized by enthusiasm and growth.

Ultimately, Moran said, isn’t that the point?

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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