School & District Management Q&A

The Maker Movement, Equity, and Schools: Researcher Q&A

By Benjamin Herold — June 08, 2016 6 min read
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Public schools’ embrace of the maker movement has prompted a sharp new focus on equity and diversity.

Among those looking at the issue most deeply are Northwestern University researcher Shirin Vossoughi, Meg Escudé of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, and independent learning scientist Paula Hooper. The trio co-authored “Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power: Toward Transformative Visions for Educational Equity,” an essay that will appear in the Summer 2016 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.

In general, “maker education” refers to hands-on activities that support academic learning, problem-solving, and a mindset that values experimentation, growth, and collaboration. The movement has historically been rooted outside of school, either in science museums such as the Exploratorium or in the informal crafting and building activities that everyday people have employed for generations.

This month, as part of our annual Technology Counts report, Education Week took a deep look at the opportunities and challenges associated with bringing making into K-12 schools.

One of the most important dynamics associated with this shift, argue Vossoughi, Escudé, and Hooper, involves efforts to recognize and value the “histories, needs, assets, and experiences of working-class students and students of color.”

The trio’s essay is based largely on their work developing and studying the Tinkering Afterschool Program, a partnership between the Exploratorium and local Boys & Girls Clubs in low-income communities in the Bay Area. They argue that it’s critical for educators embracing making to challenge educational injustices (to ensure that lower-resourced schools also have access to making technologies, for example), to recognize a multicultural mix of making activities (such as sewing and crafting, in addition to computer science and robotics), and to focus on good pedagogy (including direct assistance from teachers, which is anathema to some in the maker community.)

I caught up with Vossoughi, Escudé, and Hooper by phone to discuss these issues in April, prior to the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Why is equity such a big part of the conversation around maker education?

Vossoughi: From my perspective, equity was not a focus of the maker movement during its inception and rise, and that led to pretty quick pushback from people who said, “This is a problem. There’s a disproportionate focus on white male middle class practices and populations.”

What’s happened since then is definitely a much greater emphasis on questions of diversity and inclusion. The field is wrestling now with what making looks like and the range of views of how it happens. If we imagine it only as this normative experience, as opposed to what local communities all over the world have been doing for decades, we start to reproduce ideas about intelligence, about who is inventing, and who gets to participate.

Escudé: Making’s move into the educational field has sort of forced the conversation about equity. In our case, we try to look for projects that might reference practices around the world—not just tools like 3D printers, but also more traditional practices.

Why do you believe that focus on equity is valuable?

Escudé: There’s a sewing-circuit activity we do at the Tinkering Afterschool Program. We noticed that our students were really excited about the sewing itself, that it brought up wonderful conversations about family and references to who sews at home. It generated sense of pride and having a history.

Hooper: I believe that when students’ culture is involved in their learning, it has an impact on how kids come to understand and learn math and science. The research that many of us have done really indicates that things like the everyday practices that are comfortable for kids in a home setting, when those are used in a math classroom, those help kids to interact with math more deeply. When kids are exploring a science idea, and they don’t feel like they need to think and talk about exactly the way a teacher does in order to learn it, but can do so in a way that feels comfortable to them, that really helps.

The goal should be helping kids to understand these ideas for themselves. They find meaning when they can make ideas truly their own.

What will it take for public schools to adopt that kind of equity-focused approach to maker education?

Vossoughi: Part of it is to complicate the ways we might think about what counts as learning. In the aftermath of NCLB and high-stakes testing and in a strict accountability context, there tends to be a rigid experience of what learning and intelligence mean. But when making includes references to students’ everyday activities and what their parents and siblings and neighbors might be engaged in, there’s a widening of what counts as intelligence and learning, so that students might pay attention in new ways.

How can this kind of approach fit with schools’ current focus on blending making with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education?

Escudé: I don’t see tinkering and making as being exclusively STEM-based. It has the potential to be much broader than that. For example, there’s a lot of creative writing in our program.

We also shouldn’t think of equity as just meaning getting kids access to existing STEM programs. That economy is not necessarily ready to adapt to them. We need to examine how to change those structures in order to better serve the kids for whom we’re trying to get access.

What do you want K-12 educators to be thinking about as they begin experimenting with making?

Hooper: Making can provide a means for kids to really develop ideas in deep ways, but you also have to have a lens towards what it means to engage each child. That means really listening to and making sense of each child’s experience, by paying attention to what they do and seeing how they interact with materials and with other people. I want people to see making as a way to leverage teachers into becoming more aware of what kids need for their learning, and all the places they need to pay attention to.

Vossoughi: Sometimes the introduction of making in schools gets framed as ‘less teaching and more self-directed learning.’ From our perspective, there’s a real danger in shortchanging the kind of pedagogy and professional development that need to accompany the making in schools. More open-ended and inventive practices require intentionality and skill. Without that, there’s a risk that deficit-oriented ideas about which kids can and can’t engage in making might be reproduced. I personally worry that a focus on pedagogy is missing in efforts to scale making.

Escudé: Making is such a different way of learning from what typically happens in school. If we don’t offer information or support on what this new kind of teaching looks like, we’ll see a lot of novice educators thinking that making means they should be completely hands-off, or alternatively that they need to be really hands-on to get a project done. There’s still so little understanding of what can happen between those two extremes.

Photo: Jadon Neal, front left, age 9, and Reed Novak, 8, look over the contents of a maker box in order to complete a hand buzzer circuit. The Albermarle school district in central Virginia has taken a very aggressive and progressive approach in integrating maker spaces into instruction throughout the district.-- Reza A. Marvashti for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.