Teaching Opinion

Maker Education Is About More Than 3-D Printers

By Jennifer Oxman Ryan — November 03, 2015 4 min read
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Makers—in the broadest sense, those who make things—and the maker movement have gone mainstream. Featured in articles from the Smithsonian to The Atlantic to The New York Times, today’s makers are just as likely to be armed with traditional tools like hammers, anvils, and yarn, as they are with conductive paint, 3-D printers, and computers. They are participating in a movement marked by community norms of sharing, collaboration, and experimentation. They are gathering in libraries, garages, summer camps, and makerspaces.

Cities and towns across the United States are paying attention, responding to the buzz with maker-related growth and development: Downtowns are outfitting digital workshop spaces, also knowns as “fablabs"; municipal libraries and church spaces are designating space for making; and now schools are getting on board. It is no wonder that school ears are perked. As businesses, libraries, and organizations lobby for ways to bring making into their domains, schools across the country are building innovation labs. Makerspaces are being carved out, 3-D printers are being brought into classrooms, and hacker/tinkering/maker/tech-ed teachers are being hired—and sometimes trained. There is clear enthusiasm around the tools and the sociocultural impact of maker-related values. Attend a school board meeting where a makerspace is on the agenda and the familiar selling point rings out: Maker education boosts STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—learning, which will ultimately generate a cohort of innovative, inventive, entrepreneurial-minded young people.


But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. The limited research around the cognitive benefits of maker-centered education is only recently emerging. Maker classes, maker curriculum, and maker teachers are being incorporated into educational settings in what appears to be a response to popular media and based, in part, on the hype.

To get a read on the media’s messaging, my research colleagues and I conducted a broad survey of nearly 200 popular press articles published between 2008 and 2013. We ultimately focused on 44 representative news stories that examined the ideas, attitudes, and potential benefits of the maker movement.

This is what we found to be mainstream media’s predominant message: The maker movement is well-poised to ignite a shift in manufacturing and to shape a future with a reconceptualized form of capitalism; a convergence of the right tools, the right people, and the right ethos will stimulate a new industrial revolution focused on a producer—rather than a consumer—mentality; and businesses will need to respond to the maker resurgence.

All the educational buzz about the maker movement ... has the potential to trivialize real discussions around how it might impact more traditional models of pedagogy.

In 2011, Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson posted a public Google+ nod to “the continuing industrialization” of the movement. Even President Barack Obama commended the maker movement for its ability to rejuvenate U.S. manufacturing, evidenced by the recent White House Maker Faire and noted in his 2014 State of the Union address: “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The few articles that do offer an opinion on the educational implications of the maker movement cite the potential to tap into the STEM curriculum. So, too, do they tap into the current education buzzword frenzy by citing key words like creativity, innovation, invention, and entrepreneurialism. But for all the hype, very few articles actually reference empirical support or tease out the underlying capacities and competencies cultivated through the act of making. As educational researchers attuned to considerations of thinking and learning, we found these articles painted a rather superficial pedagogical picture.

Suggesting ways to reconfigure schooling to align with economic needs is not a new idea. But in doing so, without considering the long-term implications and benefits, we run the risk of making decisions to reframe education based on short-term outcomes—outcomes that may not be undergirded by our beliefs around learning and teaching or considerations about the kind of people we want our students to become. Moreover, following trends without providing evidence of their benefits could lead to the phasing-out of maker education in schools. And as the next big movement comes around, it would likely leave in its wake unused makerspaces, dusty 3-D printers, and a staff of maker-educators who will no longer be needed.

All the educational buzz about the maker movement, though no doubt exciting, has the potential to trivialize real discussions around how it might impact more traditional models of pedagogy. In our research with leading maker-educators around the country, we have learned that the key to deeper and more personal outcomes for students are building the wide range of skills that the maker movement engenders, such as STEM knowledge, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, the development of self and a sense of agency, the building of personal character, and the care and understanding of community.

Until we can focus more deeply on the cognitive implications of engaging in maker-centered learning experiences, we can neither effectively and authentically align our educational priorities with the movement, nor consider how teaching and learning environments might best be redesigned to support maker-centered pedagogy. The maker movement is already infiltrating education in America. As more and more schools dedicate resources for maker classrooms, it is our responsibility as educators, researchers, parents, and policymakers to make sure that the thinking and learning behind maker-centered learning dictate the tools, rather than the other way around.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Moving Beyond the Hype of the 3-D Printer


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