Teaching Opinion

Response: The Maker Movement Believes In ‘Kid Power’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 08, 2014 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on The Maker Movement)

Phil Shapiro asked:

How can schools best embrace the Maker Movement to promote inquiry and learning seven days a week?

There has been an incredible amount of interest in what’s called “The Maker Movement” during the past few years, and more and more educators have been exploring how to apply it in their classroom.

This week, I’ll be publishing a two-part series on the topic.

Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager have graciously adapted a portion of their book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Education in the Classroom, into a piece for this blog. The book has quickly become a key resource for those attempting to apply The Maker Movement to their teaching practice.

The Movement doesn’t only have implications for STEM classes, however. The next post in this series will also explore what it means for the Language Arts.

You might also want to listen to a nine-minute podcast interview I did with Sylvia and Tanya Baker from The National Writing Project.

In addition to visiting the Invent To Learn website for more Maker Movement Resources, I’ve compiled more at The Best Resources For Learning About The “Maker Movement”. I’ve added links there that Sylvie and Gary suggested, but that I couldn’t include in this post because of space limitations.

I’ll be including comments from readers in the next post, so please feel free to share yours!

Response From Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager

There’s a global technological and creative revolution underway that educators should be aware of - the Maker Movement. The Maker Movement advocates a “Do It Yourself” (DIY) attitude towards an increasingly technological world. Makers worldwide are developing amazing new tools, materials, and skills and hoping that others join in on 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 2013 Bay Area Maker Faire, organized by Make magazine, attracted more than 120,000 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, artistic, communal, and driven by personal interest.

A growing 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 global learning commons, allowing people to share not just ideas, but the actual code and designs for what they invent. This ease of sharing lowers the barriers to entry as newcomers can easily repurpose someone else’s code or use their design as building blocks for new creations.

Fortunately for educators, the Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. Embracing the lessons of the Maker Movement 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” - the natural inclination of young children that seems to diminish with each advancing year of school. Another saying popular among Makers is, “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” This embodies both a recycling ethic that resonates with young people and is consistent with what we know about learning. If the learner doesn’t own their own learning, the memorized factoids fade away all too quickly.

In his 2005 book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop - from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld described the next technological revolution as one in which people would make anything they need to solve their own problems. Gershenfield predicted that for the cost of your school’s first computer, you would 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 other “smart” devices mean that low cost, easy-to-make computational devices can test, monitor, and explore the world. Robotics represent the most obvious for of physical computing, but new low-cost and accessible components provide an ability to embed intelligence or interactivity into common materials like cloth or paper. That Father’s Day necktie can sport a choreographed dance of LEDs or speak, “I love you.” Origami can be programmed to have behaviors and a cardboard box may become an orchestra.

  • Programming - There is a new call for programming in schools, from the Next Generation Science Standards to the White House and Silicon Valley. 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.

Each of these experiences and the materials that enable them are consistent with the imaginations of children and 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 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 purposeful iteration towards a goal that may not be well defined. Many inventions were created on the way to another goal, 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.

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

With falling prices and options multiplying by the minute, once futuristic technologies are within the reach of the average school. However, it’s not that technology is going to change how students learn, but 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.

Options for maker spaces vary widely depending on the classroom (or other space), the teacher, and students. Libraries are popular options because they are cross-curricular, multi-grade, and often have extended hours. These are important traits of a makerspace. Over 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.

Making can also connect generations and reach out to the community, extending learning opportunities for all. Community makerspaces are blooming across the country like the Mt. Elliot Makerspace in Southeast Detroit, whose vision is "...a village workshop where people make, tinker and learn together. We do this to strengthen ourselves and our communities so that we can create healthy, happy, meaningful lives.”

Schools may find that community makerspaces provide not just tools and experts, but authentic problems and projects well within the reach of students. Schools without a nearby makerspace should consider becoming the community problem-solving space themselves. Gershenfeld’s prediction of people solving their own problems is no longer futuristic fantasy, and the school can be the hub of a community taking charge of its own future.

In school, subjects are often taught separately, diminishing the time for students to experience integrated projects. 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 while often incorporating esthetic components. Creating project-based learning opportunities for making with authentic problems, combined with imaginative new materials and technology makes learning come alive and cements understandings that are difficult when only studied in the abstract.

Project-based learning is a powerful way to bring creativity, agency, and authentic learning experiences to a classroom. It stands on a deep foundation of research and sound teaching techniques that support deep learning through making and tinkering.

Often the results of bringing making into a school are powerful and disruptive. Making creates a need for expanded time, student choice, and greater flexibility on the part of teachers. It requires administrators to trust teachers (and students) to appreciate 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.

One might try to marginalize robotics or 3D fabrication as having nothing to do with “real” school subjects, dismissed as play, or as just a super-charged hobby. However, today’s new low-cost, flexible, creative, and powerful materials should be viewed as building blocks for today’s children. This is much more than just “hands-on” crafting - these tools bring electronics, programming, and computational mathematics together in meaningful, powerful ways. 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.

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 appeal of the maker movement represents one more, perhaps last, opportunity to reanimate the best traditions of progressive education and make school viable for 21st Century learners. Making inspires the recreation of classroom learning centers, collaborative projects and the flexible time required for becoming lost in the flow of becoming good at something. These conditions also ensure a greater return on a school’s technology investment and richer learning experiences resulting from making.

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.

Thanks to Sylvia and Gary for their contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including reader comments in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Look for Part Two in a few days....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.