See you at FETC? January 2018 in Orlando – use this discount code

I’ll be a featured speaker at the Future of Educational Technology Conference this upcoming January in Orlando, Florida. The fine folks at FETC have supplied a code for you to get a super discount to this conference — 10% off by using the Promo Code MARTINEZ18.

Plus – register now for early bird savings – FETC’s $150.00 Super Savings ends next Friday, Nov. 17. Use the link (or my promo code at the regular conference site) and get both discounts!

Hope to see you there! Here’s my lineup:

1/24/18 workshops:

  • PBL Gets a “Make”-Over: Prompts and Assessments for Maker Classrooms
  • STEAM You Can Wear!

1/25/18 sessions:

  • Invent to Learn: Remaking School for the Future
  • Making and Makerspaces: The Four Keys to Success

Use this link to go directly to the discounted registration.

My 10% discount code is good until Jan 22, 2018 – but the early bird savings only last until Nov 17 – so don’t delay!

STEM: GOOD. Lying to kids: BAD

“When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” said Mr. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “We’re misleading a lot of young people.”  — from “Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t)” NY Times 11/1/17STEM jobs vs demand

Here’s the problem with intensively focusing on STEM and STEAM as primarily about students getting good jobs in the future. The jobs simply aren’t there.

I’ve never advocated for STEM experiences and classes because of jobs. We should teach children how amazing the world is AND that they can have a hand in exploring, discovering, and understanding the world. I’ve asked audiences worldwide to try this mental reversal – if there AREN’T amazing STEM jobs out there, should we not teach science?

And now it turns out that this is true. So let’s review:

STEM: GOOD. Lying to kids: BAD

On the side of kids

The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail interviewed me for an article about schools and the Maker Movement in Vancouver. The Maker Movement in schools has students learning by doing by Anne Casselman and Paul Attfield really captures the excitement of many different classrooms integrating design, technology, and making.

“We want to turn little kids into little creative minds,” says interim head of school Susan Groesbeck. “This is the opposite of rote learning.”

“We want to be one of the schools that has this, not as a frill or as an add-on, but really integrates it into the curriculum. The children are going to be excited and so super challenged.”

Ever since the Maker Movement got going in the early 2000s, it was a matter of time before the tech-oriented DIY movement’s philosophies were adopted into the classroom, as teachers and librarians saw the value of creating dedicated tinkering spaces, known as makerspaces, for students.

“For a lot of the history of school, we’ve kind of done this rote memorization and standardized testing as a means of providing an efficient [education] system, all the while ignoring the fact that it’s not how most people learn,” says Sylvia Libow Martinez, co-author of the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

“What’s good about the Maker Movement is it’s helping teachers find their own voice and be able to articulate what’s right about education in a way that makes sense in the modern world.”

“We really want kids to leave here feeling that they are problem finders and problem solvers. We don’t know what the problems are going to be in the future. We don’t know the technology these students are going to be using, so it’s not about coding for the sake of coding, or teaching saw skills for the sake of being able to saw,” says Andrea Ryan, the school’s learning specialist for design integration. “It’s that sense of empowerment to be able to go forth and be and do.”

“Strong research suggests that messing around is not wasted time and that it’s actually what the brain needs to both relax and concentrate on important aspects,” says Ms. Martinez, who stresses the difference between handing children a bunch of app-laden tablets and what happens in educational makerspaces, where children are in charge of technology.

“If you’re just going to replicate the most rote, the most boring parts of school on a computer screen, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Ms. Martinez explains that the technology unto itself is not equivalent to teaching. The distinction between having children in charge of the technology, and children passively consume it is key, as identified by the late Seymour Papert, pioneer of educational technology and MIT Media Lab professor.

“One of [Dr.] Papert’s seminal questions is: Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child,” she says. “And you have to know which side you’re on.”

Read the whole article – there’s more!

Back to school, back to making!

back to schoolYou may have heard that it’s best to “ease” into hands-on project-based learning at the start of the school year. Maybe you feel your students aren’t ready, need some skills development, or just need to have a few weeks of settling down before getting started with more independent work.

I think this is a big mistake.

Why? Two reasons: habits are formed and messages matter starting day one.

If you are looking at making and makerspace activities as a way to give students more agency over their own learning, why not start building those habits immediately to send that message early and often.

Many teachers feel that they have students who aren’t ready for a more independent approach to learning. However, how will they get ready if they don’t practice it? Many teachers say that students have to be “unschooled” out of practices like constantly expecting to be told what to do. So why not start to build those habits and expectations on day one?

That doesn’t mean that you have to start with a monumental project. Start with something small. Shorter, more contained projects will build their confidence and skills. Mix these projects with less structured time to explore, invent, and tinker. If it’s chaos, you can add some constraints, but don’t give up!

Empowering students to believe in themselves as capable of making things that matter, both in the physical and digital world, is a crucial part of learning.

The message is also going home to parents every day — what they expect to see all year starts today. Explain what you are doing and why, and reinforce that with every communication with parents.

So whatever you call it, making, project-based learning, hands-on, or inquiry learning – the time to start is always NOW!

Invent to Learn a “Must Read” for Modern Educational Change Leaders

coverModern Learners just released a free whitepaper, 8 Must Read Books for Modern Educational Change Leaders. We are honored to have Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom appear alongside the other featured books from Seymour Papert, David Perkins, Seymour Sarason, and many more.

“Sylvia and Gary’s book became an instant classic that in a short time has influenced classroom practice around the world. While on the surface, Invent to Learn seems to be a book about the nascent Maker Movement that has gained great popularity in recent years, this is more a book about how to create opportunities for deep and powerful learning for kids that is amplified by technology. Building on the work and ideas of Seymour Papert, this is one of the few books that situates real learning in a fully modern context.”

Modern Learners, a global online community headed by Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson, features podcasts, courses, and a platform for educators to join in conversations about changing the practice of school.









Educational Games: How Market Forces and Purchaser Attitudes Drive Design

Paper presented at the Australian Computers in Education Conference – October 2006 by Sylvia Martinez

2017 Note: This is a paper I wrote in 2006 about educational games. I’m posting it here so it can be found online.. Although more than 10 years have gone by since I wrote it, most of it is still true. In fact, the rise of online games have further decreased prices for educational games and reinforced many of the points made in this paper. – SM


When educators look at video and computer game players, they see young people suddenly transformed into attentive learners, willing to spend inordinate personal time learning to master complex situations. These same students, however, may not devote similar dedication to school-related activities. It is natural to wonder what we can transfer from popular mass-market games to games that serve a more educational purpose.

There is no doubt that video and computer games have positive educational outcomes for the users. In an in-depth literature review, Alice Mitchell and Carol Savill-Smith conclude that there is “…the use of such games can stimulate the enjoyment, motivation and engagement of users, aiding recall and information retrieval, and can also encourage the development of various social and cognitive skills.” (Mitchell & Savill-Smith 2004).

Many studies look at social and behavioural impacts found after video and computer game playing. Some investigate the relationship between academic performance and video game playing. Often, these studies conclude with predictions that such games could be designed to promote and nurture more academic interests.

In this article, “video games” are games designed for a specific hardware console such as Nintendo GameCube and GameBoy, Microsoft X-box, and Sony PlayStation. “Computer games” are designed for use on personal computers, either by running application software on the computer or playing a game online. As time goes on, these distinctions blur, but the markets are different enough to make this distinction in this article.

This article, written by an educator who also designed and published video games as well as computer software for the home and school markets, explores some of the consumer attitudes and current market forces that control the design of video games and educational software, and why these forces tend to undermine, rather than further the hope for designing educational games.

How And Why Video And Computer Games Get Made

It’s pretty simple — video and computer games get made because some of them make a lot of money. Predicting what will sell, however, is not that simple. Video and computer games are often created by devoted fans of games, who either work for large publishers or small development companies. These games are then “pitched,” much like Hollywood movies, to a publisher. If a publisher decides that a concept will make money, it is funded; then years of programming, marketing campaigns, and testing begin. These publishers spend millions of dollars so that these games have a chance of making millions more. In the consumer game industry, literally thousands of demos and concepts are pitched for every game that is funded, and there are hundreds of concepts that never make it out of pre-production and testing onto store shelves. Very much like Hollywood, it is a game of high stakes, big profits for a small few, and many good ideas ending up on the cutting room floor.

The two major markets for games created for children are the consumer (home) and institutional (mainly K-12 schools) markets. Each of these delivers its products in different ways to the purchaser, and finally, to the user (the child or student). These markets are controlled by the perceptions and needs of the primary purchaser of the product, and in both cases, these markets are not direct – meaning that the end user is different than the purchaser. This tends to push publishers to fund games where the primary purpose is to interest the purchaser rather than the user. Although this may seem short-sighted, these publishers are often in a race with their counterparts to rack up quick profits to impress stockholders and investors.

For educational games, looking at the purchasing decision factors for each of these markets gives insight into how these forces and attitudes impact game design.

Consumer Market – Why Parents Buy Educational Games

A primary concern for most parents is that their child does well in school; educational games are a means to that end. Whether the goal is to remediate a struggling student or give an advanced student an extra edge, success in school is at the core of most educational game purchase decisions. When parents look for educational games that match their child’s perceived need, they use the vocabulary of school to make that decision. A bad grade in spelling will mean a spelling game; a parent who wants their child taking algebra next year will look for a game that promises to teach algebra. It is the rare parent indeed who takes the logical leap from bad grade in math to purchasing a chess tutor.

Many parents however, are quite willing to purchase games that look fun, and acknowledge that their children learn a lot from games such as chess tutors, logic puzzles, or historical simulations. The contradiction comes, however, when these games are touted as educational. To parents, “educational” means school, and is not equivalent to “learning.” This dichotomy between schooling and learning is prevalent in parents and children of all ages.

In addition, parents make a subtle distinction between computer games and video games. Parents universally perceive video games as a recreational “break” for their children; they will not purchase video games labelled as educational. Parents have more variability when the computer is involved, as they see the computer as intrinsically educational. Most often, their purchase of computer software for their children is based on a perceived balance of fun and education. When parents asked about their reasons for a computer purchase, they will often put “education” at the top of their list. Purchasing educational software for the computer reinforces the wisdom of that investment.

Consumer Market – Parents and Students Decide What “Educational” Means

The perception of what is educational is a key factor in the decision to purchase an educational game. Parents are the primary purchaser; publishers know this and create the game to meet those expectations. Often, the purchase of such a game will be based on what the parent thinks education “looks like”. Even though parents are not bound by strict rules about standards and assessment, they are still bound by their own experience of schoolwork. If there are numbers, plus signs and such on the screen, it’s math. If there are questions about state capitols, it’s social studies. More subtle games that allow the player to explore more sophisticated mathematical, logic or problem-solving concepts, or allow long open-ended simulations will be overlooked because the screen images on the box do not “look like math.”

Students learn as well at an early age how to distinguish between games and schooling. As a director of a company that produced educational games, I regularly attended usability tests of games in production. Students would often comment that they felt that a game was not educational because it was “too fun”. They thought that an educational game needed to look like what they were seeing at school, and they had very strict rules about what that meant. School’s tendency to divide learning up into math, language arts, science and social studies resulted in these students quickly dismissing anything outside those boundaries as being educational. Students tend to learn the lesson of “school” very quickly and know that activities outside those boundaries are not rewarded. Integrated activities or games that teach skills outside these rigid divisions are not seen as educational, although students who have interests in that area are willing to play them. Since this is an indirect market, however, the question is not, “will children like the game,” but “will parents buy the game.” Both parents and schools are unwilling to purchase educational software that is not seen as supporting the goals of school as defined by these overwhelmingly common perceptions.

School Market – Why Educational Institutions Buy Educational Games

Schools are under extreme pressure to meet demands for increased accountability and test scores. The content of games is therefore tied to mandated curriculum standards, which list the things that students must know in a certain grade level. Most of these standards also envision a way to make sure that students know these things, and mandate the types of outcomes that will show that the students have mastered the content that matches these standards. The game therefore must correlate to these standards and provide assessment vehicles so the students’ progress through these standards can be measured. If this does not happen, the game will have a very limited market in schools.

School Market – Content And Assessment Focus Drives Out Fun

While making a game fun, educational game designers often find that the games do not fall into neat curriculum categories, teach mandated subject matter, or deliver as much content as the customer is demanding. This essential dilemma, with curriculum and assessment driving the design of educational software, means the fun will be sacrificed, player interest will ebb and ultimately, the educational game will have no impact on learning.

“What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.” – Papert, Does Easy Do It?

Games may (or may not, depending on the research you read) increase standardized test scores, but they aren’t something that a student will devote time and energy to voluntarily as they do with a video game. Some educational games go to great efforts to substitute the made-up worlds of video games with realistic educational worlds built to reproduce curriculum content. However most educational games focus on low-level topics of simple literacy and arithmetic. The analytical rigor, ingenuity and passion reserved for the most popular video games are seldom invoked by educational computer games.

“The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration – a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs.”

James Paul Gee, a reading professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’

Market Forces

Video and computer game designers face constraints placed on them by the market realties that exist in today’s retail world. When a company makes a decision to create a game, they want to put their money into games that will make them the most return on their investment. Game designers work hard to create a game that will look great, play well, be engaging, and offer the player an experience that surpasses anything else they have done before. If they are lucky, the market rewards their vision. However, for educational game designers, life is a lot more complicated.

Consumer Market Realities

The consumer market for video and computer games is undergoing extreme pricing pressure that makes it very risky for publishers to invest the large amounts of money it takes to produce, market, and sell these games. In the past ten years, the retail price of children’s computer games (games developed for a personal computer) has dropped from over $40 (US) to less than $10 (US). Although there are ways that an independent publisher can market and sell computer games over the Internet and avoid the pressures of the retail market, these channels are far less lucrative than retail stores.

The market for video games has remained slightly more stable with less price erosion. However, development costs have skyrocketed. For video games to be commercially viable, the development costs range from 5-60 million dollars (US). This does not include the costs associated with marketing and putting the product on retail shelves, which can often exceed the development budget. To make matters worse, games sales are tracked by major retailers weekly, and a game that does not sell well within a few weeks will be pulled off the shelves to make room for something that will make more money. This does not allow for a game to develop a word of mouth or build a reputation – the game must be promoted with expensive marketing to make sure that the early sales are high. If not, the game will be returned to the publisher or put in the bargain bin in a matter of weeks. For a company to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new game, they want to be assured of success.

The Consumer Market For Educational Games

Computer and video games for children, whether educational or not, are usually less expensive to produce than games for adults. However, they are under similar pressure from retailers to sell quickly. Retailers are often reluctant to put any box on the shelf that they do not instantly recognize as a potential “hit”, so they will tend to choose software for children, educational or not, based on licensed characters from popular television shows and movies. In addition, since computer and video games made for a youth audience sell many fewer units than those created for adults, profits margins tend to be very small. Any money spent on game development reduces that already slim chance for profit.

These two factors combine to force publishers to spend as little money as possible on educational game development. This is why computer games for youth tend to be retreads of older software, or simple game engines reused endlessly, yet updated with the latest popular cartoon character. There is just not enough money to be made if you have to develop new programming or richer experiences for the player. Adding expensive licensed characters adds to the problem. This is why most games come with the same set of dot-to-dot, jigsaw puzzle, word search, and matching activities, disguised with new character animation. No wonder consumers purchase fewer and fewer educational software products every year, even as prices continue to fall.

For video game systems, there are no educational games being developed. The hardware console manufacturers control this market. These manufacturers, Nintendo (Game Cube and Game Boy), Sony (PlayStation), and Microsoft (Xbox) control all games developed and produced for their platforms. Every game design must pass through their approval process. Their goal is to market their game systems to hard-core gamers because they are the ones who spend the most money. These manufacturers are in a high-stakes race to continually prove to these gamers that their console is the best choice. They cannot allow their systems to be perceived as being for children, because it “devalues” the brand. They therefore discourage video games for children because this contravenes their carefully crafted image and creates mixed marketing messages. The only ones that may pass the approval process have to have tie-ins with licensed characters currently starring in hit movies or TV shows. Without the approval of the game system manufacturer, there is no way to bring a game to market. These manufacturers also require a hefty royalty for every unit sold, further reducing any chance of profitability.

These market pressures combine with the hard fact that video games labelled as educational have sold dismally. Finally, proprietary consoles like the Leapfrog systems have replaced educational game purchasing for many parents. Unfortunately, these consoles do not allow for sophisticated game design.

The School Market For Educational Games

The school market for educational software provides some hope for educational game designers. Since schools will pay more than consumers for software, there should be more money to develop good educational games. However, the hard numbers behind a potential game for schools are just not enough to justify a software publisher to spend the tens of millions of dollars necessary to produce top quality games. A successful computer or video game has the potential to sell a hundred thousand or more units in a few weeks; a top selling computer game sold only in schools would be amazingly lucky to sell that many in four years. Traditional publishers, especially publicly traded ones, simply can’t tell their shareholders that they choose to spend their money on something with a low, slow return on their investment.

This is a reason that educational software companies have almost completely turned their backs on educational games. If they still choose to sell to schools, they are concentrating their development and sales efforts on large instructional learning systems that can cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, even up to a million dollars for large installations. It is more efficient to make one sale for a hundred thousand dollars than to sell a thousand units of an educational game for $100 each. Inherent in the sale of these large systems is the promise that they will cover massive amounts of content and provide assessment data for the school system. Schools look for comprehensive “solutions” that will give all students and teachers the same experience, reduce technical support headaches, and provide easy to read assessment reports.

To compound the extreme cost of these systems, standards and assessment criteria differ from state-to-state and between nations, making the individually customized development of these games more expensive, a cost that the publishers pass along to schools.

All these factors drive the design of educational software for schools towards the management of the content pool and delivery of assessment data and away from providing compelling experiences that energize, inspire, and engage.

Games Developed By Non-Traditional Publishers – Escaping The Market

There has been general recognition by many educational game designers that these market forces will not allow an educational game to be published by traditional methods. Having a non-profit completely fund the game development, for example, has worked for some games designed to help sick children come to terms with aspects of their disease and treatment. Some of these games have been distributed through hospitals and medical foundations, through which they reach their intended audience. Games designed by educational organizations have been created outside of the traditional publisher model, and more are in production now.

However, the market has two parts that work hand in hand. Design and dissemination work together to bring games to the market that are, in turn, bought by customers. This brings in the money to fund the next round of design and development. It works to reward the best-selling games in a very traditional capitalistic way. Both consumer and school markets work this way, and are being driven by the forces previously described. It is unlikely that games that do not fit into the current market expectations will be able to survive without a continual source of funding for both development and dissemination. And by the way, it’s not even enough to give it away for free. Schools especially are hard pressed for time, and bringing in new programs that do not meet promise to fully meet every goal of the set curriculum is just not worth it. There may be instances of individual teachers integrating the game into their classrooms, but this would be a very small drop in the bucket. Busy parents will not even bother taking a free game, especially if it does not fit into their perception of their needs. Their own time is more valuable than that.

For video games, a non-traditional publisher would still be required to go through the hardware manufacturers for approval. These manufacturers, as previously stated, are in a high-stakes competition with each other to show that they are the biggest, baddest, and most hard-core of all. It would take a sustained, high-level effort for a non-traditional publisher to have any console company take their effort seriously. In addition, since video game systems are used in the home, not at school, this puts the parent back into the role of purchaser, with the inherent consumer market forces at work once again.

On the consumer side, reaching the mass market of consumers is an expensive proposition. Advertising alone makes up at least half the budget of any consumer game, and the entrenched audience of hard-core gamers is an “easy to reach” audience in the view of the marketers. They tend to disseminate information very efficiently through their own fan discussion boards, read similar magazines, and pay a lot of attention to new game releases. The path to reaching the mass consumer audience of parents is much more difficult.

The promise of the Internet has been that any publisher could reach any consumer. The hope for this channel is that educational games could reach directly to children, without having to conform to the expectations of the parent or the school. However, we aren’t quite there yet. Even though the Internet has grown considerably into homes and schools, the expectation is that it should be “free.” Parents routinely equate their ISP bill with their purchase of cable TV or other entertainment options. There is no viable paid option at this point for children, although some of the biggest names in children’s entertainment have tried. Today, advertising typically pays for popular sites for children, with some toy manufacturers having some success promoting their own products (Neopets). This model, however, seems ripe for the kinds of regulation that changed the face of children’s television and brought us the likes of Sesame Street.

Given these facts, the difficulty of dissemination would most likely be pretty demoralizing to any institution that has devoted millions of dollars and years of effort in the hope that it would significantly impact education. That kind of investment would require at least some hope of reaching a wide audience for even the most benevolent non-profit to consider it a success.


Educationally meaningful game software requires substantial shifts in attitudes towards education both in the consumer, publisher, and designer community. It’s not as easy as plugging school content into a video game engine. In addition, success would require changes in the retail environment, a change in the current content-based assessment focus in schools, or need to rely on massive funding and patience from non-traditional sources of funding for game development and dissemination.

Does this mean that it is impossible? Of course not. These markets are changing rapidly and there is a high likelihood that channels that are small or even not invented yet will become mainstream. The key is to understand how current market forces work to impact game design, and decide how (or whether) a game design will conform to these expectations. The best news is that if we accept that non-traditional publishing is required for educational game design, designers do not have to feel constrained by current rules. Freeing educational game designers from mandated curriculum, outdated assessment practices, and mass-market cartoon characters may be the only way that educational games can make that paradigm shift — creating the marriage of fun, engagement and academic legitimacy that has so far been an elusive goal.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row, Inc. New York, NY

Gee, P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY.

Hawkins, D. (2002), The informed vision; essays on learning and human nature. Algora Publishing, New York, NY.

Mitchell A. and Savill-Smith, C. (2004) The use of computer and video games for learning. A review of the literature. Learning Skills and Development Agency, Ultralab, London, UK Available online:

Papert, S., Does Easy Do It? (1998). From the June 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, “Soapbox” section, page 88. Also included is a letter in response to Papert’s article and Papert’s response to that letter, both of which appeared in the September 1998 issue of the magazine.


Is “making” in education a fad or a lasting change?

In part 1 of this two part series, I shared four attributes of ideas about education that successfully become common knowledge. In this post, part 2, the topic is whether making and makerspaces in education are here to stay or whether they will fade in popularity.

According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four attributes that are key to educational ideas moving into the mainstream:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

Read more about these attributes in Part 1 – 4 keys that predict which education ideas will be more than just a fad. The examples used to illustrate these points are:

The current interest in schools in making and makerspaces has many parallels to these examples. Looking at each one of these attributes under a “maker” microscope is an interesting exercise!

Perceived significance

People have to hear about it and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

  • The maker movement came at an opportune time for the resurgence of the idea that children learn through hands-on, minds-on experiences. Having popular media create a widespread acceptance that DIY and crafts are modern and futuristic helps with the adoption of this idea.
  • Having multiple, prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard doing research that supports making in education is important. The intellectual pedigree may be seen as elitist, but there is no doubt that it works as shorthand for establishing credibility.
  • It jigsaws with two contemporary concerns without really taking a side:
    1. The current interest in STEM/STEAM education driven by a perceived lack of preparation of today’s youth for jobs in important industries.
    2. The concern that young people do not see school as relevant to their real passions, including wanting to make the world a better place as opposed to making money.

Philosophical compatibility

Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

  • Making is an obvious backlash to the standards and accountability movements of the last 30 years. It gives teachers a concrete way to put their beliefs–-or at least an answer to their nagging doubts–-into practice.
  • The maker movement can be seen through a number of lenses: personal accountability, a new economic engine, techno-centrism, globalism, practical skills, community involvement, ecology, etc. These attributes transfer to making in education, creating a chameleon that takes whatever shape educators and the community desire.
  • Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, the vagueness of “maker education” might be an asset in more widespread adoption.

Occupational realism

The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

  • This is an ongoing issue for making in education. If it requires a wholesale shakeup in the way a school is run, the subjects that are taught, and the way teachers teach, that is a big lift. It may, like the project method, become an add-on practice.

Seymour Papert often compared the way school reacts to big ideas like the computer as an immune system response. School identifies a foreign idea, overwhelms it, and neutralizes it.

“Previously teachers with a few computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day. When the administration takes over they make a special room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a computer period with a computer teacher. Instead of becoming something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of school, computers became assimilated. It is inherent in school, not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they have. So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument into essentially a conservative one. School does not want to radically change itself. The power of computers is not to improve school but to replace it with a different kind of structure.”

Re-read the paragraph above replacing “makerspace” for “computer lab” and “3D printer” (or your favorite maker technology) for “computer.” Has anything changed?

It was certainly a good thing that children got access to computers. But in many schools, students only learned to use computers to take notes, write reports, and look things up–-hardly new ways to learn. Computer labs and computer classes instead resulted in schools being satisfied that they were using modern technology without having to actually change the content or pedagogy of any “regular” class. The computer lab became a misdirection, an excuse for the status quo, rather than a driver of change.

How will it feel, if two years or twenty years from now we look back and say exactly the same thing about makerspaces? That we built them, we tried to integrate making into the curriculum, we thought it would change everything–but nothing happened.

When schools insist that making fit into existing curriculum and subjects, it’s reasonable to agree and to try to create materials that help teachers do that. The risk is twofold: 1. If this doesn’t happen and making is not in the curriculum, it will always be on the outside, not a core need or intent of school and not impacting most students. 2. If we do make it work in the curriculum, it will simply be muted, and gradually absorbed as the school creates a new stable equilibrium without really making any change to the lived experiences of the students.

Either of these choices ends up with nothing really changing.

The other option, as Papert points out, is to replace school with a “different kind of structure.” Is that giving up… or facing reality?

Can educators have their feet pointed in two directions at once–both working to drastically change the system and at the same time, assisting students in the current system to have a better experience? Is “occupational realism” a death sentence for ideas that are truly revolutionary?


The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

  • The good thing about “making” is that it’s an easy word to understand. Students need to do things, and educators can visualize that happening at every grade level, and perhaps with a little help, in every subject area.
  • It embodies the commonly understood ideals of the project method, plus embraces more modern versions like PBL. To that it adds a bundle of futuristic and cool tools to work with.

A note about independent schools

Private independent schools have been early and enthusiastic adopters of making in education. While it is easy to point to these schools having the financial resources to purchase expensive technology, there are deeper reasons that making resonates with independent schools. This was also true of the theory of Multiple Intelligences. In his book, Schneider makes the case that independent schools, primarily elite, non-parochial schools were primary drivers for the popularity of MI.

  • Independent schools are typically more progressive than public schools. MI provided new support for these ideals and scientific language to communicate these progressive ideals to parents and staff.
  • Independent schools are typically freer than public schools to try new approaches and curriculum than public schools. Using MI to recalibrate activities in the classrooms was seen as part of the school mission, not as disruptive.
  • At a time where schools were being called failures and under duress to teach in a more rigorous, standardized way, MI gave independent schools a way to push back on this trend and claim that their progressive methods were scientifically based.
  • As a market-driven organization, independent schools constantly need new things to prove to parents that they are worth the money. MI was an understandable concept, and validated by the  Harvard pedigree, an easy sell to parents.
  • Independent schools have traditionally valued the arts, MI provided a way to say that the arts were not detracting from academics.
  • Independent schools catered to parental expectations that their child would be treated as an individual. MI provided clarity that personalization could be  scientifically based, not just left to chance.

There are certainly noteworthy parallels between MI and the adoption of making and makerspaces in independent schools. It is good to note that in many cases, the adoption of MI in independent schools created examples of practice that made their way into public schools. MI supporters were found in many communities, working to make all schools happier and more humane.

Is “Making” going to stick?

Will making in education have a lasting effect on education, or will it become just another “new new thing” that is overtaken by some newer new thing? It certainly has the perceived significance. Both academic credentials and cultural trends are working in its favor. It has philosophical compatibility with many teachers and parents too. They see children starving in a desert of worksheets and tests and know there must be a better way.

There may be more to worry about in other areas. In some cases it has transportability, especially when using simplified models like Design Thinking. The problem is that simplified models and canned lesson plans are a double-edged sword. As they helps teachers with operational realities, it removes agency from the teacher. Is it inevitable that creating a version of making in education that is widely acceptable will by its nature create unacceptable compromises?

It may be that countries other than the United States hold the answer. American teachers have the least amount of professional preparation time in the world. They participate in less professional development, have less time to plan lessons, and spend less time with colleagues. The US is a large country with a fractured educational governance and dissemination path for educational information. US teachers are underpaid, overworked, and given all these realities, may simply not be in a position to undertake changes.

While educational theorists often talk about wanting to scale good practice, there may be such a thing as “too big to scale,” especially when it comes to complex ideas.

For proponents of making in education, the longevity and widespread adoption of ideas like Multiple Intelligences offers hope that making will become a long-term trend in schools.

Part 1 – 4 Keys to Predicting Lasting Trends in Education

Part 2 – Is Making a Long-term Trend or Just a Fad?

4 keys that predict which education idea will be more than just a fad

Why do some ideas about education become common knowledge, while others don’t? According to  From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four key attributes:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

The book explores educational ideas that made the leap from academia to being something that “every” teacher knows about:

Tracking the history of these ideas as they journeyed from research to practice is a fascinating look not just at education, but also politics, culture, personalities, and pure luck. Contrasting each these ideas with four similar ones that did not receive the same attention makes the case even more compelling.

The 4 characteristics of sticky educational ideas

In part 1 of this blog post, I’ll summarize the four characteristics that are commonly found in ideas that become “sticky” and well known to educators. In part 2, I’ll compare those ideas and practices with the current trend of making and makerspaces in schools. Will “making” be a sticky idea?

1 – Perceived significance: People have to hear about the idea multiple times and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

For example, Multiple Intelligence theory helped teachers explain that students who don’t do well in school aren’t simply unintelligent. At a time when school was becoming more standardized (1980s), it was a big picture explanation of how teachers could still meet student needs without really changing curriculum. Coming from Howard Gardner, a respected Harvard professor, meant that it would be listened to, talked about, and taken seriously.

2 – Philosophical compatibility: Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

At the turn of the 20th century, rote learning and recitation were the primary modes of schooling. Many teachers felt that there was more to learning, but were powerless to change the system. William Kilpatrick, on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote about what he called “the project method.” It validated teachers’ feelings that something was wrong. It offered an explanation that made sense, and a way to operationalize that in a classroom.

3 – Occupational realism: The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

Both Bloom’s taxonomy and MI had occupational realism in that teachers didn’t have to change very much to feel like they were using these scientific methods in their classroom.

In the book’s discussion of “the project method,” the practical application in the classroom was its weakest point. It wasn’t clear how to do it, and even if it was possible, seemed to call for a complete overhaul of school structures and curriculum. Therefore it was mostly adopted as something that happened every once in a while as an add-on to the curriculum. As time went on, widespread adoption of formulaic projects subverted the power and promise of the idea. The book discusses the spread of the “California Mission Project” as an example. (For those of you not in California, every fourth grader in California builds a model of a Spanish mission, and has for decades.) The poor implementation of the project method on its way to occupational realism was the price paid for its widespread acceptance and endurance.

The review of why Direct Instruction became so widespread is especially interesting. It violates the second principle of “philosophical compatibility” because many teachers do not believe in scripted curriculum. However, at the time (late 1960s), political pressure for accountability and cost reductions required a curriculum that did not need a highly trained professional, yet produced increased standardized test scores. Despite complaints that students were being treated like trained animals, politics and budget cuts overwhelmed that objection.

DI solved multiple problems. It made it easier to spend less on teacher training and teacher salaries, increased test scores, allowed larger class sizes, and satisfied the “back to basics” movement all at the same time. The occupational realism of Direct Instruction was above all, institutional and political, rather than classroom centered.

4 – Transportability: The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

Bloom’s Taxonomy started off as an assessment scheme, a way to be more objective by defining different kinds of questions for students to answer. It quickly leaked out of assessment, as educators applied the structure to every part of the educational process from planning onwards, taking Bloom’s into a whole new area for which it had not been intended.

As time went on, the original complex definitions were simplified and recast as a pyramid that implied a progression from bottom to top. Teachers started seeing the drawing of the pyramid everywhere in their professional lives, and every instance reinforced the idea that it was reliable. This cycle of positive reinforcement-–of exposure validating reliability, and so in turn creating more exposure–-is typical of ideas that gain traction.

Original Bloom’s Taxonomy

Fifty years before Bloom, MI, and DI, “the project method” found its way to millions of teachers. It had a persuasive and tireless advocate in William Kilpatrick, from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He was an ambitious academic who wanted more than just scholarly fame. He convinced the publication Teachers College Record to publish his article, “The Project Method” and give it away for free to teachers. Sixty thousand copies were printed and distributed nationwide. Thousands of subsequent papers and articles were written about the project method and its application to all grade levels and subjects.

Although not a new idea, Kilpatrick wrote in a clear and less formal manner than many academics, including his teacher and mentor John Dewey. Kilpatrick was also genuinely interested in real classrooms. While some of his colleagues complained that he was a self-promoter tarnishing the reputation of academia, the results spoke for themselves.

The project method made such an inroad into teacher education in the first half of the 20th century that it became a part of every teacher’s classroom practice up to this day. The resurgence of various project methods in the 1960’s and 70’s (PBL, The Project Approach, etc) simply built on the collective consciousness of this idea from a half century earlier.

The project method became so popular that “project” became a term of art, not a specific method tied to one person. One can only assume that Professor Kilpatrick would be a bit miffed by this.

Ideas make their way into the world

The book creates a case that one of the reasons that most of these ideas took hold was that they were both specific and general at the same time. They also had a wide variety of interpreters and promoters who helped spread the message.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gave teachers a new way to look at classroom practice, yet didn’t require any particular belief or theory of pedagogy to implement. If you were progressive, it matched your understanding that growth is at least as important as learning specific facts. If you were more of a traditionalist, it provided a path from content to deeper understanding. The lack of opposition was an opportunity for it to spread widely. Everyone saw what they wanted reflected in an idea from a highly respected source. Schneider says the taxonomy was, “… an idea that somehow had the power to generate multiple constituencies without sparking opposition.”

Various providers of professional development created materials that further examined Bloom’s Taxonomy and provided specific curriculum and lesson planning advice. For the time, Bloom was remarkably open about supporting various groups, authors, and companies to interpret his work. These satellite disseminators made it easier to access the work, and even though some complained that it was misinterpreted or diluted, it was widely spread. These providers helped the idea gain the operational realism that it lacked in earliest incarnations. They answered the question — What would a teacher DO exactly, in a classroom where Bloom’s Taxonomy was a driving idea?

What does this mean for today’s ideas about making in education?

In part 2 of this post, I’ll take a look at how “making” in education aligns with these four traits.