FabLearn Fellows – maker teachers making it work

This past year I’ve had the immense privilege of working as a mentor to the FabLearn Fellows, an NSF funded program in association with the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

The 2014/2015 FabLearn Fellows cohort is a diverse group of 18 educators and makers. They represent eight states and five countries, and work with a wide range of ages at schools, museums, universities and non-profits. Throughout the course of the year, they will develop curriculum and resources, as well as contribute to current research projects. Their blogs represent their diverse experience and interests in creating better educational oportunities for all.

January in the FabLearn Fellows blogs saw a wide variety of philosophical and practical ideas. As “making” in the classroom becomes more mainstream, it’s important to think about the role of the teacher/leader in creative, hands-on classrooms and educational spaces. In these posts, we can see that teachers are planners, observers, catalysts, researchers, yearners, gurus, thinkers, and yes – makers! It’s such a colorful palette of roles when compared to the perception of the teacher as a content delivery system and classroom manager.

Just in Time Teacher Learning by Heather Pang – “The bigger take-away for me, as I help students with their projects is that I don’t need to know how to do everything before we start, and I will learn a great deal as we go.  And so will the students.”

“Technological Disobedience” in Cuba and informal making education by Susan Klimczak – This video on “Technological Disobedience” in Cuba complements recent FabLearn Fellows conversations about decentering making, makers, and maker education.

Making Code Real – Keith Ostfeld, a FabLearn Fellow in a museum, thinks about how coding works in his informal education context.

“Making” in California K-12 Education: A brief state of affairs – David Malpica explores the current state of maker education in public K-12 education in California. Looking at funding, standards, and support organizations creates a fuller picture of the myriad pieces of the puzzle that make up public education policy in these areas.

“Why I am not a Maker” by Debbie Chachra: Toward problematizing what it means to be a “Maker” – Susan Klimczak shares an article questioning the identity of “maker” as celebrating only those who make things, and whether that devalues people who have interests and jobs without tangible products. She connects this to the contributions of Dr. Nettrice Gaskins and Dr. Leah Buechley in questioning Silicon Valley’s interest in “making” as a generator of innovative products.

Rwanda maker interest – I shared a post by a friend traveling in Rwanda about the potential for makerspaces there. The comments, both online and off, connected several of the Africa-based FabLearn Fellows with her with suggestions, contacts, and resources. It’s a small world after all!

The Role & Rigor of Self-Assessment in MakerEd In this three part post, Christa Flores discusses various assessment techniques with the student at the center that work with PBL and maker programs.

Molds and Molding by Gilson Domingues with Pietro Domingues. These three practical posts offer reasons and instructions on making and using molds to reproduce small objects with detail and precision.

Collaborative work in the classroom with etherpad Mario Parade explains how to use an open source software tool called Etherpad for students and teachers to collaborate and document work.

Intel MakeHers Report: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making, Creating, and Inventing – Juliet Wanyiri shares a new report on girls and making.

Hey Kids – Follow the Directions! – Aaron Vanderwerff asks, does following directions mean you aren’t really making?

Toward Making Change: Beyond #BlackLivesMatter – Two posts by Susan Klimczak document a collaborative project at the South End Technology Center @ Tent City supported by the Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean’s Equity Project.

An interesting article on “Culturally responsive computing: a theory revisited” – Susan Klimczak shares an article that supports a recurring theme among the FabLearn Fellows and at the Fab Learn Conference of how to put youth of color, young women and youth living in families with low incomes at the center of the maker education movement.

Sequencing activities to support discovery – Erin Riley provides a thoughtful yet practical analysis of several activities that served to build skills all while leading to more open, exploratory projects. Is it possible to provide an environment where students can find their own way creatively, all the while gaining specific skills?

Where the circle overlaps, thinking about the “A” in STEAM by Erin Riley – “STEAM supporters believe STEM should be updated to include creativity, innovation and aesthetics. Are we thinking of this like a Venn diagram, merging form (from the artistic side) to function (from the scientific side) or an extra component to add to the mix, enhancing work in STEM?”

Stay tuned for more!

Free e-book! Best of EML 2014

click to go to download site
Free e-book

I’m honored to have an article included in Educating Modern Learner’s compilation of their Best of 2014 articles. Even better, it’s available for free as a lovely e-book!

Educating Modern Learners is a new website created to help every school leader become better informed to make better, more relevant decisions for the children they serve in this new, modern world of learning.

My article, What a Girl Wants, is included in this e-book, along with 13 other terrific essays and analysis of current education practice and policy.

Click on the image to go to the EML download page, and while you are there, consider signing up for a subscription!


What a girl wants: Self-directed learning, technology, and gender

[A version of this post appeared on the website: Engaging Modern Learners in a compilation of articles on self-directed learning.]

In my recent book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering the Classroom, there are many stories shared by teachers about how to create opportunities that support self-directed learning in their classrooms using modern technology. This one is from Maryann Molishus, a teacher in Pennsylvania who has taught both second and fifth grade.

“What do you want to learn and how do you want to share it with the class?” This is how I began second grade for many years. The ideas would start off ordinary. “I want to learn about tigers, and I will write a book about them.” Then, there would continue to be requests to make a variety of animal books. Eventually there would be a child who seemed to want to challenge me – did I really mean ANYTHING? “I want to be a book critic and make my own television show,” or “I want to be a scientist, mix things up, and see what happens,” or “I want to make a video game.” There would be a collective gasp. Surely that’s not what I meant. But, I’d casually write down the requests, give a nod, and continue on with more requests until the animal book authors would begin asking to change their ideas to less traditional projects. It happened every year. And knowing that students, both in second and in fifth grade, are surprised by what they can do means that each year my goal is always to make what seems to them to be the extraordinary the norm for my classroom.”

This may seem like a simple brainstorming process, but in fact, this is a carefully planned scaffolding technique for encouraging self-directed learning. The teacher’s role is to help students move past what they know school usually asks of them and take a chance on something that they really want to do. Her seemingly “casual” acceptance of any idea is powerful pedagogy. It makes it less risky for students, all kinds of students, to come up with ideas that are more personal. It is a way to start children on a path towards owning their own learning and challenging themselves to do the extraordinary.

The decision to make self-directed learning a priority in a learning organization means asking a lot of hard questions.

  • What does “self-directed learning” mean?
  • Is this something that will be infused into all classes and subjects?
  • Is it just for some kids? If so, which kids?
  • If the students are learning by themselves, what do teachers do?
  • What is it about the organization that currently supports self-directed learning and how can we build on those strengths?
  • On the other hand, what existing practices and processes discourage or even prevent self-directed learning?

As you ask and answer these questions, one issue that should shape your approach to self-directed learning is gender. Gender identity studies often show that girls have different problem-solving approaches than boys. This does not mean that all girls or all boys solve problems in
 a single style, but that there is a wide range of approaches.

For example, teachers need to understand their crucial role in self-directed learning is that of a helpful, but not judgmental mentor and guide. Girls tend to be “people pleasers” more than boys, and their relationships with teachers are very important to them. This may mean that they will avoid a path not suggested or anticipated by the teacher. Teachers need to remember that their suggestions carry a great amount of weight. To counter this and encourage self-directed learning, teachers need to train themselves to offer neutral, yet encouraging support for students to think outside the box. This conflicts with the traditional role of teacher as both the giver and the ultimate judge of student work, and should bring both assignment and assessment practices into question.

It may be more difficult for girls to express what they want to do in choosing a project or a topic for self-directed study. Typically, the teacher will jump in with suggestions or options, and students have been trained to just wait for that to happen,. Teachers need to let students struggle productively for longer than they may be used to. This change in strategy will take time to develop trust that the teacher really means that they aren’t going to tell students what to do, but also will not tolerate “goofing off”.

Girls tend to use more collaborative techniques such as building consensus and adapting rules than boys do. Boys more often approach a problem as a personal challenge and work on it to the point of obsession. In tackling self-directed learning, all these characteristics are helpful, yet taken to the extreme, will sabotage the learner. Building consensus through collaboration is a good skill to master, but not being able to make a decision or get anything done is a bad habit. Tackling a problem with enthusiasm is a good thing, but allowing unbounded competition or grinding an unproductive idea to death is a bad outcome. Teachers are the key to making sure that these tendencies are expressed and channeled in ways that support learning for all without squashing motivation.

Girls will not fight for scarce resources. Be mindful of that to  ensure that the opportunities for self-directed learning are open to everyone, not just a select few who are aggressive, vocal, or get there first. Tools and technology should be plentiful and easy to access. If there are not enough computers or materials, or if the access to them is made difficult, you may see gender-specific reactions to your program.

Girls tend to be more tolerant of a wide variety of situations – meaning that they “get along” better in traditional school settings. So you may assume that girls don’t need self-directed learning because they have mastered coping in the traditional classroom. While there may be more boys who do not thrive in traditional classrooms, this is not an indication that girls don’t need options as well.

There are some gender-related tendencies that suggest that girls will handle some of the requirements of self-directed learning better than boys.

Some people assume that self-directed learning means solitary learning. This is far from the truth. Mardziah Hayati Abdullah of the US Department of Education writes that self-directed learning is both collaborative and social, where the learner collaborates with both teachers and peers. Students must learn how to navigate new ways of getting and sharing information with others, both in real life and online. Creating opportunities for self-directed learning means more collaboration and communication, not less, an area in which girls excel.

Girls are generally more organized and better able to self-monitor, another requirement for self-directed learning. However, providing good documentation and turning things in on time should not be confused with doing good work. Girls may be better with project planning tools, collaboration networks, and other technology tools that support these areas.

You may find the opposite is true for technology used in the actual design and development of student projects. Some boys may master software apps, programming, robotics, and other technology with ease, where girls hold back. Conventional wisdom and culture say that boys are just “better at technology” than girls, which reinforces this. However, this is a difference of style, not skill or potential. Many boys are content with mastering technology for its own sake, where girls want a reason to do so, such as designing a product that helps others or solves a problem. Offering both these kinds of opportunities to learn about using technology is crucial for a gender-balanced approach to self-directed learning.

One way to support both genders in learning to use technology is to deliberately recruit a wide range of students as peer mentors and leaders. This should not only be a mix of genders, but also of academically successful students with students who are not getting all As.

Training students to mentor their peers to use technology has multiple benefits. Placing students in positions of leadership and authority models student-led, student-centered learning where the teacher is not the guru who has all the answers. This is not just for show – creating student expertise in useful technology tools frees the teachers and other staff to do their jobs, not be tech support.

Understanding gender differences can inform your choices about self-directed learning initiatives in your organization and help educators create a balanced approach that supports all students.

Video – New Research Seeks to Find Out How Making Becomes Learning

One of the questions we consistently get in our sessions and workshops is about assessment. How do we know what kids are learning if there is no written test? Is this maker stuff more than just a new fad? While there are traditional ways that projects can be assessed (such as teacher observation techniques,) there is new research going on at Stanford in Dr. Paulo’s Blikstein’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab that is starting to answer these questions. This video is a terrific overview of several new research studies, called Multi-modal Learning Analytics, on what is really going on when students do hands-on, maker activities.

There is so much in this video, I’m going to try to explore each of these studies separately in future posts.

  • Differences between students starting hands-on activities with detailed instructions vs. very little instruction. Do they get lost with no instruction? Or do they get “addicted” to the cookbook? Can students change from one type to another?
  • Are digital simulations the same as students doing real experiments?
  • Is video lecture or textbook reading preceding classroom projects (flipped classroom) better than exploration before instruction? Does flipped model work better with video over text? In other words, does the order or the media matter?
  • Do tutorials help with exploration activities?
  • Why different programming languages work better for learning.
  • Is it necessary for maker classrooms to be “sink or swim”?
  • Gender and other equity issues in “Maker Movement” culture
  • Differences in use of makerspaces in low-income schools vs. wealthier schools reflecting differences in school-wide pedagogy.
  • Observation and assessment tools for maker activities – maker tables and logic flows.
  • Looking at body position, gestures, and eye movements to try to understand the learner.

While this is all early research, it’s rich with potential for understanding more about how we learn, and how we can create optimal environments for learning for all students.

Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer

 People often say to me, “You must have had great self-esteem when you were a kid to become an engineer, such a male-dominated profession.”

But no, that’s not true at all.

It’s not like I thought I was a bad person, it’s just that I never had much “self” anything. I was not a self-aware kid. Social and emotional situations were not my thing. There were lots of things going around me that I completely missed. I never got involved in what the kids today call “drama”, not out of any sort of good instinct or intent, but I just didn’t notice. I read a lot, had a very few close friends, and did what I was told.

Even though I got good grades I never really thought of myself as smart. I did homework and studied because that’s what I was supposed to do. If there were messages that “girls can’t do math” or “girls shouldn’t show they are smart” I simply missed them.

It’s not like I heard those cultural norms and thought, “But I’m special!” or  “I’ll change the dominant paradigm!” The good thing, I guess, is that it worked for me like blinders help a horse by lessening distractions.

When I hear people talk about increasing the opportunities for girls in STEM classes and careers, of course I’m interested. But some of the plans I hear just wouldn’t have been relevant to me. Like bringing in adult role models to give girls examples of successful women in science careers. I even remember a few of them – very nice women who were volunteering their time to come talk to girls like me. But even if they were young, they still looked like a different species to me. Hey, I thought the girls sitting next to me were a different species. I didn’t “identify” with anyone.

The teachers and family members who changed my life were both men and women. They impacted my life by talking to ME about ME – and offering me opportunities to experience new and different things.

Egocentric? I suppose. But aren’t most kids? When we take the time to talk directly to kids about what they are doing and who they are, I think the chances of them actually taking it in are greatly enhanced. When we offer them experiences where they can learn and grow on their own terms, it empowers them. To me, the stories of others’ accomplishments pale in comparison.

I recall one high school math teacher who said to me, “We aren’t really challenging you, are we?” and talked my parents into signing me up for an NSF summer program for gifted math students. I wasn’t the top student, but he said he saw something special and different in the way I solved problems. He may not have realized that him talking to me like that was stunning to me.

Kids develop the ability to do things by doing things. That may sound simplistic, but it’s true. Then when they do them successfully and someone notices, they start to believe they can do anything.

Need an inspirational video? How about one that shows kids making, not selling

If you haven’t seen the GoldieBlox commerical making the viral social media rounds, then you should check it out.

The commercial is for GoldieBlox, a company that wants to “…inspire the next generation of female engineers” with a series of building toys and storybooks.  I’m struggling to present this in as neutral a light as possible, because I have hugely mixed feelings about both the toys and the commercial.

GoldieBlox1. The toys. I saw Goldie Blox and The Spinning Machine debut at Maker Faire. The toy consists of a plastic plate that you can place spindles on, and loop a ribbon around the spindles. You can put the figurines on the spindles and when you pull the ribbon they spin around.  The product website says, “GoldieBlox will nurture a generation of girls who are more confident, courageous and tech-savvy, giving them a real opportunity to contribute to the progress made by engineers in our society.”

Really? I guess I just don’t see it. What I do see is over-the-top hype that playing with a particular toy will change society — even if the toy has been designed after “… a year researching gender differences, talking with Harvard neuroscientists, and observing children’s play patterns.” It’s a toy, and not even one that looks like it has lasting play value. And you might say, kids will use their imagination to extend the play value, well then that’s fine. I agree kids might like it. But let’s not go crazy here – it’s a toy, not a cause.

2. The commercial. Honestly, who can be upset to see kids playing like they show in the video? It’s a lovely production. Of course those kids didn’t actually build that contraption, right? It’s as false an image as a photoshopped model selling “true beauty.” But it’s an effective message nonetheless, showing kids being creative in a way that I wish lots of kids could be. And yes, I would imagine that this would be a good kickoff to giving kids a modern idea of a Rube Goldberg machine, it’s fun, visual, great music, etc. It doesn’t give the impression that you MUST have this particular toy to make something cool, so it could easily be inspiring to someone who doesn’t have the toy. All to the good.

So now, what does this mean for education? I’ve seen educators raving about this as an example of “youth voice” and I think that’s simply not even close. Dean Shareski and Gary Stager reject this aspect of the reaction to the commercial and I agree with them both. This is not youth or student voice, it’s a message designed, created, and produced by adults. An effective message, yes, but not the voice of youth.

Should educators show this video to inspire classrooms to build and make? I’m not 100% enthusiastic. Part of this is the commerciality and use of kids as window-dressing rather than the actual makers. If you want a video that shows a Rube Goldberg type device that looks to me like a kid may have actually participated in the building, try this: Audri’s Rube Goldberg Monster Trap

The Girls Question: So I’ve been avoiding the “is it good for girls” question up to this point. I’m a girl. I’m an engineer. Shouldn’t I be cheering??

But I have mixed feelings about this too. Of course more girls should be encouraged and supported to become engineers, scientists, mathematicians, or Rube Goldberg machine inventors. Of course, of course, of course. But I don’t feel like handing the argument over to a sales presentation like this is the right answer. The girls in this video reject the message to buy “princess” products as they are simultaneously selling another product. Do I have to like this?

I always have a knee jerk reaction about things marketed as a “solution” to some social/cultural issue. In general, they play on folk myths about culture, and by communicating those myths (even as they refute them), perpetuate that myth. So the fuss over a video proclaiming how girls have the power to do this or that actually reinforces the fact that everyone knows that they don’t. Otherwise, the video would be seen as mundane. If it was true and widely accepted that girls had equal opportunity to become engineers, then the rebellious lyrics refuting that claim wouldn’t make sense. So in a weird way, saying “yes, girls CAN be engineers” only makes sense when we acknowledge the world thinks they can’t.

So I think that educators who show this in class need to do some additional work. I wonder if some of that can be found in the literature about how to reverse stereotype threat. This is the theory that if people are exposed to prevailing stereotypes that predict success or failure in a given task, they will actually fulfill the promise of that stereotype, good or bad.

The “antidote” to stereotype threat is thought to be talking to the people/kids about the stereotype and that they have to power to not live up (or down) to that stereotype. In a way, this is similar to growth mindset.

So using the video might be followed up at some point with a conversation (age appropriate, of course) of why some people see girls as being less capable, and how that’s not true.

But I’m not sure that loading the preparation of a making activity with a message about gender bias is valuable. What are the boys supposed to think – should they be guilty, or maybe wonder if it’s true that they actually ARE better than the girls? I’d rather let the making commence and deal with the issues of making sure that all students are having a valuable experience. If you need an inspirational video, how about finding one that shows actual kids making, not selling.

But at other times after you’ve got the making going, maybe as a wrap up activity, I think this video could be a really great discussion starter. Why does society think that girls should only play with dolls and boys with trucks? Why is pink a girl’s color? Why do we care if girls can or can’t be engineers. What if a boy wants to wear a dress or knit? Is it bad if a girl likes princesses? What kinds of things are girls supposed to do vs. what boys are supposed to do? Has this always been true? Is this true around the world?

The topics of gender imbalance, equality, equity, sexism, history and culture are accessible to even young children without pounding them in the head with “girls rule!!” messages designed mainly to sell them stuff.

This just in – a lawsuit has been filed by the Beastie Boys (who wrote the original song in the video ) suing GoldieBlox over using their intellectual property without permission. GoldieBlox has filed a complaint alleging that the commercial is parody (the lyrics were modified) and therefore permitted under “Fair Use”.

I smell a digital citizenship lesson!

Free webinar: The voices of girls & women and the future of STEM

Girl Scout Research Institute STEMinar: The voices of girls & women and the future of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

When: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Time: 2PM EDT (time in your time zone)

This “STEMinar” will bring together experts from diverse backgrounds and different sectors of the STEM work force to speak about the current status of girls’ interest and engagement in STEM fields, as well as current efforts to diversify the STEM workforce by boosting the number of women in STEM careers in the next decade.

We will highlight new research from the Girl Scout Research Institute, along with exciting new mentoring initiatives from Women@NASA, science education programs from the New York Academy of Sciences, and outreach efforts to college STEM majors from Johns Hopkins University.

Reserve your Webinar seat now!

Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (2012)

White girls can’t do math, teachers say

From NCWIT (National Council of Women in IT) –

Did you know that a recent study using data on 15,000 students from the National Center of Education Statistics found that teachers consistently rate girls as less good at math than boys, even with similar grades and test scores? Researchers in the study found that while on average teachers rate minority students lower than their white male counterparts, these differences disappear once grades are taken into account. However, they found patterns of bias against white girls that can’t be explained by their academic performance. According to one of the study’s authors, the misconception that white girls can’t handle math persists “Because the idea that men and women are different in this regard is considered natural, and not discriminatory.” At the same time, teachers may be more aware of race and ethnicity – and the problems of racial discrimination – than they are when it comes to gender.

Why are High School Teachers Convinced that White Girls Can’t Do Math? – Forbes.com

The research (the abstract is free at least) – Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity – University of Texas at Austin