Before you “do a makerspace” – four considerations

When we talk about making, there is a tendency to overlap our terms, like saying we’re going to “do makerspace”. I think unpacking these terms help uncover underlying assumptions, especially when designing new spaces and learning opportunities. I see this as four distinct aspects that work together:

  1. Place – Makerspace, hackerspace, Fab Lab, Techshop, shop, science lab, open classroom, studio
  2. Culture – Maker movement, hacker culture, craft, green, economic self-determinism, service-learning, artisanal, amateur science, citizen science, urban agriculture, slow food
  3. Process – Making, tinkering, Design Thinking, design, Genius Hour, PBL
  4. Underlying belief about teaching & learning – Instructionism, behaviorism, constructivism, constructionism

By looking at these four aspects, we can untangle some of the confusion about what “making” in education is. These can combine in interesting ways – you can have a Design Thinking program that is strongly teacher directed in a makerspace that has a green eco-streak that permeates the projects. The place doesn’t dictate the process, which is good and bad.

Many times, when designing new learning opportunities or spaces it is assumed that their current culture will transform as well. Space planning doesn’t magically transform pedagogy. You can’t assume that just because you build a flexible space with terrific materials, it will magically be filled with wonderful student-centered, open-ended projects.

Here’s a “cheat sheet” for the four aspects.


Both formal (credit-bearing courses, primarily at schools) and informal (extra-curricular activities, clubs, libraries, museums, community organizations, commercial spaces)

  • Hackerspace – “Hacking” indicates both an activity and political belief that systems should be open to all people to change and redistribute for the greater good. (roots in the 1960’s). More prevalent in Europe than US.
  • Makerspace – MAKE magazine (2005 – present). Popular Science for the 21st century. DIY and DIWO. Maker Faires. Adopted as a softer, safer alternative to hackerspace. Can be a separate room or integrated into classrooms.
  • Fab Lab – Spaces connected to the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (565 worldwide) with a common charter and specific requirements for space and tools. Fablab also used as a generic nickname for any fabrication lab.
  • TechShop (and others) – non-profit or commercial organizations offering community tool sharing, classes, or incubation space.
  • Shop, science lab, classroom, studio – traditional names for school spaces for learning via hands-on activities.


  • Maker movement – technology-based extension of DIY culture, incorporating hobbyist tools to shortcut a traditional (corporate) design and development process, and the internet to openly share problems and solutions. Maker mindset – a positive, energized attitude of active tinkering to solve problems, using any and all materials at hand.
  • Hacker/hacking – Essential lessons about the world are learned “..from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things.” – Steven Levy
  • Green – values of ecology, conservation, and respect for the environment.
  • Citizen/amateur science – participation of non-professional scientists in gathering and interpreting data or collaborating in research projects.
  • Artisanal/craft movements – engaging in mindful and ethical practices to humanize activities, products, and production.


  • Making – the act of creation. “Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.” – Sylvia Martinez
  • Tinkering – non-linear, iterative approach to reaching a goal. “messing about” with materials, tools, and ideas. “Making, fixing, and improving mental constructions.” – Seymour Papert
  • Design Thinking – customer-centered product design and development process popularized by IDEO and the Stanford
  • Design – “to give form, or expression, to inner feelings and ideas, thus projecting them outwards, making them tangible.” – Edith Ackermann
  • Genius Hour – specific classroom time devoted to tinkering and open-ended projects. Patterned after companies (Google and FedEx, primarily) that allow employees to work on non-company projects on company time, thereby boosting morale and possibly resulting in products useful to the company.
  • Project-based Learning (PBL) – Projects are…“work that is substantial, shareable, and personally meaningful.” – Martinez & Stager

Beliefs about teaching and learning

  • Instructionism – Belief that learning is the result of teaching. Lecture, direct instruction.
  • Behaviorism – Belief that behavior is a result of reinforcement and punishment. Rote learning, worksheets, stars/stickers, grades.
  • Constructivism – Piagetian idea that learning is a personal, internal reconstruction—not a transmission of knowledge. Socratic method, modeling, manipulatives, experiments, research, groupwork, inquiry.
  • Constructionism – Seymour Papert extended constructivism with the idea that learning is even more effective when the learner is creating a meaningful, shareable artifact. PBL, making, citizen science.

Announcing – Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

book coverSo some of you may have noticed that I’ve been pretty quiet here lately. All my writing energy has been going to a good cause though! I’m happy to announce a new book: Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, authored jointly by yours truly,  Sylvia Martinez, and Gary Stager.

This book has been cooking a long time, fueled by our belief that many schools are heading away from what real learning looks like – projects that are student-centered, hands-on, and authentic. But there is a technology revolution out there that has the potential to change that. New materials and technology can be game-changers: things like 3D printing, microcomputers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, sensors and interfaces that connect the physical world to the digital, and programming. At the same time, a vibrant “maker movement” is spreading worldwide, encouraging people to make, tinker, and share technology and craft.

Invent To Learn is for educators who want to learn about these new technologies and how they can work in real classrooms. But it’s not just about “stuff” – we explore teaching, learning, and how to shape the learning environment. By combining the maker ethos with what we know about how children really learn, we can create classrooms that are alive with creativity and “objects to think with” that will permanently change education.

Student leadership
One chapter of Invent To Learn is about how learning by doing also gives students a chance to become leaders in their schools and communities. Giving students access to modern creativity tools and technology is not about “jobs of the future,” it’s about real learning NOW.

Making for every classroom budget
Even if you 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 potential range, breadth, power, complexity and beauty of projects has never been greater thanks to the amazing new tools, materials, ingenuity and playfulness you will encounter in this book.

Check the Invent To Learn website for information on getting the print or Kindle version of the book, and also about professional development for your district.

Back to School 2012 – Start your “year of empowerment” now!

Start the year off with hands on
Think you need to wait for kids to settle down and learn the basics before you let them do projects and hands-on work? Not according to this expert teacher.

What tech vision will you share?
What message does your Acceptable Use Policy send when it goes home with students for them and their parents to sign? This year, change overly complex, negative language to language that celebrates the potential of technology – and students.

Games for collaboration and teamwork
Want to create a more collaborative, constructivist classroom? Instead of traditional icebreakers, try these games that encourage collaboration and teamwork.

What do students want from teachers?
Listen to what students say they really want from teachers. And no, it’s not “more recess.”

Ten commandments of tech support
Ten ideas for making technology support more learner-centered and less network-centered.

8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab
Last but by far not least, if you are looking for some inspiration to post on your wall, here are 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab. These eight ideas give actionable advice to create opportunities for deep learning for all.

Happy back to school!


EdGamer podcast: Khan Academy, gamification, and constructivism

I was recently a guest on the online podcast show EdGamer with Zack and Gerry, part of the EdReach network. We had a great back and forth on all sorts of issues, ranging from Khan Academy to the gamification of education, and how  constructivism looks in the real world.

It was great fun and I hope you enjoy it!

EdGamer 47: Is Khan Academy a Monday Solution?

A snip from my blog post on KA that gave Zack the idea for the title of the podcast.…This is the Monday… Someday problem – the fact that even if a teacher changes everything in their classroom, nothing else in the system will change. How can one argue for a long term (Someday) overhaul of math curriculum, pedagogy and assessment when you know even if it does change, it’s going to be long time from now, and you have kids coming in on Monday who need to pass a test on Friday that will depend on them memorizing a bunch of facts and skills? What good does it do to fight when the system not only doesn’t care, but will slap you down for it.

Unfortunately, Khan Academy is a simplistic “what do I do on Monday” solution that is being hyped as a Someday solution. If you have a long-term vision that in any way aligns with more open-ended, more constructivist learning, Khan Academy is not a step on that path. It’s a “more us, more us” solution.

You can’t expect an instructionist solution like Khan Academy to pair with, or even more implausibly, eventually turn into a constructivist solution.

Instruction begets instruction.

See more about my views on Khan Academy here: Khan Academy posts: implications for math education

Beyond Pink and Blue

In “Beyond Pink and Blue” on the blog site for The Nation magazine, author Dana Goldstein writes about children and gender norms. She quoted me for a part of the article about tinkering, and how that kind of hands on learning helps students grasp scientific concepts.

Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”

Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.

“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”

I’m really glad she got the idea in there that tinkering goes beyond “stuff” and extends into playing with concepts too. I also am glad that the conversation is about “what’s good for kids”, not just “what’s good for girls.”

I’ll be exploring that topic a bit more in the coming months, it’s been on my mind a lot lately!



What makes a lesson constructivist? Engage first, explain later

This is a guest post from Don Mesibov of the The Institute for Learning Centered Education

This post will articulate a major distinction between a lesson based on constructivist theory and a lesson as it has been traditionally planned and taught. The secret lies in the initial activity of the lesson or unit immediately following the bell ringer, launcher, anticipatory set or whatever brief activity a teacher uses at the very beginning of the lesson.

In a traditional lesson, the teacher begins to speak about what he wants the students to learn. It seems logical. I know what I want you to learn so I will tell you what I want you to know, understand or be able to apply. THIS IS WRONG!!!!!

Don’t begin your lesson (following your opening activity) with a lecture. Don’t begin with a Power Point that is the equivalent to a lecture. You can make a few opening comments to introduce the lesson or give directions (two minutes at most). You can post a Power Point if it is to keep directions in front of the students as they work or if it is to highlight something students may need to reference, but DO NOT use a Power Point to replace a lecture. I have sat in the back of a room listening to a teacher try to transmit her information to a student and it doesn’t work. Students don’t pay attention because they can’t grasp the significance of what the teacher is saying. If the nature of the information is complex enough to justify teaching it then it is also difficult for anyone to understand before they have experiences engaging with the information. If students are able to grasp what the teacher is saying it is only to memorize information they can regurgitate on a test for a good grade, but we don’t understand information until and unless we engage with it.


What should an effective teacher do??

Begin your lesson with an activity that engages students with the information you want them to learn. Here are some examples:

  • Prioritize: If you are studying the Bill of Rights ask students (individually, in pairs or small groups) to put the ten amendments in the order of importance to them. They cannot possibly do this without thinking about and studying each of the amendments. If you lecture them on the Bill of Rights, how can you possibly know if they are thinking about what you are saying?
  • Jigsaw: Divide the lesson into four or five parts, create groups and give each group one of the parts of the lesson to study and then teach to the others.
  • Project: Give the students something to do that can only be accomplished by effective use of the information you want them to learn.

Sometimes the lecture (or Power Point) you are tempted to give at the start of the lesson will be much more effective toward the end because, at that time, students have enough knowledge about the information to understand what you are saying. In other words, your lecture can be a good form of review or can generate meaningful reflection. Since we often hear that teachers should become coaches (“Guides on the Side”) this is the way it can happen. A sports coach gives her lecture during or after a practice or a game when there are shared experiences to talk about and reflect upon. Teachers need to create shared experiences BEFORE they lecture so the lecture (like a coach’s chalk talk) can be in reference to something the students have done.

There is one more reason to begin a lesson (immediately after your launcher, bell ringer, ice breaker or anticipatory set) with active engagement with information instead of a lecture: if you launch your lesson effectively then students are beginning to think “Maybe this class will be different; maybe I will actually enjoy this.” When you follow a successful start to a lesson with a lecture it takes all the air out of the balloon. It causes you to lose the positive momentum that you created. It is like a play that grabs the audience at the start with an exciting opening scene and then loses the audience almost immediately when the next scene is a dud.

We call the opening five minutes of a lesson an exploratory activity. But whether you call it a bell ringer, launcher, anticipatory set, ice breaker or something else, don’t follow it with a lecture. ENGAGEMENT MUST PRECEDE EXPLANATION. It’s logical, it’s valuable and, most of all, it’s good pedagogy. Doesn’t a coach begin by throwing the players into a practice and then discussing with them what went well, what needs to be improved, and why????

Please know that your work in the field of education is as meaningful to our society as anything anyone can possibly do. Thank you for caring about the future of our children!!!!

Back to School 2011 – Empowering students starts today

Here are a number of “back to school” posts collected in one place!

What tech vision will you share?
What message does your Acceptable Use Policy send when it goes home with students for them and their parents to sign? Try reading it with fresh eyes and change overly complex, negative language to language that celebrates the potential of technology – and students.

Games for collaboration and teamwork
Want to create a more collaborative, constructivist classroom? Instead of traditional icebreakers, try these games that encourage collaboration and teamwork.

What do students want from teachers?
Listen to what students say they really want from teachers. And no, it’s not “more recess.”

Student technology leadership teams for laptop schools
Are you getting more devices this year? Laptops, iPads, iTouches, netbooks or going 1:1? Do you have enough tech support? Enough support for teachers using new technology? Enough support for students? No? Well then learn how students can be a great resource in laptop schools to ease the burden on overworked teachers and IT staff – and mentor other students. Genius bar, anyone?

Student-led conferences
Traditional parent-teacher conferences leave the most important person in the learning equation out in the cold. Find out how schools around the world are using student-led conferences to put the learner back in the loop.

Ten commandments of tech support
Ten ideas for making technology support more learner-centered and less network-centered.

Start the year off with hands on
Think you need to wait for kids to settle down and learn the basics before you let them do projects and hands-on work? Not according to this expert teacher.

Last but by far not least, if you are looking for some inspiration to post on your wall, here’s 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab. These eight ideas give actionable advice to create opportunities for deep learning for all.

Happy back to school!


Join us for a day of ‘Hard Fun’, Sunday in Philadelphia

What are you doing on Sunday June 26, 2011? Not much, you say? Then why not have some Hard Fun (and some great food!)

Sunday is the day before ISTE starts in Philadelphia, but you don’t have to be attending ISTE to come to the Constructivist Celebration!


For the fifth year in a row, this day-long workshop combines fun, creativity and computing. For a very reasonable $60, you will receive free creativity software worth hundreds of dollars from the world’s best school software companies, breakfast, snacks and lunch, and a full-day workshop led by Gary Stager and other members of the Constructivist Consortium. It’s always a sell-out, but right now there are still a few spaces left to join in the fun, so register today – you won’t regret it!

At the end of the day, I’ll moderate a conversation between Will Richardson (author and king of  the edubloggers) and Gary Stager on “Digging Deeper” which is sure to be fun and thought-provoking.

Hard Fun is one of the 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab, and we’ll be having some this Sunday!

Hope to see you there –


8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab

In 1999, Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology, embarked on his last ambitious institutional research project when he created the constructionist, technology-rich, project-based,  multi-aged Constructionist Learning Laboratory inside of Maine’s troubled prison for teens, The Maine Youth Center.

The story of the Constructivist Learning Laboratory is documented in Gary Stager’s doctoral dissertation, “An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center.” The University of Melbourne. 2006.

Gary shares, “Shortly after the start of  the three-year project, Papert outlined the Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (PDF). Although non-exhaustive, this list does a good job of explaining constructionism to the general population.” Gary is also curating a site of Papert quotes called The Daily Papert, showcasing the enduring wisdom of Dr. Papert.

Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab
By Dr. Seymour Papert

The first big idea is learning by doing. We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting. We learn best of all when we use what we learn to make something we really want.

The second big idea is technology as building material. If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology: computers of all sorts including the computer-controlled Lego in our Lab.

The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The fourth big idea is learning to learn. Many students get the idea that “the only way to learn is by being taught.” This is what makes them fail in school and in life. Nobody can teach you everything you need to know. You have to take charge of your own learning.

The fifth big idea is taking time – the proper time for the job. Many students at school get used to being told every five minutes or every hour: do this, then do that, now do the next thing. If someone isn’t telling them what to do they get bored. Life is not like that. To do anything important you have to learn to manage time for yourself. This is the hardest lesson for many of our students.

The sixth big idea is the biggest of all: you can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Nothing important works the first time. The only way to get it right is to look carefully at what happened when it went wrong. To succeed you need the freedom to goof on the way.

The seventh big idea is do unto ourselves what we do unto our students. We are learning all the time. We have a lot of experience of other similar projects but each one is different. We do not have a pre-conceived idea of exactly how this will work out. We enjoy what we are doing but we expect it to be hard. We expect to take the time we need to get this right. Every difficulty we run into is an opportunity to learn. The best lesson we can give our students is to let them see us struggle to learn.

The eighth big idea is we are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing. So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else.

Download the PDF of these 8 big ideas and share widely!


Gamestar Mechanic – Designing games through gameplay

I spend a fair amount of time encouraging teachers to think about “games in learning” not just as students playing games, but student designing games and other digital experiences. Game design is a great combination of systems thinking and design, offers students a lot of choice within constraints that make for concentrated problem-solving, supports a collaborative classroom, and more. It’s everything most people hope for when we talk about 21st century skills and project-based learning.

One of the issues, however, is that many teachers think that they can’t teach programming. Programming is seen as too difficult, something that is done only by highly trained professionals — the proverbial “rocket scientist.” In reality, programming is just like any other subject. Lots of teachers learn how to teach things that may seem very difficult. I know if you stood me up in front of a class and told me to teach Advanced German or Organic Chemistry I’d run screaming from the room too! But every day, teachers get up and teach all sorts of difficult things – programming is no different.

The great thing today is that there are lots of ways to teach programming to all ages. I’ve written about a few of these options before, but Gamestar Mechanic is a new tool in this toolbox.

Gamestar Mechanic is not exactly a programming language – it’s more like a toolkit, where students can construct games of all kinds. It also provides game-like entry to game design – the initial steps are “challenges” that take you one step at a time, just like a game. There are some other cool features, like an online showcase and community. With initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation (see Digital Media in the Classroom Case Study: Gamestar Mechanic), Gamestar Mechanic was fully released to the public in Fall 2010.

If you are interested in game design for children, the Gamestar Mechanic website is well worth your time. It includes sections for parents and educators, and offers both a free version and a premium version that seem reasonable, with pricing and features both for home and school use.

Related wiki: Games in Education Resources