Creativity and making

What is the connection between creativity and making? Is all “making” creative? Is creativity expressed solely through these types of experiences? Do maker experiences give kids the chance to be creative and a structure to be creative within? Are we just parsing words?

I don’t want to spend time with dictionary definitions, suffice it to say that in everyday English, while creating is a synonym for making, they aren’t the same. Creativity is about imagination and ideas, the ability to make and think about new things in new ways.

Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn. We can look to giants of education like Piaget who said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” or Maria Montessori, who honored the child’s intellect expressed through play, or hundreds of other really smart people from John Dewey to Mr. Rogers. We can make schools places where these powerful ideas come to life.

In recent years, we’ve ignored a lot of this simply because it’s more efficient and cheaper to ask kids to sit quietly while a teacher lectures. The problem is that’s not how people learn. And in a blind pursuit of the false goal of “rigor”, we’ve pushed this nonsense on younger and younger students, and then complain that kids aren’t creative!

I think the interest in the maker movement is hopefully a return to our senses that children learn best by doing, by diving deeply into ideas that interest them, exploring interesting things, and being surrounded by people who care about them and want to explore interesting ideas with them. Creativity and making are deeply intertwined. But simply having children touch things other than pencils is not what “making” should mean. When we talk about making in schools, hopefully creativity and learning are coming along for the ride.

Connecting creativity with making has multiple benefits for schools:

  • Rejecting the idea that creativity is something that happens after the “real work” is done, like decoration.
  • The ideal of “openness” is powerful and modern. Students can share designs, code, and ideas and remix into their own inventions. Modern creativity means understanding how to share things with the world.
  • The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and materials can be easily learned and used by students to make subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. Creativity can be expressed in lower risk, lower stakes ways.
  • The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. Constraints are not impediments to creativity, in fact the opposite is true. Creativity comes in making do, making it up, and making it happen.
  • The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. Students who are worried that they are not creative or artistic need more opportunities to show what they know.
  • The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do. Creativity is enhanced when the whole community is excited and engaged. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we overplan every bit of work that they do. I think the message of the maker movement is a reminder for teachers to allow for more student agency, including more time. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure” – a painter is not fixing the painting, or failing and correcting, but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.

So if this connection between creativity, making, and learning isn’t new, why all the fuss?
Part of this is human nature. We love new things and new ideas. It’s a terrific instinct to keep things fresh and enthusiastically embrace the future. However, that falls apart when the focus jumps from one shiny object to the next. Educators are rightly skeptical of the latest fad that comes and goes with the wind. A few meetings, plans that never get implemented, boxes of cool stuff that go directly from the loading dock to the supply closet… and then some other initiative careens into view and the process starts over again.

With the maker movement being seen as the “new new” thing in education, it’s a worry to think that this is simply part of the hype and hide cycle. I do see signs of this—teachers being told to “do maker” without any changes to schedules, materials, resources, or even time to collaborate with their colleagues about what this actually means. It’s human nature to believe that there is a magic wand out there that will make hard work unnecessary. One only has to look at the diet or beauty product industry to understand how desperately people want fast and easy change. Unfortunately, this is a shortcut to nowhere that will never result in real change.

In any implementation of new practices to make schools better, there are always a wide range of results. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.

In the best of all worlds, students are doing challenging and creative work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered educators. However, this requires time and trust that teachers can learn to create these experiences, and trust that students are learners with good ideas of their own.

The most important part of creativity is trust in the creative process and the creative instincts of humans of all ages. That should be a fundamental part of making as well.

Tech support for innovative schools

I had the opportunity to be the closing keynote for CETPA, an organization of K-20 education technology professionals in California. There were a lot of sessions about tech support, networks, and infrastructure, but it was great to see a lot of attention paid to the fact that education is the primary job of schools.

I shared some of the exciting new things happening in schools in California and around the world using technology and tools from the maker movement. But for those people who work hard to keep existing school networks and technology viable in times of zeroed out budgets, it’s not good enough to just toss more technology into classrooms without considering who will support it.

School Leaders say…

  • 75% they don’t have enough IT staff to support their needs effectively
  • 55% can’t maintain their network adequately
  • 63% can’t plan for new technologies
  • 76% have trouble implementing new technologies. (e-School News)

In the article, Forrester Research is quoted as saying that large corporations typically employ one support person for every 50 PCs, at a cost of $1420 per computer, per year.  According to this model, a school district with 1,000 PCs would need a staff of 20 and an annual tech-support budget of $1.4 million.

Yeah, go ahead, laugh! Everyone in a school knows this is ludicrous!

Center for Educational Leadership and Technology says that some larger school districts are approaching a ratio of one IT person for every 1,500 computers or more. I think that may even be low.

This creates an untenable climate in schools where tech support professionals are put in a lose-lose situation. They are responsible for everything that plugs in from the payroll system to the network to the student devices. There is no way to make an impossible situation work without being a constant state of vigilant triage. It’s common – and not unreasonable to develop a circle-the-wagons mentality where blame and finger-pointing is rampant. And the blame goes all around – teachers are slackers, students are hackers, admin is clueless – and comes right back at the tech support team. They become network nazis, the department of no, and worse.

Innovation is unsustainable in this kind of atmosphere, even with the most compelling ideas and plans.

So how can we move forward? This is the “to do” list I proposed.

  • Refocus – Move beyond fixing broken things (Reactive & negative)
  • Support a culture of innovation (Find ways to say yes)
  • Reduce shame (Genius bar)
  • Leverage untapped resources (Students)
  • Reduce cost of failure at all levels (Leadership)

I believe that these goals are not only useful for schools with plans for innovative technology, but can create a synergy that actually is more than the sum of its parts. Collaboration between tech support, students, and teachers, creates a more trusting climate at the same time as leveraging student time and energy. Leadership that supports innovation, even when the road is bumpy, creates trust, which in turn increases responsible behavior.


I believe that every person in a school is an important part of making education better!

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of EdTech K-12 magazine and online on their website.

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

Introduce the real world and change the conversation.

In a perfect world, all people would have equal opportunity to achieve their professional goals. But the reality is not perfect for women in the workforce.

In many science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially in engineering and programming, women are under­represented: While they represent half of all college-educated workers in the U.S., they made up just 28 percent of science and engineering workers in 2010 — an increase from 21 percent in 1993, according to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report.

Trace back down the pipeline to STEM in K–12 and the facts don’t get any cheerier: Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math (even when they get better grades and test scores than boys) and are overlooked for slots in STEM academies and special programs. They may stop seeing themselves as being good at science and math as they move into middle school, where students begin to develop the skills they need for STEM majors and careers.

Girls do have one interesting advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than are boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science tend to get good grades in other subjects too, while boys tend to get good grades in only one area. For boys, that focus may translate into a stronger push toward a career in STEM; if you have fewer choices, you concentrate on making them count.

So when we complain that there is a “leaky pipeline” in K–12 education for girls in STEM courses, we should acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a matter of discrimination or systemic bias. Girls are choosing not to major in STEM subjects for the very sensible reason that they have more options.

But this “choice” is also influenced by the prospect of discrimination down the line.

‘Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you?’

In a study by Girl Scouts of the USA (“Generation STEM”), 57 percent of all girls say that “if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African-American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from “Generation STEM”: “Half of African American girls (compared to 38 percent of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: ‘Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.’ ”)

Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking at best, and lying at worst. The leaky pipeline leads into a leaky bucket that any sane person might choose to avoid.

Of course, we want to fix this — not just give up. That first requires tackling how we talk, then integrating technology and engineering in the appropriate ways at the earliest grade levels possible.

Many schools have found success in helping more girls through STEM courses. We know what works: role models, mentors, encouragement and special opportunities. But schools can do more to make STEM courses more accessible for all students.

Introduce real-world topics, real research, real projects, real tools and tangible technology to STEM subjects. That attracts not only girls but any students who are uninterested in dry textbook science.

Change the Curriculum to Expand Experience

Girls say that science is interesting because it helps people and makes the world a better place. Feed that passion by giving students opportunities to do science that matters, not just study about science.

Finding ways to incorporate conductive paint and e-textiles into an electronics lesson is not pandering to girls but expanding the onboarding experience for STEM to more students across the board.

The facts about gender discrimination are depressing, but that isn’t a reason to hide them from young people. They deserve to know the truth (at the appropriate level). Because guess who can fix it? They can. Girls and boys are our only hope if we’re to change the landscape of opportunity, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

These problems won’t be fixed by pumping more water into a leaky bucket; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work together to solve them.

While changing deeply embedded culture and established curriculum may seem like an impossible challenge, it’s something that simply has to be done.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try to open learning invitations to all students. In particular, talk with young people about stereotypes and how to overcome them.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings, quickly and fairly. What you do as the adult in the classroom, and in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge and office, matters.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think?
  • Offer experiences in STEM courses that build on student interests and culture. Find ways to use STEM to solve real problems that young people care about.
  • Don’t talk only to girls about these issues. It’s not a “girls’ problem.” Enlist boys and men in making changes. Use resources like “Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts” from the National Council on Women & Information Technology and adapt for your own setting.

Making in the classroom is a political stance

When I talk about the maker movement in schools I do talk about tools and spaces, but I try to make the point that it’s about giving agency to kids in a system that most often considers students to be objects of change, rather than agents of change.

One of our reasons for writing the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom  was to try to create momentum for the return of progressive principles of education, principles that have been yanked away from kids and teachers by politicians, corporations, and Silicon Valley gurus who think they know how to fix everything with an app.

I think this is a historic time, a second Industrial Revolution, where everything is coming together right at the right time. And like the Industrial Revolution, it will not be just a change in technology, but will resonate in politics, culture, economics, and how people live and work worldwide.

Politics, power, and empowerment
People may not think of the Maker Movement or making in the classroom as a political stance, but they both are.

Politics isn’t only about who gets elected, or the day to day “action” on Capitol Hill, it’s a negotiation of power in any relationship – who has it, who can use it, and over how many other people. The Maker Movement is about sharing ideas and access to solutions with the world, not for money or power, but to make the world a better place. It’s about trusting other people, often people you don’t know, to use these ideas for good.

Making in the classroom is also about power and trust, and perhaps in an even more important way, because it’s about transferring power to a new generation. Young people who are the ones who will take over the world in the not too distant future. And if the learner has agency and responsibility over their own learning, they gain trust, not just the trust of the adults in the room, but trust in themselves as powerful problem-solvers and agents of change.

It is a political statement to work to empower people, just as it is a political statement to work to disempower people. That holds true for all people, not just young people. Being a helpless pawn in a game controlled by others is disempowering, whether you are a teacher, student, parent, or citizen of the world. Deciding that you trust another person enough to share power, or even more radical, give them agency over important decisions, is indeed political.

Making is not only a stance towards taking that power back, as individuals and as a community, but also trusting ourselves and each other to share that power to create, learn, grow, and solve problems. Empowering students is an act of showing trust by transferring power and agency to the learner. Helping young people learn how to handle the responsibility that goes along with this power is the sensible way to do it. Creating opportunities to develop student voice and inspiring them with modern tools and modern knowledge needed to solve real problems is part of this job.

And by the way, you can’t have empowered students without empowered teachers. Script-reading robot teachers will not empower students. We have to fight against the devaluation of teachers, and the devaluation of kids as cogs in some corporate education machine. We can do this, we can change minds, even if it’s hard, even if it seems impossible. We just have to do it anyway. That’s politics.

Education will change, how it changes is up to us
For education to change, it can’t just be tweaks to policy, or speeches, or buying the new new thing — teachers have to know how to empower learners every day in every classroom and be able to make it happen. Leadership is creating the conditions for this to happen.

Let me say it again – There is no chance of having empowered students without empowered teachers — competent, professional, caring teachers who have agency over their classroom and curriculum – who are supported by their leaders and community in that work.

So the question is – can the maker movement really have this kind of impact on schools? Or will this fade into a long line of fads and new-new things that promise educational revolution without actually requiring any change at all.

I see this as a singular time in history. There is an opportunity to leverage momentum swinging away from the testing idiocracy, away from techno-centric answers — to making education better with thoughtful, human answers.

Am I really saying that technology is the way to make education more human? Yes – but only if the technology is used to give agency to the learner, not the system.

I see a convergence of science and technology, along with the power of networks to connect people who are solving problems both global and local. I see people who are fed up with consumerism, opting out of corporate testing schemes – people who no longer have to wait for answers or hand outs from the government, from a big company, or from a university. They can figure it out, make it, and share it with the world.

Why is it different this time?
But haven’t there been a thousand “revolutions” that failed to change education? Why do I think this time is different? Why is this movement going to not be another failed attempt to “fix” education? Because my hero, Seymour Papert, the father of everything that’s good in educational technology, said so.

In his 1998 paper Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete, Papert said that the profound ideas of John Dewey didn’t fail, but were simply ahead of their time. Experiential learning is not just another school reform destined to failure because three reversals are taking place right now.

The first reversal is that children can be part of the change. Papert called it “kid power”.

Schools used to demand that students meet standards. But the time is coming when students will demand that schools live up to the standards of learning they have come to expect via their personal computers, even their phones. As Mimi Ito has written about so persuasively, more and more young people learn independently and follow their own passions via online sites and communities, and most of them are NOT run by traditional educational institutions.

The second reversal Papert identifies is that the computer offers “learner technology” instead of “teacher technology.” Many attempts at inserting technology into classrooms simply reinforce the role of teacher (video lectures, Khan Academy), replace the teacher (drill and practice apps, computerized testing), or provide management tools for the teacher (LMS, CMS).

But now we have affordable computers, sensors, and simple programming tools that are LEARNER materials. This transition, if we choose to make the transition, Papert says “…offers a fundamental reversal in relationships between participants in learning.”

The third reversal is that powerful ideas previously only available in abstraction, or in high level courses can now be made understandable for young children. Much like learning a foreign language in early years is easier, we can help students live and breathe complex topics with hands-on experiences.

I believe that this is overlooked in much talk about making in education. While I love the awesome “get it done” Macgyver attitude of the maker movement and the incorporation of artistic sensibilities like mindfulness – I think these are secondary effects. The maker movement is laying 21st century content out on a silver platter – things that we want kids to know, things kids are interested in, but are hard to teach with paper and pencil. Content and ideas that are the cornerstone of learning in the 21st century – from electronics and computer programming to mathematical and scientific concepts like feedback, 3D design, precision, and randomness – can be learned and understood by very young children as they work with computational technology.

But this third reversal may be the most difficult – these ideas were not taught to parents and teachers when they were children. Convincing parents and teachers that today’s children need to understand these new, fundamentally different concepts may be the hardest work of all.

No doubt, there is hard work to be done
The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us back to politics and back to empowerment.

It means that for those of us who want to change education, the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. Challenging conventions and cultural institutions that are ingrained in us in childhood. Sharing power with others, including students who might not do exactly what we expect them to do. Being willing to change everything, even when we feel we can change nothing.

The deepest problem for us is not technology, or teaching, or school bureaucracies – it’s the limits of our own thinking.

Politics is action, but everyone doesn’t have to be doing the same thing
What can we do when each one of us is in our own unique situation, each of us has a different position on the levers of power, and each of us sees with our own lens? Actually, I believe that this diversity offers strength, because no one person can do everything. Everyone has a part to play to take back the power of learning and create classrooms and other learning spaces where teachers and students are empowered and acknowledged as the center of the learning process.

And that, I believe, is ultimately a political act that will make the world a better place.

Podcast: The Maker Movement – The Promise and Pitfalls

Click here to listen to the podcast

At ISTE 2014, Ginger Lewman and I recorded a podcast hosted by Don Wettrick called InnovatED – Tomorrow’s Education Innovations Today, on the BAM Radio Network.

We talked about the connection between project-based learning and the Maker Movement, best practices, and potential pitfalls. Plus had a ton of fun! Take a listen 😉

The Maker Movement:The Promise and Pitfalls
Sylvia Martinez is co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom, a book that has been called the “bible of the maker movement for classrooms”. She speaks and writes around the world to advocate for authentic learning using real world design principles, modern technology, and hands-on experiences. Ginger Lewman, @GingerLewman, works at ESSDACK, a nonprofit educational service center. She is a Keynoter & Consultant; Google Certified Teacher; Silo Killer; Co-Creator Life Practice PBL and a teacher of Project Based Learning.

Click here to listen to the podcast




Lessons from the Maker Movement for K-12 Educators

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering, we explore how to put an active learner at the center of the learning process, building on traditional progressive classroom practices combined with materials old and new, and incorporating the lessons of the Maker Movement.

The “Maker Movement” is a technological and creative revolution underway around the world. Fortunately for educators, the Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. Embracing the lessons of the Maker Movement holds the keys to reanimating the best, but oft-forgotten learner-centered teaching practices.

New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and new programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace. The Maker Movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, and shares tools and ideas online, creating a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.

Lessons from the Maker Movement

Doing” is what matters – Makers learn to make stuff by making stuff. Schools often forget this as they endlessly prepare students for something that is going to happen to them next week, next year, or in some future career. Students can and should be scientists, artists, engineers, and writers today. The affordable and accessible technology of the Maker Movement makes learning by doing a realistic approach for schools.

Openness – The Maker Movement is a child of the Internet but does not fetishize it. Makers worldwide share design, code, and ideas, but making occurs in real life. Makers share their expertise with a global audience. “We” are smarter than “me” should be a lesson for educators. Collaboration on projects of intense personal interest drive the need to share lessons learned, not external incentives like grades.

Give it a go – Back in the ‘80s, MacGyver could defuse a bomb with the chewing gum and paper clips he found in his pocket. Modern MacGyvers are driven to invent the solution to any problem by making things, and then making those things better. While perhaps “grit” or determination can be taught, the best way for students to become deeply invested in their work is for their work to be personally meaningful, supported by time and encouragement to overcome challenges.

Iterative design – Computers make designing new inventions risk-free and cheap. You can now tinker with designs, code, and make nearly perfect prototypes easily and quickly. This is a departure from linear design methodology that assumed that mistakes were expensive and need to be avoided. However, many educators are still clinging to old design models where students are provided recipes and prescriptive rubrics. This deprives students of the chance to take risks and learn how to navigate their way to the end of a project.

Aesthetics matter – Many Maker projects are indistinguishable from art. It’s human to embellish, decorate, and to seek the beauty in life. In schools, there is a movement to add Arts to STEM subjects (STEAM). That’s a good instinct, but if school hadn’t artificially removed all traces of creativity and art from STEM subjects, we wouldn’t need to talk about STEAM. Find ways to allow students to make projects with pride and unencumbered by categorization.

Mentoring defies ageism – As Sir Ken Robinson says, school is the only place in the world where we sort people by their date of manufacture. The Maker Movement honors learners of all ages and embraces the sharing of expertise. Young people like “Super Awesome Sylvia”, a young maker who broadcasts her project tips on her own web show, or Jody Hudy who surprised President Obama with a marshmallow cannon at the White House are valued alongside decades-older master tinkerers and inventors. Schools may create opportunities for mentoring and apprenticeship by connecting with the greater community. Access to expertise must not be limited to the classroom teacher.

Learning is intensely personal – The current buzz about “personalized learning” is more often than not a scheme to deliver content by computerized algorithm. Not only is it magical thinking to believe that computers can teach, it confuses learning with delivering content. Learning happens inside the individual. It can’t be designed or delivered. Learning is personal – always. The Maker Movement values the intensity of the learning experience with endless options and choices about what a person might find interesting or fall in love with. Giving kids the opportunity to learn about what they love means they will love what they learn.

It IS about the technology – Some educators like to say that technology is “just a tool” that should fit seamlessly into classrooms. In contrast, the Maker Movement sees tools and technology as the essential element for solving unsolvable problems. To Makers, a 3D printer is not for learning to make 3D objects, but is the raw material for solving problems like how to create inexpensive but custom-fit prosthetics for people anywhere in the world, or print a pizza for hungry astronauts. The Maker philosophy prepares kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with technology we can’t yet imagine.

Ownership – One motto of the Maker Movement is “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Educators often talk about how learners should own their own learning, but if the learner doesn’t have control, they can’t own it. Teachers should consider that prepackaged experiences for students, even in the name of efficiency, are depriving students of owning their own learning.

Common Core and the new Next Generation Science Standards emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and 21st century skills. To achieve these goals requires taking a hard look at both what we teach and how we teach it. The Maker Movement offers lessons, tools, and technology to steer a new course to more relevant, engaging learning experiences for all students.

(Modified from our guest post in the ASCD SmartBlog)