I sat down with JD Pirtle for a chat about making in education. First, we discussed the origin and current state of the maker movement in schools. We talked through a variety of pedagogical issues educators face when teaching with technology, including approaches to three of the biggest: time, space, and assessment.
I’m heading out for a string of presentations and workshops – hope to see old friends and new!
ICE 2018 – Feb 26 (Chicago) I’m part of an “All-Star” lineup of presenters who are participating in the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Instead of one keynote they are bringing back keynotes from previous years to do panels and featured presentations. It’s a bit embarrassing to call yourself an “All-Star” but that’s their term, not mine! Check out the whole list and join us!
Then I’m flying straight to Italy where Gary Stager and I will keynote a School Innovation conference in Modena and lead a workshop in Bologna on March 2 & 3. Then we hit the road (by train) for lectures at Universities in Padua, Vicenza, Venice, and Pistoia. Finally a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Rome with an innovation policy advocacy working group.
Oh, and in between I’m flying to Valencia, Spain to keynote a conference there! INTED 2018 will be March 5-7 and I’ll be keynoting on March 5.
You 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!
Panel on “Enabling a Culture of Making” at Crossroads 2016.
At Constructing Modern Knowledge 2016, Carla Rinaldi, president of Reggio Children, gave an impassioned talk to the gathered educators about the lessons of the Reggio Emilia pre-school approach.
She spoke about love, beauty, and respect for children (of all ages) and their learning process. She showed some photos and videos of children learning together and how teachers have the opportunity to make small decisions in this process. To watch or intervene; to ask a question or remain quiet; to suggest an expansion of the complexity of the children’s investigation or to help them simplify their ideas.
What struck me is how quietly these moments happen. These momentous moments are the heart and art of teaching. Not only is this skill too often devalued and disrespected, but the time it takes to listen is dismissed as “wasted.”
Momentous is a word that is usually associated with BIG EVENTS, but the heart of the word is moment — a fleeting second of time where teachers make decisions that are not simple or fleeting.
Too often overlooked and underestimated, the moment occurs only when listening is valued, when respect exists between all the participants, and there is time to slow down and think hard about what to do in that moment.
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:
- Place – Makerspace, hackerspace, Fab Lab, Techshop, shop, science lab, open classroom, studio
- Culture – Maker movement, hacker culture, craft, green, economic self-determinism, service-learning, artisanal, amateur science, citizen science, urban agriculture, slow food
- Process – Making, tinkering, Design Thinking, design, Genius Hour, PBL
- 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 d.school
- 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.
Seen the headlines? 3D printing is coming, faster cheaper, easier to manage… but is it better?
Anyone who is thinking about “making in education” has likely bought (or at least thought about) a 3D printer for their makerspace or classroom. In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, fabrication is one of the three “game changer” technologies that have the most potential for schools. But as anyone who has tried 3D printing knows, it’s not a mature technology by any means, and takes work to integrate it into rich design experiences for young people. At this point in time, most classroom focused 3D printers are too slow and too glitchy to really serve a lot of students doing iterative design. There is no perfect software solution, and software is at the core of the design process. Of course, every day they get cheaper, more reliable, and these problems will decrease.
So the recent announcement by Mattel of a reboot of the 1960’s toy Thingmaker sounds too good to be true. After all, if Mattel believes this is reliable enough to sell at Toys R Us, it must solve all these issues, right?
Is this “the answer”? It depends what question you ask. Do you like toys? Do you need more plastic stuff? Then the answer is yes. Do you want kids to engage in designing, mathematical thinking, and problem solving? Then the answer is no.
And hey, if my kids were still little I would totally buy this. And play with it myself. It’s a reboot of literally my favorite toy when I was a kid. I still have some of the dragons somewhere.
But – take a close look at what you get.
It’s not going to be an open design in hardware or software. There will be pre-designed parts you can drag and drop to make creatures, robots, etc. Pick Arm A and Body B and in several hours you can print and assemble your own little monster, or other Mattel branded stuff. It’s not going to be “maker” in the sense of “if you can’t open it you don’t own it.” For those people who find that important, this is a mockery, for those who just want to reliably make plastic toys, it’s perfect.
Because from a stability and reliability standpoint, the whole “open” concept is deadly. What if you design something that can’t actually be printed in real life? A learning opportunity, you say? For Mattel, that’s a design that cannot be allowed. Locking down the design process into a drag and drop app makes it reliable. It’s not a BAD app, or a BAD corporate decision, it is what it is.
Once they sterilize the design side, and use proprietary software all the way from design to the hot end, then it’s just a hardware problem that remains. No worries about strange g-code or updates to open source code.
On the hardware side, Mattel is good at making cheap, reliable hardware. They will require their filament (you can see it in the photo above), so that helps them maintain consistency as well.
So is it a bad thing for schools to consider? No. Depends how much money you have for toys. Will kids like it? Of course. Will some enterprising hacker figure out how to hack into it? Highly likely.
But think of the parallels. Do kids like EZ Bake Ovens? of course. Can you make edible stuff? Yes. Do some people hack them to turn out gourmet meals? No doubt. So would you turn your culinary arts program (if you are lucky enough to have one) over to all EZ Bake Ovens?
Let’s also differentiate between parents getting these for kids, and schools buying them and pretending it’s a STEM initiative. Schools buying these should consider the whole picture of the design cycle, not just the plastic parts that spit out at the end.
My childhood in black and white…
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.
Bright.com (the education section of Medium.com) has published an article called Putting Away the Books to Learn by Jackie Ashton.
It starts with the question: “The “maker” movement has swept across schools in California and beyond. Can it fundamentally change K-12 education?”
The article profiles several schools involved in “making” and quotes some folks, including me, about how “making” has the potential to change education. Most of my interview ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. But that’s the way the media cookie crumbles, as they say!
It’s an interesting take on “making” and the article struggles a bit, I think, to situate it in a learning context. Not that I’m surprised or criticizing. It’s the heart of the difficulty of advocating for “maker education” – the examples start to sound like you are cheerleading for any techy type thing that kids put their hands on, whether it’s thoughtful, challenging, academic or not.
Even the title “Putting Away the Books to Learn” is a misinterpretation of the kind of classroom experience I advocate for. In a maker-enabled learning space, books and reference materials (both online and physical) should be one of the most important tools available to students.
For example, at our summer institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge, we bring cases of books to build a library for participants. We believe that this highly-curated library is one of the most important aspects of creating a model maker learning experience. Books can inspire and inform, or sometimes just provide a coffee-break for a tired brain.
Maker education is not an either/or choice between old-fashioned and new-fangled stuff. It’s grounded (hopefully) in ideas about the ways learning really happens inside the learner’s head. Beyond that, there are definitely some technologies that can enhance the quest to teach students about the real world, but to me, the “stuff” should take a backseat to the learning.
- Can you do “maker” without a 3D printer? Yes
- Can you do things with a 3D printer that give students access to ideas otherwise nearly impossible? Yes
Both of these can be true, and that may seem confusing. But I think the possibilities inherent in all these seemingly contradictory paths are worth exploring. There is no one model of maker education that is going to work for every learning space and every learner. That should be seen as freedom to be nurtured, not a deficiency.
I get asked some variant of “what is the first thing I should buy for my classroom/makerspace?” almost every day! It’s great people are planning for maker-greatness, but there is some confusion out there because Arduinos and 3D printers have become the “go to” purchases for maker classrooms and other learning spaces.
In my opinion, neither of these would be my first choice for a beginning makerspace, especially one on a limited budget.
Today I got the question from a middle school, “We were going to get some MaKey MaKeys, but my principal heard you can buy an Arduino for $8. That means we can have a classroom set of 30 for less than $250. Is this a good idea? I don’t have a background in electronics or programming.”
Here’s my answer:
Buying an Arduino board alone is just the start. You will have to find or purchase everything else you need part by part – an Arduino is useless without inputs (sensors, buttons, knobs) and outputs (motors, lights, speakers, displays). Depending on your level of electronics knowledge, this could be easy or very tricky! You can fry the Arduino if you connect the wrong parts.
We recommend purchasing kits for first timers so that you get the exact parts you need for a set of experiments. After you use them with students, you can see what you need in the long run. Here’s one kit that’s good for beginners from Sparkfun Electronics (be sure to get an educator discount).
LAST BUT NOT LEAST – I’m not sure that Arduino is your best place to start. The coding environment will be a challenge for beginner programmers. (Now, there may be a student or two who will just “get it” immediately – but that’s not evidence that it’s the best way to start everyone). I still would consider MaKey MaKey to get your feet wet, or if you really want to tackle sensors and motors, I would look at the Hummingbird Robotics Kit.
The Hummingbird Kit comes with the exact motors, lights, and sensors you need, plus is configured so there is no chance of blowing anything out if things are mis-connected. The Hummingbird can be used with the Scratch programming language, which will be MUCH more accessible for MOST students. It can also be programmed with Python, Processing, and even works as an Arduino with the Arduino programming language, so you are getting the best of both.