What does “making” have to do with learning?

Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.

—Martin Heidegger

One of the biggest issues I have with many descriptions of “making” in education is that it’s about students just being creative with tools or materials.  I strongly disagree. Making is not just the simple act of you being the difference between raw materials and finished product, as in “I made dinner” or even “I made a robot.” I don’t think we always need to ascribe learning to the act of making — but the act of making allows the maker, and maybe an outsider (a teacher, perhaps) to have a window into the thinking of the maker.

So, do you always need a teacher for learning to happen? No. Some people are good at thinking about their own process and learning from that (“Wow, that butter made the sauce so much better.” “Next time, I’ll test the circuit before I solder.”) and some people are less likely to do that. But if I watch you cook, I will see certain things – how you organize your ingredients, how you react when you make a mistake, how you deal with uncertainty — and that is what teaching is about. A teacher who is a careful observer can see these kinds of signs, and then challenge the learner with harder recipes, a question to make them think, more interesting ingredients, or a few tips — all with an eye towards helping the other person learn and grow.

Technology like Arduinos and 3D printers have not become intertwined with the maker movement in education simply because they are new, but because they are some of the most interesting ingredients out there. Many of these “maker materials” rely on computational technology, which supports design in ways not possible otherwise. The command “Save As..” is possibly the most important design tool ever invented. Saving your design file or code means you can “do again” without “doing over,” supporting the iterative process and encouraging increasingly complex designs.

Complex technology, especially computational technology also allows educators to answer the question, “Isn’t this just arts and crafts?” And of course after defending arts and crafts – we can say that computational technology allows these same mindful habits to connect with the powerful ideas of the modern world that we hope children learn. Design and making are not just important for the A in STEAM, they are essential, but here’s a bigger idea, they are also essential for the T & E — and for them all to come together.

There is simply no technology without design; the definition of the word is literally “things in the designed world.” Making is a way to realize the “logo” part of the word – from the Greek word (logos) that means “word” but specifically words that express the order and reason of the universe. To Greek philosophers, a word was more than a sound or a mark, it was the embodiment of an idea — an idea made real. And yes, the Logo programming language owns this derivation as well.

The power of using computational technology in education is that the versatility and transparent complexity allows learners to make their ideas real, to make sense of the world, and to see their own capacity grow. This visible process also allows teachers to support and scaffold learners on their journey.

Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.

Is Design Thinking the same as “making”?

People often ask me two questions about Design Thinking. First, is the same as making, and second, do I like it. It’s obvious there are similarities and overlaps, and similar ways that they can be implemented well (or not so well). I think design is the key to modern STEM education, but it’s a mistake to think that using Design Thinking methodology is the same as teaching design. Design Thinking gets the “big D, big T” treatment because it’s a methodology invented at the Institute of Design at Stanford University (also known as the d.school) with assistance from ideo, a product design and consulting company.

Design Thinking, both in its origin and existing implementation in K-12 schools is grounded in product design and end user empathy. It’s a good thing to design with the user (or customer)  in mind, but there are many more avenues of design than just making products that solve a problem for a specific audience. Many inventions were simply found by noticing unexpected results and following that path. Artists often say that the materials “speak” to them as they work. Authors say that their characters tell them how the story is going to unfold. In the same way, I think “making” values this kind of serendipity in the design process more than Design Thinking.

A search for solutions assumes that the problem is defined properly and we all agree on the values inherent in defining the problem — no small assumption. Basing everything on the “needs” of some group, audience, etc. is more about marketing than engineering, science, or art.

So, do I “like” Design Thinking? Sorta, maybe, kinda. I’ve seen nice things done in the name of Design Thinking, and I’ve seen too narrow, too constrained versions. It’s good in that I think empathy is a mindset that children should practice more often. But mainly, I distrust anything that’s been pre-packaged for K-12. Shrink-wrapping things  kills them.

There are three things that schools should consider as they think about how and why to teach design.

  1. Learning. If you believe that constructionism is a valid explanation of how people learn, then you want a design process that allows people to build on their existing experience, make sharable, meaningful things, have time to assimilate new ideas and thoughts, and then iterate. This is a living, breathing process that includes and responds to the participants in real time.
  2. Teaching. What is the balance between telling and allowing exploration? Are the steps necessary and valid for all occasions? Who chooses the materials? Will the process or product be graded or ranked?
  3. The product. Does your process end with a real product or an imagined product? What is the balance between marketing and actual design? What are the values of your product?

I know there are thousand ways that schools implement Design Thinking so my thoughts here are an amalgam of what I’ve seen in  conference presentations, websites, kits, and workshops for teachers and/or students. In many cases I’ve seen emphasis on teaching the steps, handouts that walk through every stage, and lots of post-it note driven group-think.

The focus on the steps and stages creates two problems:

  • If you commit to an audience and plan, it’s an investment in a path that becomes more and more difficult to change as time goes on. If the materials you have don’t really support your idea, or you find unexpected obstacles, or even have a better idea, it’s too much of a penalty to change it up and follow that new path. It makes it worse if the stages are assessed and become part of a final grade. The success of many of the designs in a Design Thinking workshop is not a signal that it’s a good methodology, but rather that it’s too constrained.
  • It fulfills the worst instincts of teachers to overplan and pre-digest any topic for their students. I’m sure it makes teachers feel better that they have a checklist and process to use back in their classrooms, but that’s a false sense of security.

Most things that people make for the first time don’t need a plan, storyboard, mindmap, outline, flowchart, diagram, etc. It’s false complexity to introduce those kinds of structures before they are really needed. If you make a wallet, make a wallet. Then and only then will you start to see how the materials work, what parts were easy and what was hard, that it might have been a good idea to make the outside a tiny bit bigger than the inside, etc. And then you must have time to do it again… and again….  A teacher trying to impose their favorite planning framework too early means that the student now has two tasks – to figure out what the heck the teacher wants in the bubble diagram, and also how to make a wallet.

Process is important, but so is the product. I’ve seen Design Thinking workshops that focus on imaginary products, probably for lack of time or proper materials. It’s great to have a vision of a trash can that floats around the ocean collecting trash, it’s another thing to make it work. Just making something float upright is pretty hard! But that’s how you really learn about floating (and leaking and density and absorbtion and making something work in the real world). I would classify designing imaginary products a bit like writing fiction — it’s a great literacy to have, but it’s barely design, and it’s certainly not engineering. Making things work is, to me, the most important part of design in the real world.

One more note about product – it’s not a given that just because a product solves a problem (as stated by one or more people) that this is a “good” product. What values come along with that decision? How is the design influenced by values – does it help or hurt the environment? Is it inclusive or only for some people? Does it make money at the expense of something or someone else?

Now, I’m not saying that “making” solves all these problems. The word has been handy — I can tell you there would be no “hacker movement” in schools. But the word is essentially meaningless. It’s what marketing people call an “empty vessel.” The art of marketing is all about searching for these kinds of words that people can fill with their own definitions. So everyone is happy but no one has to agree. I have no illusions that every time someone says “making” in education it’s automatically a wondrous experience of agency and enlightenment. Most of what I just wrote about the perils of Design Thinking I’ve seen unfold in exactly the same way in “maker” classrooms and workshops.

One final thing – I believe words matter. Of course thinking is good and making is good, and both together are even better. (Perhaps I should trademark “Design Thinkamakathon.”) However, the verbs “think” and “make” are very very different and signal the most important difference between the two. Thinking is internal, making is external. Thinking asks that an internal process happen in a certain way. It’s about intellectual behavior, which I think school already overemphasizes. It’s not wrong or useless by any means, just overdone territory.

Making asks the maker to create something outside of themselves that expresses their own thoughts and ideas. I believe learning (and thinking) happens inside a person, but when you make something meaningful and shareable outside yourself, it cements that learning in place as a building block for the next iteration, which of course includes thinking. School has unfortunately paid little attention to the making part of the cycle, since it’s seen as messy and time consuming. Being clear that making real things that work is part of any real design experience is something I believe that schools need to think about, even if it falls outside the comfort zone.

New report: Making and Tinkering: A Review of the Literature

A new literature review was just released by the Board of Science Education (an NSF funded program associated with the National Academies) called:

Making and Tinkering: A Review of the Literature, by Shirin Vossoughi and Bronwyn Bevan (The PDF is linked from a list, click here and scroll down)

The Board of Sciences has commisioned this and several other papers focused on informal and afterschool STEM learning. More information and links to the other papers are on their website.

The paper is a goldmine of research supporting tinkering and making activities that support learning – not just in STEM and not just in informal settings. Paulo’s research, Papert, and Leah Buechley’s FabLearn 2013 speech are all referenced (and my book too!)

The list of the other commissioned papers is interesting as well. All the papers are linked from this site.

Commissioned Papers

Formative Assessment for STEM Learning Ecosystems: Biographical approaches as a resource for research and practice by Brigid Barron

Citizen Science and Youth Education by Rick Bonney, Tina B. Phillips, Jody Enck, Jennifer Shirk, and Nancy Trautmann

Evidence & Impact: Museum-Managed STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings, by Bernadette Chi, Rena Dorph & Leah Reisman

Children Doing Science: Essential Idiosyncrasy and the Challenges of Assessment by David Hammer and Jennifer Radoff

Broadening Access to STEM Learning through Out-of-School Learning Environments by Laura Huerta Migus

Making and Tinkering: A Review of the Literature, by Shirin Vossoughi and Bronwyn Bevan