At its heart, maker education is always about centering the learner.
Director of Partnerships and Development
Earlier this year, I attended an Education Reimagined training where, among many other things, a group of learner-centered educators had the opportunity to discuss topics like learner agency, socially embedded environments, and competency-based assessments. Coming from Maker Ed, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting maker education and maker educators, these were all very familiar topics and showed me how connected my work is to the approaches and values of the learner-centered movement.
However, well into a conversation with a fellow attendee, I realized there was confusion about how maker education fit into the learner-centered ecosystem. Maker education, just like personalized learning, means different things to different people, and, even more confusingly, different people can find themselves using the same words to mean very different things. This conversation struck me as an opportunity to bring clarity around what Maker Ed is all about, how we distinguish maker education, and some of the myths that often show up in conversations about maker education.
The Learner-Centered Lens of Maker Education
At its heart, maker education (also referred to as maker-centered learning or MCL) is always about centering the learner. We know that children are natural learners—imaginative, curious, exploratory testers of theories and creators of solutions. We believe we are all best served when children and youth have educational experiences that allow them to fully occupy this space, are supported by adults who trust the innate abilities and contributions of these young learners, and are given the guidance they need to grow confident in their abilities.
While current iterations of maker education and makerspaces often involve newly developed technologies—3D printers, conductive thread, microcomputers, etc.—the approach is rooted in educational research and theories that go back decades. When you think maker education, know that its foundation is built on the work of educational researchers like Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Seymour Papert.
We know making looks different in every community because making is embedded in community.
Director of Partnerships and Development
While each of these theorists certainly had points of difference among them, maker educators have taken insights from aspects of their work that point to the importance of recognizing children learn best when they are involved, engaged, in community, and are drivers of their own learning. Each of these learning theories validates the idea that incorporating the physical world into learning and developing self-determination are key factors in educational success.
Adapting these insights, maker education is fundamentally about approaches, mindsets, and community. It’s about people rather than “stuff.” Maker Ed’s focus on educators and the institutions they work in emerges from this core belief. We know people of all ages need support, tools, resources, and community to fully participate in the opportunities offered. For children to get what they need, educators must have what they need.
We also know making looks different in every community because making is embedded in community. Maker education can happen with cardboard and duct tape; with a loom and wool; with your uncle’s old car; with robots and LEDs; with butter and sugar and flour and heat. It can easily incorporate or embody project-based learning, community learning, environmental learning, invention education, deeper learning, and other approaches to transforming the traditional educational landscape.
What ties all these activities and approaches together, and holds the potential to make them “maker” activities, is they each contain the possibility of supporting youth to develop “a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their worlds” (Agency by Design, 2015). I’m grateful for the opportunity to examine some of the myths of maker education in an effort to point to what we mean at Maker Ed when we talk about maker education.
MYTH #1: The first step to building a makerspace is creating your shopping list.
FACT #1: The best first step in building a makerspace or maker programming is to develop the vision in community: with educators, administrators, youth, parents, local businesses, and others.
There is so much that goes into creating a vibrant, relevant, and sustainable makerspace that has nothing to do with the stuff that’s in it. In fact, we found through our Making Spaces program—a multi-year program that supports institutions that are fostering educational makerspaces in their region—the most important groundwork for a makerspace or maker education programming is not the stuff, but the vision. We ask teams to consider questions like: What are your values? What are your areas of expertise? What are your goals? Who is your audience and who are your stakeholders? Why is this work important to you and your community?
When teams start with these inquiries, they are far more likely to build spaces and programming that fits their and their audiences’ needs. This allows them to more effectively help their communities achieve their goals, build on the resources and expertise they already have, and integrate approaches and projects into current work, rather than asking educators to add something new to their already overwhelming list of requirements.
In “Making and Tinkering: A Literature Review” (2014), Shirin Vossoughi and Bronwyn Bevan point also to Lee Martin’s caution against overvaluing tools:
“There is a seductive, but fatally flawed conceptualization of the Maker Movement that assumes its power lies primarily in its revolutionary tool set. In this view, deploying these tools in school settings will lead to transformations in education. Given the growing enthusiasm for making, there is a distinct danger that its incorporation into school settings will be tool-centric and thus incomplete…. Without [a] tripartite focus [on tools, community infrastructure, and maker mindsets], implementation will likely follow a pattern whereby tools are purchased, but the community and mindset are given too little attention. When this truncated effort does not create substantive change, it will be labeled a failed experiment.”
This is borne out in practice all too often. When the tools are the primary focus—rather than the people who we hope will use them—making may be no better than a fad, rather than a potentially revolutionary educational practice. We deeply believe that time, energy, and resources must first be spent on visioning, community outreach, and integration, as well as professional development for educators. Those who receive high-quality professional development and build communities of support gain the ability to not only initiate, but to grow and sustainably integrate making as a learning process into their educational spaces.
MYTH #2: Maker education is mostly about robots and 3D printers and is primarily for youth interested in such tools.
FACT #2: Maker education isn’t about the stuff we can make; it’s about the connections, the community, and the meaning we can make—not to mention who holds the power to decide what our futures hold.
At Maker Ed, we believe maker-centered education is first and foremost about the learner. It is an approach to learning that puts the learner at the center, presenting a transformational approach that attends to the real and relevant needs of learners and humans. It is an approach to learning that positions liberation and agency at the center—asking students to become more aware of the design of the world around them and to begin to see themselves as people who can tinker, hack, and improve that design.
Maker-centered learning develops this awareness through interactive, open-ended, student-driven, multi-disciplinary experiences that allow for the time and space needed to develop diverse skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking. In maker-centered learning environments, students imagine, design, and create projects that align the content of learning with hands-on application. This may include robots and 3D printers; or it may include cardboard and duct tape, or a loom and dyed wool—all of these materials and equipment are tools that can be used to solve problems and build solutions.
Maker education isn’t about presenting alluring tools and equipment to youth and assuming that participation is just for those interested in those materials. Instead, it is always oriented to the unique interests of the individual learner. As was noted in Maker Ed’s “Makerspaces: Highlights of Select Literature” (2015), “A common cultural goal of empowerment through learning and facilitating social connections can be supported by approaches that are youth-centered, employing inquiry, meaning, context, and personal interests.”
MYTH #3: Maker education is important primarily because it teaches kids specific 21st century technologies.
FACT #3: Maker education is oriented towards what we call 21st century skills and is agnostic to what we think of as 21st century technologies.
Head of TED and former editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, claims in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, that makerspaces and the maker movement can be identified as key parts of a third industrial revolution, where a wide variety of technical and creative skills gained from experiences in makerspaces translate to job skills, create new jobs and industries, and fuel innovation. However, we at Maker Ed do not see this as the most important or even the most lasting benefit—especially considering how fast technology changes. By the time one becomes an expert in one new tool or application, it may be approaching obsolescence.
At Maker Ed, we believe “the most important benefits of maker-centered learning are neither STEM skills nor technical preparation for the next industrial revolution. Though these benefits may accrue along the way, the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their worlds” (Davee, et al; 2015). This empowerment also stems from building critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration skills.
The one thing we know about tomorrow’s world—the world today’s youth will become adults in—is that we don’t know much about it. According to one 2017 report, 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet. The 3D printers of today could easily be the fax machines of tomorrow—in one-tenth of the time. What youth do need to know is how to identify, understand, and solve problems. They will need to collaborate, persist, and be confident in their creativity.
MYTH #4: Making is mostly for well-resourced schools and primarily attracts white males who are already good at science, technology, engineering, and/or math.
FACT #4: Maker education can be an equitable approach—and can even be a tool for equity as it helps us to recognize multiple ways of learning and learning in a multiplicity of things—but we must be intentional and thoughtful about it.
This is not an unfounded claim. Many have noted that making grew out of, and at times has perpetuated, a culture that catered to white men and boys with access to expensive tools and equipment.
However—thanks, in part, to some important work by people like Leah Buechley and Kylie Peppler—the center of making has significantly shifted. Research has shown how including certain elements, such as the use of conductive thread or elevating quilting as a form of mathematical making, can fundamentally shift the dynamics of a makerspace—and of the group of youth engaged in it more broadly. Others, like Emily Pilloton of Girls Garage, have focused on getting power tools in the hands of girls, increasing their comfort and expertise with welding, drilling, and building.
Researchers from Drexel University’s ExCITe Center also recently released a report (2018) noting that actualities with regard to equity do not yet meet stated aspirations: “While most leaders believe that makerspaces have the potential to function as a safe space where girls and young women can engage in an open collaborative learning environment while dismantling gender stereotypes, our research also indicates that more must be done to achieve an inclusive culture of gender equity.” The authors found a wide swath of gender bias, from “leadership recruitment to the labeling of student participants.”
These findings echo the warning of Shirin Vossoughi, Paula K. Hooper, and Meg Escudé with regard to race and economic status. They warn us that maker education cannot be employed uncritically noting that, “the ways making and equity are conceptualized can either restrict or expand the possibility that the growing maker movement will contribute to intellectually generative and liberatory educational experiences for working-class students and students of color.”
If one approaches making with the visioning process first, and with meaningful connections with the community who will be doing the making, the approach is much more likely to naturally emerge as culturally relevant.
Director of Partnerships and Development
They advocate a framework that positions the following principles as starting points for equity: “critical analyses of educational injustice; historicized approaches to making as cross-cultural activity; explicit attention to pedagogical philosophies and practices; and ongoing inquiry into the sociopolitical values and purposes of making.”
If one approaches making with the visioning process first, as discussed above, and with meaningful connections with the community who will be doing the making, the approach is much more likely to naturally emerge as culturally relevant. We cannot assume that making or makerspaces will look the same across different communities.
In fact, makerspaces can play a vital role in providing benefits and opportunities for diverse demographics and populations with special needs. Maker Ed’s Open Portfolio Project Research Brief Survey of Makerspaces, Phase I revealed that the surveyed sites collectively serve a population with a greater diversity than the U.S. population, based on 2010 census data. Data show that these sites also serve individuals with mental and physical disabilities, with some spaces identifying as high as 66 percent of their served population belonging to this demographic (2015).
However, it is clear that “increased access to making opportunities, as well as the need for increased cultural awareness, sensitivity, and accommodation, are necessary for even greater strides toward equity in education and communities” (Vossoughi et al. 2013).
Creating a Balanced Ecosystem of Learning
At Maker Ed, we believe it is a critical moment for youth. The rapidly shifting terrain of technology, global economic and political systems, climate change, and culture has galvanized an opening for massive institutional and cultural change. This opportunity has the potential to transform how children are prepared to navigate their futures. We have to move beyond skills-based education with narrow tracking and rating assessments to provide youth with the tools they need.
Through maker education, we work to shift learning to a balanced ecosystem that provides multiple pathways for learners to develop their agency and problem-solving dispositions and to collaborate and learn from each other. We believe maker-centered learning can lead us towards a future in which all children–regardless of class, gender, race, ability, or geography–have equitable access to learning experiences that support the development of their agency and problem solving dispositions as they become lifelong change-makers.
I hope this helps clarify ways in which we are working towards the same goals—as parallel and interconnected movements—and will give us some shared vocabulary as we continue to advocate for learner-centered approaches. We joyfully and doggedly embrace this challenge and are honored to be doing this work alongside organizations like Education Reimagined.