The Maker Movement is educations newest and biggest buzzword. Schools around the world are looking to create state of the art maker spaces, but is the Maker Movement just a passing educational fad or is it a revolution in the way we approach learning?
Think of the last time you learned something. A new language? How to use a new computer program? How to play a new card game? Plot that learning in your mind. You may want to plot it in a line. You had a little knowledge to start with then you gained more knowledge. That knowledge connected like a Lego brick to your previous knowledge. Your knowledge built upon itself like a Lego tower, each piece making your knowledge grow higher and higher.
Early psychologists supported this view of learning. The brain was described as a blank slate. Memories are etched into the blank slate as they are gained and then new information connects to that and so on. For a long time this is how schools were set up. They were institutions which would pass information on from the owner of knowledge to the recipient block by block. However, this is not a very accurate view of learning. Current studies in neuroscience demonstrate that babies brains are not in fact blanks slates and that memory is not shelved in one section of the brain ready to be pulled out later.1 Rather it is encoded through various parts of the brain.2 The act of remembering is an act of pulling various pieces of information and putting them together.
Physiologist Jean Piaget describes how our brains process information through assimilation and accommodation. During assimilation we take pieces of information and put them into our brain without changing the structure of the internal world. This would be like a child building Lego towers. All of the information they are given fits nicely into their blocks of information. Accommodation is when we take pieces of information that don’t fit neatly with the categories in our brain and we make adjustments by developing new categories to accommodate the new information.
Instead of picturing Lego bricks building up and up like a singular tower it is helpful to think of how a child plays with Lego bricks. They gain a block and connect it but they don’t just build a tower. They pull those bricks apart and move them around and build a space ship, then they get more bricks and they combine those bricks with some of their space ship bricks to build a castle. So yes, we do get new pieces of information as we learn but our minds do much more with that information than just build towers. We make connections between our learning. We create with our learning.
In a traditional school setting all kids are allowed to do is build Lego towers. A progressive education lets kids use those Legos to make something meaningful and then encourages kids to tear that apart and make something altogether new.
The Lego tower view of learning is neat and tidy. We can plan for it, build standards around it, report on it and analyze it. That is what we do in education. If we find a problem in education we try to focus on different Lego towers such as focusing more on science and math. Sometimes we try to break the Lego towers down into smaller Lego towers by creating more specific rubrics or by rewriting our curriculum. We try holding teachers more accountable to how tall students Lego towers are getting and how much growth they are having in their Lego towers. We try all sorts of ways to solve our educational problems but in the end none of them work because they are all based on a model of learning that is not realistic.
However, it is possible to build schools around block creations instead of block towers. The Maker movement at its core is this type of education. Seymour Papert who is considered one of the fathers of the Maker movement explained this through the term constructionism. “The word constructionism is a mnemonic for two aspects of the theory of science education underlying this project. From constructivist theories of psychology we take a view of learning as a reconstruction rather than as a transmission of knowledge. Then we extend the idea of manipulative materials to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product.” -Papert Constructionism: A New Opportunity for Elementary Science Education Giving students an opportunity to make is more than a chance for students to play it is an opportunity for students to learn effectively across the curriculum. Papert goes on to explain that part of the problem with subjects like Math in school is that students don’t get to use it the way adults do. They don’t use math to make bridges and form theories or make money in the stock market like adults do. “They sit in class and write numbers on a piece of paper.” Papert explains.
While teaching students foundational math skills is certainly necessary it is also necessary to give them opportunities to use those math skills. Their is evidence that children of very young ages are capable of solving problems in complex ways like adults do. Child development psychologist Allison Gopnik argues that, like mathematicians and scientists, children are capable of putting forth theories, experimenting, observing, and discerning statistical patterns. “Give a one-year old a set of blocks and you can see her trying different combinations, placements, and angles, and gauging which of these will produce stable towers and which will end in equally satisfying crashes. We have shown that by the time children are four they will intervene in the world in a way that lets them uncover casual structure."1 If we adopt a Maker mentality to education we do more than just teach students important content and skills we give them an opportunity to use those skills and content. Gary Stager, author of Invent to Learn and founder of Constructing Modern Knowledge explains in an interview with American School Board Journal “Making across the curriculum means students as novelists, mathematicians, historians, composers, artists,engineers—rather than being the recipient of instruction.”
One of the arguments against this type of education is that it wouldn’t properly prepare students for college entrance exams which are basically block towers. A way around that would be for universities to look at students block creations instead of just their block towers. This is already happening. Just as more and more companies are hiring based on a prospective employees project history. There are a growing number of universities that are looking for what the students can do beyond a test score. My husband, a high school teacher, tells the story of a student of his who got accepted to Yonsei, a top university in Korea based on the video’s on his Youtube channel. Top colleges such as MIT have recently announced that they accept Maker portfolio’s as part of their application process. Makered.org which has a national open portfolio project explained the benefits of portfolios. “Rather than showing the learner knows what has been taught, the portfolio demonstrates that the student can do what has been taught.” In essence a portfolio shows what students can do with their Lego bricks not just what Lego’s they have acquired.
Isn’t that what real learning is? True understanding is not just gaining knowledge, it is being able to use that knowledge. Harvard Project Zero explained “If a student "understands" a topic, she can not only reproduce knowledge, but also use it in unscripted ways."
While the Maker movement is an example of block creation learning, many schools miss the meaning behind the movement altogether. They are quick to buy expensive equipment and build impressive maker spaces but they try to fit that learning into block towers. It is vital that schools invest in the learning theory behind the maker movement before they investing in maker equipment. Gary Stager explains “The best maker space is between your ears.” He goes on to explain, “I want the bulk of making to permeate every corner of a school building and every minute of the school day.”
We need to stop forcing kids to build Lego towers. We need to set them free to understand and create. We don’t accomplish that by buying expensive maker space equipment but by changing our mindset.
1. Gopnik, A.G. (2004) Finding Our Inner Scientist, Daedulus. vol133. pp 21-28
2. Gardner, H.G.(2004), What We Do and Don't Know About Learning, Daedulus. vol133, pp 5-12
This summer I had an opportunity. The opportunity to attend Constructing Modern Knowledge. The opportunity to interact with many of my educational heros. To experience the joy and hardship of making a challenging project. The opportunity to have thought provoking conversations and to work with an amazing group of educators who inspired me to try things I never realized were possible. All of these experiences were amazing and transformative but the most transformative moment of the workshop for me was not any of these moments. It was when a group of educators with the same opportunity as me walked away from thiers and left the workshop early.
It left me dumbfounded. The story I heard was that they had been unhappy with the workshop so they called their administrator who told them to go ahead and fly home. I felt frustrated that they had given up so easily, that they hadn’t chosen to take advantage of such an amazing opportunty. I couldn’t understand how they could make such a choice.
David Loader, associate professor at Melborne University had a different reaction. “I know why they left.” Loader said. “They were teachers so they were used to school.” That statement got me thinking. David Loader was right. There was clearly a disconnect between these teachers expectations and what Constructing Modern Knowledge was. Most likely that disconnect stemmed from their experience as teachers. So what was that disconnect?
Constructing Modern Knowledge was nothing like any school I have ever been to or any conference I have ever been to. There were no classes, no workshops, no presentations, I didn't sign up to learn about Scratch or Arduino’s or how to create a maker space. Knowledge was not disseminated in the traditional way from the so called expert to the student. Instead we were given a chance to choose a project we wanted to work on for four days. During those four days the experts did not talk at us, instead they walked around and stepped in as we needed. We learned as we worked. We learned about the learning process, we learned about ourselves as learners. We learned about content that was related to our project. For example my group created a shoe that converted energy from walking to useable electricity. So I learned a great deal about circuits and energy.
Video courtesy of https://catcomputerteacher.wordpress.com/
All of this was extremely valuable learning but it certainly is not the way that schools usually work. Which is sad because how amazing would schools be if they did have more of that style of learning. Students would be engaged, learning would be relevant, understanding would be meaningful.
But all of this is very hard to do as teachers because of the big T word. Time. We don’t have time to let our kids create because we have to make sure to cover the standards. We need to cover the content that will be tested and reported on. The content that parents and colleges will ask about.
This led me to the realization that what is wrong with schools is not the teachers or parents, administrators or even funding. What is wrong with schools is the way we think about learning. We frame our educational system around an outdated view of learning. I call it the block tower view of learning. I’ll explain it in my next blog post.
Mindy Slaughter is a classroom teacher at UNIS Hanoi. She started learning to code when some of her students wanted to study it for the PYP Exhibition. She has since help start the Elementary Coding Club and is a founding member of the Global Codeathon. She believes coding opens the doors for student creativity and is working to integrate it into the curriculum.