Maker Education – Where are we now?

Last fall, I had the privilege of speaking with some 30 school districts that signed the Maker Promise. A joint project of Digital Promise and the Maker Education Initiative (MakerEd), the Promise asked schools and districts to designate a staff member as “champion for making,” to create a space for making, and to hold an event so students could present their projects. Nearly 1,400 schools representing more than one million students signed up. I wanted to understand where they were on their journey to integrate maker-centered learning (MCL) into their school and how Maker Promise could help.

My first impression, after conversations with close to 30 districts at the superintendent or assistant superintendent level, was that amazing experiments are happening everywhere. There are libraries being transformed, themed maker carts being created, community centers being turned into makerspaces, projects being created in partnership with local companies, summer camps, afterschool camps, and dozens of other ideas. In some schools the kids are providing “maker” professional development for teachers, and educators are doing a lot of making themselves.

In all of these conversations, there were six big themes that came up repeatedly and point to efforts that we, as a movement, could do to accelerate the integration of Maker Centered Learning (MCL).

1) Wait — why are we doing this?

While clearly excited about the benefits of MCL and able to mention “hands-on learning,” “creative confidence,” “letting students design their own learning journey,” “metacognition and reflection,” “authentic and relevant projects,” and lots of other buzzwords, few educators could clearly and succinctly define why they are integrating MCL and point to research that supports their efforts. This makes it hard to answer the “why” question and difficult to justify large expenditures.

One superintendent in Ohio recently made an enormous investment to bring 1:1 devices to every k-12 student in her district. She used a very methodical investigation and implementation approach that involved teacher leaders on six different committees and numerous site visits over a nine-month planning window. When I asked why she wasn’t using the same approach for MCL, she said she can’t make as powerful a case for “maker” as she can for technology.

I do not have enough research, examples or longitudinal data to understand how makerspaces are sound educational practice.

Superintendent in Indiana

2) Just Do it. (Don’t Plan It)

While many schools might have an implicit plan, few used a defined planning process to establish goals, the experiments they are going to run, and the criteria to evaluate the success of experiments. Even fewer have even explicitly identified skills, knowledge, and habits that they want students to acquire in these experiences. While there is certainly something to be said for the “I don’t know how to do this and I’m going to do it anyway” mentality of the maker movement, the “just do it” approach (especially Combined with the inability to answer the “why” question) makes it easy to label the movement as merely the latest educational “fad” that will come and go.

Our philosophy? Visit others, see what they are doing, then apply what works. -Superintendent in Georgia

3) We do “maker”.

Maker centered learning is almost always perceived as an add-on, not as an integrated way to have students explore or experience existing subjects.

Schools are trying lots of things: mobile maker carts, defined spaces, library projects, 3D printers, etc. But what’s lacking is any sense of how the spaces and projects together lead to a broad set of learned skills or and how they integrate into the rest of the curriculum. Many folks expressed excitement of the idea of integrating “maker” into other subjects, but no one had an example of a project they’ve done.

Sure. Kids do it when they rotate through the library. — New York Assistant Superintendent

4) We got a 3D printer. Now what?

Overall, there is a focus on acquiring tools first rather than designing experiences that actually support learning. A good example is the focus on 3D printers, which, due to their snail-like pace and low reliability, are difficult to integrate into a classroom. The focus on high tech tools, in particular, overlooks the fact that the magic of making can start with cardboard and hot glue gun. The first question most educators ask is, “What tools should we get?” We need to figure out how to change that question to “What learning experiences can we design?”

We bought lots of stuff and tools, but we haven’t used all of it. -NC Superintendent

5) Libraries and Librarians Reimagined.

Making is happening in lots of places throughout schools. But libraries and library media specialists are seizing the maker movement as an opportunity to reimagine the library and its role in the school. For example, in a district in Columbia, South Carolina, a media specialist submitted a proposal to the district incubator, then took the lead on creating a makerspace. She invited teachers in, offering professional development, and having students co-design the space as part of an engineering 101 class. In Maine, one librarian’s vision is for the library to be “more verbs than nouns,” so she threw out half her books and is instead creating stations for students to engage with stop motion animation and book art.

6). Experiment together. Alone.

There are many creative experiments running right now. These include themed maker carts, repurposing a community science center as shared makerspace, joint projects with companies, and student maker mentors. But almost all of them are being run in isolation with no cross-pollination so others can learn from and build on the results. In response to the question “how can we help?” every single educator asked for a community in which they could share best and worst practices and jointly solve common problems. To my knowledge, there’s only one place that maker educators specifically gather: the K-12 FabLab Google group.

With the exception of schools built from the ground up to be maker schools, even the oldest school makerspace is only six or seven years old. So these struggles that these themes raise seem appropriate for where the movement is today. But the risk of being a “fad” is real. The question we face now as a movement, how can we solve some of these questions raised by these themes?

Originally published March 2017 on medium.

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