Make to Learn
Can makerspaces be more than a fad in education?
As educators, we are continuously inundated with ideas, approaches, and technologies that will save the day. From the interactive white board to discovery learning, innovations and innovative approaches to teaching and learning often arrive on a wave of hype, only to be supplanted by the next big new hope. So it goes with the maker movement.
The idea of makerspaces originated in informal community hubs including libraries, museums, and community centres, where participants could prototype and test innovative ideas using high-tech digital tools such as 3D printers. Educators saw promise and possibilities for this type of learning environment within formal school settings for developing competencies such as creativity, innovative thinking, and risk-taking that are needed to be contributing members of society.1
As an experienced elementary teacher and teacher librarian, I saw learning possibilities within a makerspace environment, but wondered if the stated benefits could truly happen within the realities of Canadian classrooms today. These realities include classes with complex student learning needs, a focus on summative assessment, and lack of access to technology and teacher support. I believed that in order for teachers to embrace making for learning, it could not be seen as an add-on to their already overflowing plates. In my opinion, teachers would have to envision possibilities for making within the stated curriculum.
A few years ago, I dipped my toe in the makerspace waters and tested some ideas with teachers in a K-4 school setting. These first attempts provided an opportunity for significant learning for students, teachers, and myself. What struck me most profoundly was how the makerspace offered teachers a chance to observe their students as different kinds of learners, leading me to question ideas about how we interact with our students in different spaces in the school. Eager to find out more, I searched the research literature to determine what scholars were saying about learning in formal school makerspace environments. There was considerable connection to the work of Seymour Papert and his theory of constructionism, but up to that point, much of the original research on makerspaces had taken place in informal learning environments as opposed to schools. The link to Papert’s work2 is important, however. As the originator of the computer language LOGO, he noted that when students programmed with digital objects they learned to reason. Calling digital turtles “objects-to-think-with,” Papert observed that children “developed powerful concrete ways to think about problems.”
But for me, questions of a practical nature still remained. Could “making” invite powerful work with discipline knowledge and, more particularly, support student learning outcomes? Were there students who would not engage with making for learning? How could teachers be supported in learning not only about maker pedagogy but maker technologies and tools?
These questions led me to pursue my doctorate. In particular, I wanted to follow what happened to a teacher over the course of a year when she explored making with her students in multiple curriculum areas. I was fortunate to be partnered up with a highly skilled early career Grade 6 teacher, who was interested in learning more about making and makerspaces as an approach to learning. With her class of 27 students, a third of whom were ESL students, we co-designed, co-enacted, and co-reflected on three making activities in three curriculum areas: sky science, mathematical transformations, and democracy in social studies. The school was not highly equipped, technologically speaking. Students had access to Chromebooks, though not all the time, and ten older iPads were also available. A space off the library had been designated for making, and it was stocked with low-tech and found materials that were already in the school.
Neither the teacher nor I come from a STEM background. She has a degree in psychology and a Bachelor of Education. I have a Graduate Diploma in school libraries and an Interdisciplinary MEd. For us, this made our work both challenging and risky. Though we both enjoy trying out new technologies for learning, we are not particularly “techie.” Another added pressure was that in Alberta, Grade 6 students complete provincial achievement testing in the four core subject areas of Science, Mathematics, Language Arts, and Social Studies. Though the government’s stated objective of the testing is to improve programs, the teacher keenly felt the pressures of external standardized testing, and this became a running theme throughout the research.
It was important for me that the study be conducted within these complex parameters. I was interested in seeing what would happen in a regular elementary school setting, with limited technology and a teacher whose background was not science, mathematics or technology. Could a makerspace learning environment work not only for her students, but also for her? I also wanted to see what happened to her and her students over time. How did they come to see making for learning?
The first making session took place in January/February and involved the students modelling an aspect of sky science they were interested in. In our initial planning, we considered having all students use one computer modelling program to model a solar system. Partly due to the inaccessibility of the necessary technology and skills, we abandoned this idea and instead decided to ask the children to create a model that would serve to answer questions they wondered about. We felt this allowed us to remain true to maker pedagogy, where students explored topics of interest, using tools and materials of their choice. Questions ranged from what happens when two stars collide to why does it get so cold in Canada and stay so warm in the Philippines? Some students modelled digitally, using Minecraft and 2D drawing programs, but others used low-tech materials such as cardboard, modelling clay, and Styrofoam.
What was most significant for the teacher and me was that in giving students the choice to answer their own questions and build their own models, they became sky scientists. They came to see that engaging in scientific inquiry was a creative endeavour that involved seeking answers to complex questions. The makerspace provided an environment where everyone worked collaboratively, but also challenged our thinking about current theories and ideas held about the night sky. This study is described in more detail in an article in the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education: “‘How Can I Build a Model if I Don’t Know the Answer to the Question?’: Developing student and teacher sky scientist ontologies through making.”
Teachers must exemplify risk-taking. They must be willing to enter the makerspace in a state of not knowing. This is easier said than done.
Next, we undertook a study of mathematical transformations over a two-week period in April. We asked the students to create an interdisciplinary stop animation that would tell a story and incorporate motion (translations, rotations, and reflections) on a Cartesian plane. Students chose a wide variety of materials for this work and created both low-tech flipbooks and digital animations. Though we did not feel that this making activity overall was as successful in promoting deep learning of curriculum outcomes, we did see a developing confidence in students’ abilities as makers and in their expertise in giving and receiving critical feedback.
Finally in May, and with provincial achievement tests looming, we designed a making activity focused on social studies that was to take place over the course of four days. This time we explored the use of digital technologies, in which we lacked expertise. We invited the students to design and make a metaphor that would exemplify a key concept of democracy. Students were offered the choice of designing with Tinkercad in order to 3D print their metaphor, or Easel, a design program that could be used with a 3D carving machine. Some students also chose to use physical materials such as paint, beads, and drawing tools. We were amazed at what the children accomplished given the limited amount of time.
Three key insights arose for the teacher and myself during this phase:
1. Our limited know-how of the digital technologies did not prove to be a problem. In fact, the teacher felt it added to the culture of risk-taking and creativity in that it created a collaborative environment where knowledge was distributed. It should be mentioned however, that support for 3D printing and carving was provided by the University of Calgary makerspace and was a necessary component in completing the project.
2. We noticed that over time, the students’ ability to engage in making tasks became more skilled, particularly in terms of their ability to create, problem solve, and risk-take. The teacher did not feel her students could have done as well had this making activity been our first.
3. Even given the short time for the project, it was through making that students came to understand terms such as equity, equality, and freedom, in ways they had not been able to in the past.
Overall, some key results emerged from the study:
- Engaging in making as a way of approaching curriculum topics can be a powerful form of learning for both students and their teachers. We found that many students took their makerspace work outside of school by conducting research and building prototypes at home. However, it must be said that careful task design to scaffold making for students and the teacher is necessary for success. Given support, teachers can gain a deeper understanding of discipline knowledge, as well as building their expertise with digital technologies.
- Designing for making is key. If that part is done well, once the students get to the makerspace they can approach tasks thoughtfully and with confidence. That being said, teachers need to be supported when envisioning how the curriculum can be translated into making, while accepting that there is challenge in integrating the curriculum outcomes in this work.
- Teachers must exemplify risk-taking. They must be willing to enter the makerspace in a state of not knowing. This is easier said than done, and often requires peer support, gentle nudging, and metaphorical hand-holding.
- Some students will have difficulty working in the uncertainty of the makerspace. Shifting from the classroom, where the knowledge appears to be fixed and held by the teacher, to a space where knowledge is distributed and constructed by all participants, can be unnerving. Students need time to adapt to a setting where authentic feedback comes not just from the teacher, but also from other students and from oneself.
- Working with digital tools enables students to rapidly prototype design ideas and build on feedback they receive from multiple sources in a short amount of time. However, making is about ideas and iterative problem solving, not about technology. Teachers have to resist allowing the technology to drive pedagogy. They also need to guard against a tendency to revert to traditional ways of teaching when using new technologies and call it making. Teachers must stay reflectively vigilant that maker pedagogy remains at the forefront when constructing designs for making, and that technology provides a supportive role.
- While students are working in the makerspace, formative feedback takes place in iterative cycles between the teacher, the students and their peers. Teachers must accept that reporting summatively on progress will be more of a challenge, because often the competencies that students demonstrate are more challenging to document. As much as possible, teachers should engage students in summative reporting.
As a result of this study, the teacher participant has adopted making into her practice. She is continually thinking about ways her students might engage in making to learn about curriculum topics. She is seeking out new technologies and introducing them to her students, knowing that she does not have to be the only expert in the room. Can makerspaces be more than a fad in education? With sustained professional learning and in-class support for teachers, in this case in a design-based research project, making for learning can help teachers in shifting their practice to a more collaborative, student-centred learning environment.
Photo: Sandra Becker
First published in Education Canada, June 2019