Lessons from the Maker Movement for K-12 Educators

In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering, we explore how to put an active learner at the center of the learning process, building on traditional progressive classroom practices combined with materials old and new, and incorporating the lessons of the Maker Movement.

The “Maker Movement” is a technological and creative revolution underway around the world. Fortunately for educators, the Maker Movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. Embracing the lessons of the Maker Movement holds the keys to reanimating the best, but oft-forgotten learner-centered teaching practices.

New tools and technology, such as 3D printing, robotics, microprocessors, wearable computing, e-textiles, “smart” materials, and new programming languages are being invented at an unprecedented pace. The Maker Movement creates affordable or even free versions of these inventions, and shares tools and ideas online, creating a vibrant, collaborative community of global problem-solvers.

Lessons from the Maker Movement

Doing” is what matters – Makers learn to make stuff by making stuff. Schools often forget this as they endlessly prepare students for something that is going to happen to them next week, next year, or in some future career. Students can and should be scientists, artists, engineers, and writers today. The affordable and accessible technology of the Maker Movement makes learning by doing a realistic approach for schools.

Openness – The Maker Movement is a child of the Internet but does not fetishize it. Makers worldwide share design, code, and ideas, but making occurs in real life. Makers share their expertise with a global audience. “We” are smarter than “me” should be a lesson for educators. Collaboration on projects of intense personal interest drive the need to share lessons learned, not external incentives like grades.

Give it a go – Back in the ‘80s, MacGyver could defuse a bomb with the chewing gum and paper clips he found in his pocket. Modern MacGyvers are driven to invent the solution to any problem by making things, and then making those things better. While perhaps “grit” or determination can be taught, the best way for students to become deeply invested in their work is for their work to be personally meaningful, supported by time and encouragement to overcome challenges.

Iterative design – Computers make designing new inventions risk-free and cheap. You can now tinker with designs, code, and make nearly perfect prototypes easily and quickly. This is a departure from linear design methodology that assumed that mistakes were expensive and need to be avoided. However, many educators are still clinging to old design models where students are provided recipes and prescriptive rubrics. This deprives students of the chance to take risks and learn how to navigate their way to the end of a project.

Aesthetics matter – Many Maker projects are indistinguishable from art. It’s human to embellish, decorate, and to seek the beauty in life. In schools, there is a movement to add Arts to STEM subjects (STEAM). That’s a good instinct, but if school hadn’t artificially removed all traces of creativity and art from STEM subjects, we wouldn’t need to talk about STEAM. Find ways to allow students to make projects with pride and unencumbered by categorization.

Mentoring defies ageism – As Sir Ken Robinson says, school is the only place in the world where we sort people by their date of manufacture. The Maker Movement honors learners of all ages and embraces the sharing of expertise. Young people like “Super Awesome Sylvia”, a young maker who broadcasts her project tips on her own web show, or Jody Hudy who surprised President Obama with a marshmallow cannon at the White House are valued alongside decades-older master tinkerers and inventors. Schools may create opportunities for mentoring and apprenticeship by connecting with the greater community. Access to expertise must not be limited to the classroom teacher.

Learning is intensely personal – The current buzz about “personalized learning” is more often than not a scheme to deliver content by computerized algorithm. Not only is it magical thinking to believe that computers can teach, it confuses learning with delivering content. Learning happens inside the individual. It can’t be designed or delivered. Learning is personal – always. The Maker Movement values the intensity of the learning experience with endless options and choices about what a person might find interesting or fall in love with. Giving kids the opportunity to learn about what they love means they will love what they learn.

It IS about the technology – Some educators like to say that technology is “just a tool” that should fit seamlessly into classrooms. In contrast, the Maker Movement sees tools and technology as the essential element for solving unsolvable problems. To Makers, a 3D printer is not for learning to make 3D objects, but is the raw material for solving problems like how to create inexpensive but custom-fit prosthetics for people anywhere in the world, or print a pizza for hungry astronauts. The Maker philosophy prepares kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with technology we can’t yet imagine.

Ownership – One motto of the Maker Movement is “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” Educators often talk about how learners should own their own learning, but if the learner doesn’t have control, they can’t own it. Teachers should consider that prepackaged experiences for students, even in the name of efficiency, are depriving students of owning their own learning.

Common Core and the new Next Generation Science Standards emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and 21st century skills. To achieve these goals requires taking a hard look at both what we teach and how we teach it. The Maker Movement offers lessons, tools, and technology to steer a new course to more relevant, engaging learning experiences for all students.