What We Learn from Making

New insights, new tools help educators expand the possibilities of maker-centered learning

By Bari Walsh, on May 26, 2015 11:59 AM
What We Learn from Making: New insights, new tools help educators expand the possibilities of maker-centered learning #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

What are the real benefits of a maker-centered approach to learning? It’s often described as a way to incubate STEM skills or drive technical innovation — and it is probably both of these. But as a new report from Project Zero’s Agency by Design concludes, the real value of maker education has more to do with building character than with building the next industrial revolution.  

In a white paper [PDF] marking the end of its second year, Agency by Design (AbD) finds that among the benefits that may accrue along the maker ed path, the most striking is the sense of inspiration that students take away — a budding understanding of themselves as actors in their community, empowered “to engage with and shape the designed dimensions of their worlds.”

The report offers a glimpse of the emerging findings of AbD’s multiyear research initiative, exploring the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning.  In tandem with a new website that offers important educational resources, including thinking routines to stimulate learning, the paper solidifies Agency by Design’s efforts to shape a set of research-based, educator-tested practices and to invite the broad community of maker educators into a conversation about the ideas driving and shaping the movement.

New Tools

Empowerment is a key goal of maker-centered learning — helping young people feel that they can build and shape their worlds. That sense of “maker empowerment” arises when students learn to notice and engage with their physical and conceptual environments, the report states. To encourage that heightened sensitivity, educators should provide opportunities for students to:

  • look closely and reflect on the design of objects and systems;
  • explore the complexity of design;
  • and understand themselves as designers of their worlds.

AbD’s four downloadable thinking routines [available as PDFs from the educator resources page] are short, deceptively simple strategies that can be used in a variety of classroom settings to encourage these capacities. Each two-page routine includes tips and suggestions on how to get started.

In one routine, called Parts, People, and Interactions [PDF], students are invited to slow down and think deeply about the details of an ordinary system that might go unnoticed: the lunch line at the cafeteria, the collection and recycling of the school’s trash, or the subway system, for example.

Students choose a system and ask:

  • What are the parts of the system?
  • Who are the people connected to the system?
  • How do the people in the system interact with each other and with the parts of the system?
  • How does a change in one element of the system affect the various parts and people connected to the system?

With observation, students begin to notice the complexities at work in their everyday environments. They see that a change in one aspect of the system may have effects — intended or not — on another aspect of the system. And they begin to see the multitude of subsystems within systems, triggering curiosity, raising questions, and introducing them to new modes of thinking.

Expanding the Circle

For two years, Agency by Design has partnered with preK–12 educators in Oakland, California, to develop instructional strategies and tools to help students think critically about the design of objects, ideas, and systems — and to test the notion that maker-based experiences can increase students’ sense of self-efficacy. AbD has now expanded this Oakland Learning Community into a national learning community of maker-centered educators in a variety of formal and informal settings.

Edward Clapp, a lecturer on education at HGSE and a member of AbD’s core research team, presented some of the instructional resources at last week’s Maker Education Convening and Bay Area Maker Faire — and found that many attendees were already using them. “There was so much enthusiasm,” Clapp says. “It's exciting to see how educators are applying these resources in so many different settings.”

Implications for policymakers and funders

“This is an important moment for policymakers, funders, and others interested in supporting an alternative narrative for education that focuses on deep and prolonged experiences of learning through making,” the paper’s authors state. To move the field forward, interested stakeholders should work to:

  • support efforts to document and assess maker-centered learning and teaching, through the development of frameworks and assessment practices that capture the most compelling benefits
  • support efforts to make maker-centered learning experiences more inclusive and accessible to a wider and more diverse array of young people and communities (since a key tenet of the maker movement is that making is better when fueled by the experiences of a wide range of backgrounds)
  • offer more maker-related professional development experiences for educators
  • expand research that examines maker experiences through a learning lens

Additional Resources

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Topics in this article

Mind and Brain, Learning, Teaching, Curriculum, Arts