Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lessons from the Makerspace
Teachers play new roles in a maker-centered classroom, encouraging a new kind of learning
This year, the Agency by Design research team interviewed educators at the forefront of maker-centered learning to gain their perspectives and to learn more about their approaches to teaching. While the team’s interview questions did not explicitly ask about teacher roles, many of the student outcomes that were discussed were linked to teacher behaviors. As a research assistant for the AbD team, I have had the opportunity to look closely at these interviews, and I now understand that maker educators’ roles are complex and ever changing, based on circumstances and student needs.
Teaching has many goals, but for years, didactic lectures dominated classrooms across the country. Thankfully, education has progressed in many ways, including how we view the role of classroom teachers. With a greater emphasis on peer collaboration and project-based learning, teaching has become more akin to facilitating. But when looking at the roles of educators in makerspaces and maker-centered classrooms, it seems that teachers are much more than facilitators. Teachers can be guides, cheerleaders, motivators, connectors, advocates, learners, mentors, and coaches, among many other roles.
After coding the Agency by Design interview data and seeing the range of possible teacher roles that were mentioned, two stood out to me as important shifts in how I think about the teaching profession: teachers as learners and teachers as connectors.
Teachers as Learners
What happens when a teacher doesn’t have the answer? In a chemistry class, this might give students a reason to doubt the teacher’s authority and expertise, but in a maker-centered learning environment, it may become an opportunity for students to take ownership over their learning. Instead of constantly going to the teacher for direction and support, learners can develop their information sourcing skills — whether through accessing the Internet, consulting experts in the community, or collaborating with peers. When teachers take on the role of learner, it allows a more genuine relationship to develop between the teacher and student, in a way that doesn’t typically happen in the classroom. Together, they can question, explore, and answer questions. This role may be challenging for both teachers and students, but it may also be an opportunity to enhance the learning experience.
Teachers as Connectors
Maker-centered learning environments provide an opportunity for students to become experts in a particular skill or content area. Instead of using adults as the sole source of information, teachers can connect students to one another when they need to learn how to use a new machine or create a functioning circuit. When teachers allow students to take on leadership roles, students become empowered in the space and confident in their own skill sets. Teachers can also connect students to external resources, such as experts in a specific field or museum exhibits covering a relevant topic. They might also connect students to new ideas or ways of thinking. As teachers connect students to different resources, learning can happen outside the traditional teacher-student relationship.
Thinking differently about the role of teachers in maker-centered learning environments is helpful, but it also raises some interesting questions. In makerspaces and maker-centered classrooms, a teacher’s role may shift throughout a given hour, day, week, or semester. So how do teachers in these environments know what role to take on in a given situation? Furthermore, do maker-centered educators need to come from a traditional educational background? Could community experts serve important teacher roles in the maker classroom?
Read more about Agency by Design and its new white paper and thinking routines.