Maker culture

Think of learning at its earliest stage: a baby learning to play with blocks or manipulate objects in three dimensional space. It’s something our human brains are hard-wired to do and acts, like putting one block on top of another, or knocking things down to see how they fall, has informed countless theories of learning upon which we base our education system. Researchers like Dewey and Piaget talk about constructivism — suggesting that learning is an active process in which people actively construct knowledge from their experience in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them.

This idea of making, of building, of constructing has a strong basis in research. Active learning increases the rate of learning faster than passive learning. Simply watching others build or make things fire up parts of our brain that are left untouched by passive learning.

The maker movement is all about putting the making back into learning. The man known as the godfather of the maker movement — Seymour Papert — talks about constructionism, arguing that people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful products. Important to the process is the presentation of those products to an interested, authentic audience.

What are the drivers for a maker culture?

While the maker movement has been around in many forms, it’s only now that we’re starting to see technology catch up with our aspirations for a powerful, active, authentic education. Think of the arrival of the first personal computers, and, in particular, those early dot matrix printers. Computers were great, but they took a step up when you could build something useful with them — like endless badly designed birthday party invitations, and school project title pages.

But, think of what we have access to now — particularly affordable access. 3D printers for one thing. Last week we broke the bracket that holds up the towel rail in our bathroom. The first thing I thought was not, Oh, we’ve broken it. It was ‘I wish we had a 3D printer’, because I could scan the broken part with the camera on my phone and printer a replacement. It’s a geeky first thought — but, hey! That’s me. And it’s conceivable that there will be some form of 3D printer in many homes in the foreseeable future. The costs have really come down, from $5000 or $6000 a few years ago to around $1500 now. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in schools, with a number that I know of having 3 or 4 for learners to prototype designs and build actual solutions for real world problems. Is your Nan having trouble plugging the jug in because of her arthritis? There’s your year 7 technology project. Learning about insects for science? Design and print a bug hotel that you can attach to a tree or a fence for insects to live in. It’s all made possible by the magic of 3D printing and a range of 3D modelling software tools — many of which are open source and able to be installed on any computer learners have access to.

A big part of this process is the design thinking that goes around it: deeply inquiring into the problem you’re trying to solve before developing a range of different solutions, and iteratively improving the most promising ones. That’s right at the heart of one of the trickiest values of the New Zealand Curriculum, that of innovation. How do we teach our kids to be innovators and entrepreneurs? Not necessarily for people to go out and make fortunes with the next big idea, but people who’ve got ideas — good ones that improve the lives of those around them — whether that's in business or not — communities, families, the whole world. We need a bit more of that stuff.

Another driver of the maker movement has been the emergence of a powerful suite of small electronic microprocessors — little computers that you can program with a bit of code and have do all sorts of interesting things. Often they snap together with little extra like light or movement sensors or bluetooth and wireless modules, and all of a sudden you’ve got something you can attach a solar panel and a rechargeable battery to, and you’ve got a completely self-contained, internet-connected data gathering tool. So what do you want to know? How many sunlight hours there have been each day this month? What the maximum temperature has been every day this week? How cool would that be? Kids building the datalogger they use to complete their totally authentic, integrated mathematics or science unit on the environment. The Arduino and the Raspberry Pi might sound like funny names, but they are essentially tiny, extremely affordable computers that kids can add to like lego. This freedom and creativity is right at the heart of the maker movement.

What is the impact of this trend?

Another thing that is right at the heart of the maker movement is this mashing together of traditionally siloed areas. Art, technology, design, music, film, science all come crashing together in the maker movement. Want to sew a circuit into the hoodie you wear when you ride your bike home so that an arrow made of LED lights on your back indicates which way you’re turning? Piece of cake. What about creating an interactive sculpture that changes colour depending on the kind of music you play in the room? No trouble.

So what’s the impact of all this possibility on learning? For one thing we've got more chance to unleash student creativity than ever before. And we’ve got the chance to really connect our learning to the real world for another. We can solve real-world problems and give students the kind of voice and confidence that they need.

Implications and challenges

Learning needs to continue to move from giving kids answers to memorise, to giving them problems to solve. Our learners have the ability to shape and bend all sorts of technology to meet their needs — we need to make sure we’re giving them plenty of opportunities to do it. Design thinking and design processes need to be central to our planning, not only to meet learners’ needs, but also to give them opportunities to meet others’ needs. We can start small:

  • Grab a little electronics starter kit that doesn’t need soldering skills or even a good understanding of circuits, and see what your kids can do with it.
  • Talk to your principal about getting a 3D printer.
  • Download something like Sketchup so kids can start playing around.

Because, it’s this playfulness that’s at the heart of the maker movement.

Learn, participate, and share

CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to learner orientation in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.