Makerspaces are simply portals of possibility

This was a piece written for NZ Education Review to give an overview of Maker Ed and my thoughts about how to move into action

The Maker Movement is characterised by a can-do attitude, a love for tinkering and sense of community. It is driven by a willingness of people to learn, fail and share together on and offline. Often not a linear process but a messy one, it creates a personal journey towards a tangible outcome. Need to make or fix something? A quick search online will uncover an instant community to tap into to help get it off the ground which sees the traditional DIY endeavour evolve into a DIT (do-it-together) model of networked knowledge.

The sharing economy has converged with the affordability of technologies such as 3D printers, microprocessors and laser cutters, providing the spark that has driven the Maker Movement to go mainstream. As the cost of innovation has been driven down the global maker community has risen up and is readily available at the end of an internet connection. It’s a ‘number 8 wire’ meets new-tech mash-up that sees new technologies in the hands of everyday people, and as a result we see public libraries, museums and schools jumping to open the doors to makerspaces and innovation labs.

While these spaces expand access to the tools of making, they are not the magic answer to turning consumers into creators, and instead should be seen as portals of possibility shaped by the participants. Whether stacked with the latest and greatest gadgets or simply a corner stocked with craft supplies and an old laptop, the spaces themselves are second to the learners. What activates a makerspace is not the gadgets, but the thinking happening inside. It’s not about the makerspace, it’s about the mindset.

Whether things are made from the latest tech or simply hot-glued cardboard and old computer parts, the maker mindset ignites curiosity and nurtures collaboration through hands-on participation encouraging a problem solving approach. It offers a different lens to support the development of key competencies through an iterative process of learning to learn in a constant loop of wondering, doing and reflecting.

You don’t need a makerspace to make, but what is needed is a maker mindset. If the focus is on the shiny new stuff or the newly built space that holds the stuff then the point of the Maker Movement has been lost and will be quickly tossed to the pile of tired ed tech fads. It’s easy to throw a 3D printer in the corner of a classroom and do a quick activity without having to actively shift mindsets – for learners and for ourselves.

While a cursory glance around a maker-centred classroom may give you the impression that it is merely ‘hands-on’ and could be categorised as project-based learning, once you ask learners about what is happening you will see it goes deeper. Not all projects are the same, and while they could start at the same point, the nature is for them to deviate based on the individual becoming more complex, varied or simple along the way. This type of experience won’t come from handing out step-by-step instructions.

Having all learners follow a preset template and methodology for building or making the same thing, in the same way, misses the point and spirit of maker culture.

It is in the multiplicity of skills used to make something and the critical thinking and problem solving that accompanies it that creates the perfect storm for learning.

So, if it’s not the shiny stuff or the space, where do we begin in bringing a maker-centred approach to the classroom?


Look for the intersections

Launching head first into a maker project with a class hurtling towards an undefined outcome can be a daunting task. Instead, look for intersections between learners’ interests and curriculum areas that could be supported by a maker-centred approach. See them as opportunities to cultivate the mindset by offering a low-threshold, high-return experience that introduces learners to the idea of iteration and prototyping.

This could mean starting with kitset-type activities where resources and outcome are defined but students are free to choose how to get there. Place emphasis on creating several iterations promoting a focus on process rather than product. Examples could be designing 3D models of book settings learners are reading using Tinkercad (free browser-based modelling software) or creating paper circuit interactive artworks that explain aspects of Earth science.

As learners begin to develop a maker mindset then it is about shifting to more open-ended projects. Look at ways to shift further up the continuum by using provocations to design learning experiences where more control is in the learner’s hands. Use a problem-hunting approach with learners to self-identify issues then design and create outcomes for social good, or set a challenge that could lead learners to explore a variety of materials and tools on their way to a presenting a prototype to their peers or community.

Be a compass, not a map

Maker projects have unpredictable paths and often unpredictable outcomes, both of which run counter to traditional classroom activity. As such they begin to reconstruct the relationship between teacher and student as teachers become the compass and not the map. Both need to be open to giving things a try and being comfortable sitting in the unknown. For a teacher this means being a facilitator, comfortable not knowing the answers. Support the process of learning to nurture the creative confidence and culture in the classroom.

Document it all

With an emphasis on learning to learn rather than following a set of guidelines, the role of documentation is an important one in a maker-centred classroom. Use it to support the maker mindset through pause and reflection on what has worked or not and where to go to next. In the classroom this could be about setting up a maker diary, blog or vlog to capture thinking, dialogue with peers or feedback from users. Documenting iterations and using them to discuss and highlight what does and doesn’t work supports the reframing of failure from an end point and instead the beginning of the next iteration

Make time for tinkering

Tinkering as a form of playful learning uses generative thinking processes. Learners need the space to loop between divergent and convergent thinking modes, which can be frustrating. Learners can at times come up with one idea and be stuck solely on wanting to do that before exploring options. But this is part of tinkering, being comfortable navigating between stuck and unstuck.

Tinkering takes time, and not just hands-on tinkering, but tinkering with ideas. Support the time and space needed for ideas to marinate and grow rather than contract too quickly. Only when learners want to figure something out will it happen, and only when they need to learn something will they keep trying until they get it.

Bringing a maker-centred approach into the classroom starts with the teacher developing their own can-do maker mindset, nurturing the spark to grow for themselves as well as their learners. Making isn’t a spectator sport, it requires participation and needs teachers to embrace the uncomfortable and start making, failing and iterating alongside learners. Start small and build from there. Think of it like building a house; rather than using a blueprint and constructing parts to create a whole, think of it as having a week to build a one-room bach. Then the following week add a deck, then maybe another room. Create, stop and reflect, then go back and refine.

As is often discussed, we don’t know what types of world and occupation learners will find themselves in once they leave our schools. Sue Suckling from NZQA spoke recently at the Singularity Summit, highlighting the need to be thinking about how we are educating to enable our population to participate in this new landscape. The ability to continue learning, preserve and push through – all markers of a maker mindset – will go far to support learners to cope in this unknown territory.

Mindset shifts won’t come about with the introduction of any new technological advancement, latest 3D printer or well-supplied makerspace. They begin with knowing learners and designing learning experiences that provide opportunities to get both hands-on and heads-on to try new things, tinker and create.