Is “making” in education a fad or a lasting change?

In part 1 of this two part series, I shared four attributes of ideas about education that successfully become common knowledge. In this post, part 2, the topic is whether making and makerspaces in education are here to stay or whether they will fade in popularity.

According to From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship becomes Common Knowledge in Education by Jack Schneider, there are four attributes that are key to educational ideas moving into the mainstream:

  1. Perceived significance
  2. Philosophical compatibility
  3. Occupational realism
  4. Transportability

Read more about these attributes in Part 1–4 keys that predict which education ideas will be more than just a fad. The examples used to illustrate these points are:

The current interest in schools in making and makerspaces has many parallels to these examples. Looking at each one of these attributes under a “maker” microscope is an interesting exercise!

Perceived significance

People have to hear about it and believe it’s important. It has to address a timely, significant issue on teacher’s minds. It also has to come from a place that inspires believability. (To be blunt on this last point, prestigious university credentials matter.)

  • The maker movement came at an opportune time for the resurgence of the idea that children learn through hands-on, minds-on experiences. Having popular media create a widespread acceptance that DIY and crafts are modern and futuristic helps with the adoption of this idea.
  • Having multiple, prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard doing research that supports making in education is important. The intellectual pedigree may be seen as elitist, but there is no doubt that it works as shorthand for establishing credibility.
  • It jigsaws with two contemporary concerns without really taking a side:
  1. The current interest in STEM/STEAM education driven by a perceived lack of preparation of today’s youth for jobs in important industries.
  2. The concern that young people do not see school as relevant to their real passions, including wanting to make the world a better place as opposed to making money.

Philosophical compatibility

Educators often complain that scholars don’t have any idea what happens in real classrooms. Scholars complain that educators rely on folk wisdom and tradition rather than research. But when scholarship validates what teachers feel, it has a special resonance.

  • Making is an obvious backlash to the standards and accountability movements of the last 30 years. It gives teachers a concrete way to put their beliefs–-or at least an answer to their nagging doubts–-into practice.
  • The maker movement can be seen through a number of lenses: personal accountability, a new economic engine, techno-centrism, globalism, practical skills, community involvement, ecology, etc. These attributes transfer to making in education, creating a chameleon that takes whatever shape educators and the community desire.
  • Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, the vagueness of “maker education” might be an asset in more widespread adoption.

Occupational realism

The idea has to be easily put into use. It must not require extensive training or major changes to existing structures and practices.

  • This is an ongoing issue for making in education. If it requires a wholesale shakeup in the way a school is run, the subjects that are taught, and the way teachers teach, that is a big lift. It may, like the project method, become an add-on practice.

Seymour Papert often compared the way school reacts to big ideas like the computer as an immune system response. School identifies a foreign idea, overwhelms it, and neutralizes it.

“Previously teachers with a few computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day. When the administration takes over they make a special room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a computer period with a computer teacher. Instead of becoming something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of school, computers became assimilated. It is inherent in school, not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they have. So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument into essentially a conservative one. School does not want to radically change itself. The power of computers is not to improve school but to replace it with a different kind of structure.” http://www.papert.org/articles/SchoolsOut.html

Re-read the paragraph above replacing “makerspace” for “computer lab” and “3D printer” (or your favorite maker technology) for “computer.” Has anything changed?

It was certainly a good thing that children got access to computers. But in many schools, students only learned to use computers to take notes, write reports, and look things up–-hardly new ways to learn. Computer labs and computer classes instead resulted in schools being satisfied that they were using modern technology without having to actually change the content or pedagogy of any “regular” class. The computer lab became a misdirection, an excuse for the status quo, rather than a driver of change.

How will it feel, if two years or twenty years from now we look back and say exactly the same thing about makerspaces? That we built them, we tried to integrate making into the curriculum, we thought it would change everything — but nothing happened.

When schools insist that making fit into existing curriculum and subjects, it’s reasonable to agree and to try to create materials that help teachers do that. The risk is twofold: 1. If this doesn’t happen and making is not in the curriculum, it will always be on the outside, not a core need or intent of school and not impacting most students. 2. If we do make it work in the curriculum, it will simply be muted, and gradually absorbed as the school creates a new stable equilibrium without really making any change to the lived experiences of the students.

Either of these choices ends up with nothing really changing.

The other option, as Papert points out, is to replace school with a “different kind of structure.” Is that giving up… or facing reality?

Can educators have their feet pointed in two directions at once–both working to drastically change the system and at the same time, assisting students in the current system to have a better experience? Is “occupational realism” a death sentence for ideas that are truly revolutionary?

Transportability

The research and terminology must be easily understood. It must have both a big idea that can be quickly expressed, and simple parts that support the whole.

  • The good thing about “making” is that it’s an easy word to understand. Students need to do things, and educators can visualize that happening at every grade level, and perhaps with a little help, in every subject area.
  • It embodies the commonly understood ideals of the project method, plus embraces more modern versions like PBL. To that it adds a bundle of futuristic and cool tools to work with.

A note about independent schools

Private independent schools have been early and enthusiastic adopters of making in education. While it is easy to point to these schools having the financial resources to purchase expensive technology, there are deeper reasons that making resonates with independent schools. This was also true of the theory of Multiple Intelligences. In his book, Schneider makes the case that independent schools, primarily elite, non-parochial schools were primary drivers for the popularity of MI.

  • Independent schools are typically more progressive than public schools. MI provided new support for these ideals and scientific language to communicate these progressive ideals to parents and staff.
  • Independent schools are typically freer than public schools to try new approaches and curriculum than public schools. Using MI to recalibrate activities in the classrooms was seen as part of the school mission, not as disruptive.
  • At a time where schools were being called failures and under duress to teach in a more rigorous, standardized way, MI gave independent schools a way to push back on this trend and claim that their progressive methods were scientifically based.
  • As a market-driven organization, independent schools constantly need new things to prove to parents that they are worth the money. MI was an understandable concept, and validated by the Harvard pedigree, an easy sell to parents.
  • Independent schools have traditionally valued the arts, MI provided a way to say that the arts were not detracting from academics.
  • Independent schools catered to parental expectations that their child would be treated as an individual. MI provided clarity that personalization could be scientifically based, not just left to chance.

There are certainly noteworthy parallels between MI and the adoption of making and makerspaces in independent schools. It is good to note that in many cases, the adoption of MI in independent schools created examples of practice that made their way into public schools. MI supporters were found in many communities, working to make all schools happier and more humane.

Is “Making” going to stick?

Will making in education have a lasting effect on education, or will it become just another “new new thing” that is overtaken by some newer new thing? It certainly has the perceived significance. Both academic credentials and cultural trends are working in its favor. It has philosophical compatibility with many teachers and parents too. They see children starving in a desert of worksheets and tests and know there must be a better way.

There may be more to worry about in other areas. In some cases it has transportability, especially when using simplified models like Design Thinking. The problem is that simplified models and canned lesson plans are a double-edged sword. As they helps teachers with operational realities, it removes agency from the teacher. Is it inevitable that creating a version of making in education that is widely acceptable will by its nature create unacceptable compromises?

It may be that countries other than the United States hold the answer. American teachers have the least amount of professional preparation time in the world. They participate in less professional development, have less time to plan lessons, and spend less time with colleagues. The US is a large country with a fractured educational governance and dissemination path for educational information. US teachers are underpaid, overworked, and given all these realities, may simply not be in a position to undertake changes.

While educational theorists often talk about wanting to scale good practice, there may be such a thing as “too big to scale,” especially when it comes to complex ideas.

For proponents of making in education, the longevity and widespread adoption of ideas like Multiple Intelligences offers hope that making will become a long-term trend in schools.

Part 1–4 Keys to Predicting Lasting Trends in Education

Part 2 — Is Making a Long-term Trend or Just a Fad?


Originally published at Sylvia Libow Martinez.