The hand and the mind

Why schools need a broader perspective on digital literacy and why they need to embrace the Maker Movement

Having worked with educational development and IT in education for over a decade I have followed the coming of “one laptop per child” in schools, and the ongoing shift in education from a classroom where the pinnacle of technology was the overhead projector, to classrooms where all students have a laptop or tablet and where wifi is ubiquitous. This shift is well needed and still continues in Sweden and elsewhere. Many schools today have much needed technology, but even more schools dont. There still is a severe digital divide between those schools that are on par with society at large, and those who have a standard of technology that reminds one of the 1990s. In many municipalities there is conflict between IT departments and educational departments on how to view technology in education. Is it primarily a piece of equipment to be guarded and organized by the IT department, or is it a tool for learning, cared for and used by educators? And in many schools where the digital tools are in place, the pedagogical methodologies needed to master education in a digital world are yet to be found. There are indeed many hurdles to overcome in changing education and making it relevant.

Yet there is another, equally challenging issue related to technology in education, that so far has gone mostly unnoticed.When introducing IT in schools, it has mainly come to be used as a tool. A tool for the mind. As such, it is a wonderful, almost magical technology. But is it the only way to use IT in education? Might there be other, equally beneficial ways and means of using IT in education that isn’t utilized?

I believe so.

The hand and the mind

Since René Descartes wrote the unfinished treatise “La description du corps humain” in 1647 we have tended to hold on to the dualist view that the mind is separated from the body. We have nurtured the mind in higher education, and we believe that the work of the mind is of much higher value than the work of the hand. An intellectual skill is viewed to be more important than a practical skill. With today’s advances in biology, biochemistry, psychology and neuroscience, we know that this division does not exist. But nevertheless the dualistic viewpoint is prolific.

With this in mind, its not strange at all that IT in education primarily have been focused on being a tool for the mind, rather than being something else. But what if IT in education could be so much more? What if the metaphor of the computer being a tool is just not enough?

Being a Maker

Ever since the dawn of the personal computer, makers and tinkerers have been experimenting, tweaking and building with computers. This practical and theoretical practice was what engaged people such as Steve Wozniak in the Homebrew Computer Club, and further on lead to companies such as Apple. Its what got Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg into writing software. Its this mix of practical and theoretical, of designing and prototyping, which has led Elon Musk into re-imagining the electrical car as well as the rocket.

This same practice of making and tinkering, is what has been at the core of most innovation throughout all human history. Its nothing new. But in our digital, highly commercialized world, where most things we have around us are bought rather than created, reused, remixed or repurposed, the practices of making and tinkering have been placed on the side line. It is often viewed upon as being part of our cultural heritage rather than something useful in our modern day society. Over the time span of a century we have gone from a society where most people had some knowledge of making, to a society where it is a rare competence. The industrial and consumerist society, where the mall and the supermarket replaced the hardware store and the local stores, did not only shift culture and work, but also our common, everyday competences. The work of the hand became outsourced or left for robots to do. And while reaping the fruits of the rapid economical benefits and the growth of the industrial era, we left the knowledge and practices of the hand behind.

I would like to see another development. I perceive the division of hand and mind to be completely wrong. I think its high time we valued the work of the hand as being equal to the work of the mind. I think its time to view the whole issue from another angle.

In schools in Sweden there are a set of school subjects in primary school that specifically works in crafts and making. They are needleworking, woodworking and metalworking. Home Economics and Cooking might also fall into this category as it in Sweden often is of practical nature. Theres also a technology subject that mainly focuses on mechanical and electrical engineering.

During the introduction of digital technology in schools, and in order to speed things up, voices have been raised to get rid of these subjects concerning crafts, and instead introducing subjects to do with the digital, such as computer programming and digital design. I ask myself why we would want one instead of the other, when both perspective ties neatly into each other, thus creating a basket if subjects focused on innovation, making, design and crafts.

A makerspace in every school

I think it is time to put the art, craft and knowledge of design and making, be it digital or physical, into the same basket. And while at it, introduce the crafts to new tools, technologies and methodologies.

I want all schools and preferably institutions of higher education as well, to have a makerspace. A place made for making and designing, tinkering and exploring, studying and experimenting. Both with the hand and with the mind. In all places where theres a public library there should be a public makerspace. A place with tools for all occasions — from CNC milling, 3D printing, sewing, metalworking, woodworking, knitting and electrical engineering, to computer programming, designing in CAD and so forth. The makerspace should utilize open hardware, open software and open licenses such as creative commons, to further enable pupils and students to tinker and explore. To fully embrace one of the mottos of the Maker Movement —”If it can't be opened, you don't own it.”

A makerspace in an educational setting raises awareness of science and technology. It provides a place of both making and reflecting, working and experimenting. It teaches methodologies and practices that might inspire more children, girls and boys, to try out the path of the scientist or engineer, or go into manufacturing or making.

I want the curricula to focus not on what specific material one uses, but rather on the process and design. Materials could be both physical and digital. Perhaps both at the same time. It could be wood, clay, cloth, plastic or electrical circuitry, code and machine.

By introducing IT not only as a tool, but as a design material, it becomes possible to see its purpose and function in everyday life, under the hood. It becomes easier to see the emerging internet of things, in both its physical and digital sense. It enables pupils and students agency not only when it comes to matters of the mind, but also matters of the hand. It reframes the importance of vocational education and the need for skilled workers of all shapes and sizes. It enables for more innovation, experimentation and collaboration.

Changing how school works

It becomes easier to design learning so that it clearly focuses on the interests of the learner. By bringing in practices of iterative design and rapid prototyping into school, you enable much shorter feedback loops between learning and time of assessment which in turn enables better formative practices. By bringing several subject matters into the same space and time, collaboration and exchange between teachers increase, further expanding teachers knowledge of both their own subjects and others.

So lets not sit and wait for things to change. What it really takes to make change such as this is grit and passion. So, I dare you. Get at it. Start small and go on step at a time. A good place to start if you want to explore making a makerspace is here.

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