Sunday is my writing day. The buzz I get from black coffee does something magical for my imagination first thing in the morning and I can usually get two solid hours of writing in before I even look up. That is how it has always worked for me. Until this morning.
My bibliography laid open on the screen and all of my printed research was meaningfully annotated and marked. I really was proud of my ADHD-self. I did a quick inventory of the articles I had in my bibliography, and one of the articles was missing. A minor setback. It was still early so I printed and sat down to read it.
Not even a page in, I realized that I was in trouble.
In less than 200 words, the article authors smacked me upside my head and literally changed my entire point of view of the makerspace movement. My new point of view changed the entire trajectory of this article. Message-less and purposeless, I did what any good writer would do. I went shopping.
How did this happen? How have I gone all this time without really knowing about this? What have I been reading? Why does no one cite these studies in what I do read? These were all questions swimming through my head as I traversed the Staten Island Mall. Then, it happened. Somewhere between SuperDry and Sephora, I had a paradigm shift in my idea of the purpose of an educational makerspace. That made all the difference. Talk about retail therapy.
I am going to admit something that I’m somewhat ashamed to share, but up until the moment I read that article, I truly did not understand the Maker Movement at its foundation. I know makerspaces can be done properly, but I feel the meaning and purpose of the educational makerspace is getting lost among the many tools, toys and technology for makers and slick gimmicks from companies hawking their wares. It feels so commercial and flashy. I am thirsty for research.
This article is meant as a re-introduction to the makerspace. I will review articles that I think are important to school librarians; articles that describe the philosophy and brief history of educational makerspaces. I will also talk about how we can meet the learning needs of K-5 students through makerspaces.
It is true. As an emerging area of study, the body of empirical research in makerspaces for children and youth is small but growing. Makerspaces for youth have been explored principally from the perspectives of learning, sense making, or the competencies or training needs of the adults who work in makerspaces. There is a gap in the literature in terms of critical, technical practice and young people (Bowler, 2015).
Although the pool of research is small, the work is mighty and worthwhile. I would like to see more professionals interacting with the research that has been started by scholars and school librarians to create a new iteration for their population or referencing the practices and findings of seminal researchers in the maker movement in their projects.
The Magical Article
The article Part 1 of Making and Educational Makerspace by Kurti, Kurti and Fleming was the one that turned my head. It included the best definition of “makerspaces” I have found.
“The maker movement is built on the foundation of constructionism, which is the philosophy of hands-on learning through building things. Constructionism, in turn, is the application of of constructivist learning principles to a hands-on learning environment. The maker education is a branch of constructivist philosophy that views learning as a highly personal endeavor requiring the student, rather than the teacher, to initiate the learning process. In this philosophy of learning, teachers act as a guide for inquiry-based approaches to the development of knowledge and thinking processes.”
Constructionist learning is when learners build mental models to understand their world. Constructionism advocates student-centered, discovery-learning where students use information they already know to build new knowledge. In this way, learning is a reconstruction rather than a transmission of knowledge. This type of learning happens best in groups and through project based experiences. Constructionist learning involves students drawing their own conclusions through creative experimentation and the making of real-world objects with teacher as facilitator or guide.
The part of this article that really struck me was the attention the authors paid to the feel of an educational makerspace versus commercial makerspace. Feel is a hard thing to qualify, but then again, do you not always know when teaching is going well because it just feels right. The authors broke down this nebulous idea by attaching a student’s feeling to his/her attraction to the space and inspiration to use it. As the article puts it, a makerspace without makers is just a workshop full of lonely tools.
Creating an invitation for children to be curious is one of the most important considerations in the educational makerspace environment. If a child feels curious about something, she/he will be drawn to it. This curiosity is an enormous motivator to the learning process. Closely linked to curiosity is wonder. Wonder is a fast-fading ethic in our culture, yet the awe that comes from the unexplained is a very necessary component in curiosity (Kurti). A sense of wonder has been lost in schools, suffocated by a regular battery of assessments, data collection and paperwork, so we owe it to children to provide an oasis where their curiosity and wonder can roam unfettered by rules, standards, and tests.
To drive home their point, the authors likened a teacher/librarian in a makerspace to a master strategist in the army. The tools/materials are the army, not the students. Yes, you read correctly. The teacher, as master strategist arranges the tools in such a way that the students are gently guided by the tools/materials to construct their own learning for authentic purposes. A well-planned makerspace will allow students to learn without even knowing they are doing it.
This article hit all the right notes for me but its focus on individuality changed my view completely. I long for the days of Marlo Thomas when we were Free To Be You and Me. The Makerspace unleashes children to be themselves and come up with solutions and ideas that are uniquely their own, unblemished by prescribed notions and fixed parameters of classrooms and fight against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality of learning.
This article offers 3 guiding principles of an educational makerspaces.
- It’s OK to fail – Let’s give the word failure the update it needs. Failure is an adjustment. Failure is a step toward success. Curious children that are inspired to wonder grow into innovators, inventors, artists, and scientists. No invention, work of art, or experiment has a single iteration. These projects were only accomplished because of prior failures. Children need to know that in an educational makerspace, failure is encouraged.
- Breaking things is not a cardinal sin – Innovation is imperfect. Although it is important that kids are safe, when creating they may occasionally break something. We must be as okay with broken tools as we are with failure. Putting negative ideas into one’s head about treating tools and materials with kid gloves inhibits children from the joy of discovery.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate – In education, working in a team is paramount. The makerspace is no different. In it, children work together, focusing on the areas in which they excel, and sharing their knowledge with one another to solve a challenge. The challenges presented should be too great for any one person to solve solo; it should promote collaboration as the best way for children to work and achieve the best outcome.
Meeting Learning Needs in the Makerspace
Prior to writing this article, I viewed makerspaces as something that could possibly supplant the true meaning of libraries, and that is to foster a love for pleasure reading and knowledge. While my feelings about the purpose of libraries at their core remains steadfast, my appreciation for the benefits that a makerspace can bring to a school library have increased ten-fold. This is education at its finest–understanding gained through inquisitive tinkering, participatory experience, and hands-on learning. And this leads one to ask: Why not embrace them?
Though prescribed standards seem to be at odds with the core principles of the makerspace, we operate in a time of standardization. For example, let’s look at the AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner which has guidelines for today’s inquisitive and curious learner (Gustafson). According to the section Standards for the 21st-Century Learner in Action, in today’s world, “Acquiring knowledge alone does not guarantee that this learning will be applied. Learning in the twenty-first century also requires a capacity to learn that reflects a range of dispositions: to be curious, resilient, flexible, imaginative, critical, reflective, and self-evaluative” (AASL 2009, 40).
Meeting Needs: Makerspaces and School Libraries by Ellen Gustafson highlights some examples of of the AASL Standards that speak to the work that happens inside makerspaces. Many students, when given free rein in a makerspace:
- Display initiative and engagement by positing questions and investigating the answers beyond the collection of superficial facts (1.2.1)
- Demonstrate adaptability by changing the inquiry focus, questions, resources, or strategies when necessary to achieve success (1.2.5)
- Use both divergent and convergent thinking to formulate alternative conclusions and test them against the evidence (2.2.2)
- Demonstrate leadership and confidence by presenting ideas to others in both formal and informal situations (3.2.1)
- Demonstrate motivation by seeking information to answer personal questions and interests, trying a variety of formats and genres, and displaying a willingness to go beyond academic requirement (4.2.2)
- Maintain openness to new ideas by considering divergent opinions or conclusions when evidence supports the change, and seeking information about new ideas encountered through academic and personal experience (4.2.3) (AASL 2007).
I personally would not hold students accountable to the above (or any other) standards. I would not even make the standards known to students. I see standards as an impediment to the creative process. In my view, standards are an anathema to makerspaces. The beauty of the makerspace is that I am sure students more consistently hit benchmarks through independent creation rather than through prescribed curriculum, any day of the week. Kids have enough standards and educational jargon in the classroom. The makerspace is the chance for pure and unabashed fun.
So back to our outcome-obsessed culture. The best thing to come out of researching this article can be summed up in one word. Hope. Hope that the word fun will become part of educational parlance. Hope that curiosity, imagination and individuality will take their rightful place as the main course and not just a side-order to learning. And hope that we teachers and librarians take very seriously the makerspace, because it has the potential to revolutionize the way kids learn in the library and in the classroom, but not without our due diligence to understand the movement, read the research and implement it thoughtfully.
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