“Making” in California K-12 Education

In schools, “maker” education has been typically known for many years as hands-on project based learning (PBL). While “maker” education continues to deepen its roots in small pockets of the nation’s private education, the introduction and implementation of “making” into California public education still has a long road to go. Efforts are underway to provide access to “making” opportunities to more and more students.

Some of these efforts are underway in the bubbling California charter school movement, with the most well known and established programs running in the High Tech High network of San Diego, the LightHouse Community Charter School of Oakland, and a few of other public schools (including my employer, Bullis Charter School) spread throughout the state. In district managed schools, Fab Lab Richmond (to open in March of 2015) will be the first full blown digital fabrication space to serve a large public school community: the entire PreK-12 population of West Contra Costa Unified School District. Also funded by Chevron and designed in cooperation with the FabLab foundation, another FabLab of similar magnitude is planned for Bakersfield. Castlemont High in Oakland has opened a FabLab this year. Ravenswood City School District in the Bay Area peninsula has an ambitious plan to set up seven MakerSpaces. All these bits of information account for clustered efforts undergoing in a handful of school districts out of over a thousand in CA. The construction or setup of dedicated project based learning spaces is by no means a perfect metric for this daunting task as many other programs subsist without them. However, at the current rate, and with a growing K-12 student population of over 6.5 million, MakerEd’s inspirational motif “Every child a maker” will take an indefinite amount of time to achieve in California.

 

Speaking of MakerEd -the two year old non-profit running out of its headquarters in Oakland-, it is the biggest player in efforts of supporting maker education in and out of state. MakerEd has released information claiming to impact more than “140,000 youth and families” through a diverse set of “youth serving organizations” across 24 states. When asked about their impact in the CA public school arena, Steve Davee, Director fo Education at MakerEd had the following to say: “The best number based on events, our PD, and Maker Ed direct relationships is at least 64 public schools, with easily hundreds more schools benefiting in other ways…” It is clear there is growing interest in the adoption of “maker” education practices by teachers representing many schools in California.

 

Teacher preparation and pedagogy

Meanwhile, it seems that California is behind in offering credentialed teacher preparation dealing with innovative hands-on subject matter and curriculum. It is unclear how many graduates out of California undergraduate STEM and graduate education programs head into the field of project based teaching and learning as opposed to educational app entrepreneurship, moocs, or even traditional textbook classrooms. Another concern has to do with the focus on STEM, which alone may be too narrow to solve the challenges of engaging diverse populations in the state. The first experience of making most children live is art; why is it being left out later in life? Some of the most astounding contemporary art is enabled by STE(A)M. Furthermore, curriculum designed largely by a homogenous population cannot truly serve a heterogenous one.

 

The researchers, ideological parents and advocates of PBL have stated that while introducing any kind of “making” into education is a positive move forward, said move would be better served by being accompanied by a shift in pedagogy. The typical practices of textbook and worksheet instruction, student grading and testing are known to contribute to the development of fixed mindsets, the opposite desired outcome of “maker” education in youth. A welcome development in teacher training is being spearheaded at Sonoma State University with its Maker Certificate Program. With a clear and sound set of educational values, it stands apart from the sea of typical Math and Science education and teacher preparation designed to be instructed, graded and tested.

 

Another pedagogical challenge is that of finding the right balances. Any kind of truly deep project based learning takes significant time and multidisciplinary facilitation. This means teachers of different subject areas need to collaborate on unit integration. A true innovation in education would be to acknowledge the need for time and expertise brought in by teachers with a growth mindset, which goes beyond the standard fragmented curriculum of Math, Science and ELA. Making in the classroom will not get the time and attention it deserves while Math and ELA still occupy most of the curriculum time. This is unfortunately still an effect left behind, almost ironically, by “No Child Left Behind” practices, which emphasized math and english.

 

Standards and assessment

Another push that opens up “making” opportunities in the California public school system has to do with the newly adopted NextGen Science Standards, part of the Common Core Standards. While pedagogically, standards are a divisive issue, the NextGen standards actually do a good job of adding engineering practices into the mix of science while leaving the field very open for content development. Currently, there seem to be no plans to add specific engineering content into the CST examinations (and these won’t be dramatically changed in four or five years). We can only be pro-active in addressing California education leadership to see the benefits of keeping it grade and test free, allowing opportunities for different kinds of making and engineering to be taught and in order to meet and make use of local needs and expertise. A very worthwhile effort of developing alternative assessment in the shape of open portfolios is being conducted by MakerEd in partnership with Indiana University. Friend and FabLearn fellow Christa Flores, has compiled and constructed important recommendations in this area. Another alternative method of assessment comes from Stanford University: choice based assessment. When confronted with problems, do students persevere or find creative solutions instead of giving up? A new framework of assessment is important, as research and data from longitudinal career paths has shown interest to be a more powerful and enduring driving force than concrete skillset building

 

Conclusion and some suggested next steps?

Only through a concerted effort of state and federal government, non-profits, institutions and industry, redesigned pedagogy and assessment methods, and teacher collaboration, curriculum integration and compromise, will it be possible to reach the California student population in the short amount of time needed to build a homebrewed generation of empowered and innovative makers, engineers, artists and designers. With the current momentum and excitement around “maker” education and with the state of California carefully recovering from years of deficit, there are opportunities to regain funding for education. Said funding would be well used to propose and execute student centered programs designed to build agency, interest and growth mindsets as core 21st century skills. Colleges and universities would do schools and families a big favor by accepting portfolios (in addition to essays and perhaps in place of grades and test scores) and looking out for students demonstrating strong interests and good choice making. If this was a statewide (and why not nation wide?) policy, schools and government policymakers would adapt and teach what matters most instead of falling into the grade and test score games. Ultimately, it is the stakeholders who would benefit the most from becoming active in recognizing and demanding an education centered around what matters most.