Maker Teacher in the Classroom: What should I do for students (and what should I not do)?

As a maker, one of the things I like is spending a great deal of time on something, going deep, and feeling that the result is really due to my hard work. I have taken up quilting recently, because it is that kind of project. I need to learn new things, and then do them. It makes me happy.

As a teacher of history, I love bringing in that maker mindset, but I also have a few other priorities that I need to balance with that idea that the maker (in this case the student) should figure it all out. Even when I am teaching in the maker space, or a sewing elective, I still wonder about that perfect balance between what I should do to help and what I want the students to figure out for themselves.

One of the things I have started to do when I explain something to students (something fun, like using the laser cutter, or something perhaps less fun, like constructing proper footnotes using the Chicago style) is to remind them that even though I am telling them all the steps they need, and they have them in the instructions, I don’t expect them to get it all the first time, and they should ask each other and me for help. I do want them to read the instructions and help each other. We are all still working on that.

But it always comes back to the same questions I have asked myself about instructions, kits, prepared sets of parts, and other methods to move things along a bit faster. How much is too much? How much is too little? In some ways this gets at the heart of the difference between my own personal making and my making with students in the classroom. The goals are different, and some of the methods are different too. So rather than thinking in terms of strict rules of making, I want to think in terms of questions to ask and ways to balance competing goods. It is not a case of one right answer, one good answer and one bad one, but rather in any given situation, which of the two good arguments gets to win out a little, even as I try to give some space for the opposite argument.

In some of my projects I have come to a pretty satisfactory balance. When I do my project on the telegraph, I have both instructions and parts, because the lesson is about history, and the making activity brings life, a tactile understanding, and amazing questions and observations from the discussions (questions that have never come up when we just read about the invention and use of the telegraph). But my goal is not to teach the science of electromagnets, or current, or anything. It is not a bad thing that students sometimes ask questions about these things, and I invite them to explore the answers. If I were teaching science class I might reverse the order, give them few instructions and let them figure that part out. Likewise when students make display boards for National History Day I don’t make them discover that contact paper is the best thing to use for covering the cardboard (spray paint will warp the cardboard, leaving it plain won’t work since we recycle the boards) or that if you mount an iPad at the top of the board it normally tips everything over. They could learn from trying other backgrounds, or breaking several iPads, but I have made the decision to start by telling them these things. Sometimes they don’t listen, but that is a different story. I also use the large format color printer to print their images for them — they don’t have time or access to that particular printer, and their other choice would be to pay a copy service, and that costs money some of them don’t have.

There are other projects where I still go back and forth about how much I take away from their opportunity to learn when I tell them the answer. I guess I always will. I do think after almost two decades of teaching 8th graders I am getting better at asking the questions.

  • What does the item I would be giving or doing for them have to do with the point of the lesson?
  • How realistic is it that students can figure it out themselves or make the item themselves?
  • Could I give some help but not do it for them?
  • How much is time a factor?
  • How much joy will they get out of doing it themselves?
  • Can I do less for them to do more?
  • Can I teach one member of the group and have her teach the rest?
  • Can I use this lesson to teach students how to figure it out? Should I?

The list of questions could go on, but the idea is there in these first ones. What questions do you ask yourself?

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