In 2008 at my school ‘De Populier‘ we started with the ‘masterpiece’ project. It’s the last course before our students do their national exams. It’s a typical maker style course: students can make whatever they want as long as there is a challenge. They have to challenge themselves. It was the start of our maker program – although in 2008 the term “maker education” didn’t exist.
Some ‘Masterpiece’ project results (class of 2016)
Ten years later I’ve learned a lot about using making in the classroom. At first I was struck by the more obvious things like student motivation and concentration during maker projects. But gradually more subtle things caught my attention. Why does this assignment work and another one doesn’t? What things determine the success of a project? This and many more questions occupy a substantial part of my brain. I’m intrigued by the possibilities maker education gives me. It is these maker education experiences that changed my view about learning and education in general – and still do…
In this post I’ll highlight three things being a maker educator has taught me and how they changed my view on education: Learning is a social endeavour. Give students freedom to learn. The result is a learning process turned solid.
Learning is a social endeavour
Making is not just about cognition. It’s about so much more. During maker style assignments, different students, or different aspects of students will surface – different from the regular, high on cognition, classes. This is to be expected because it takes a lot, being a maker. Making makes room for different skill sets.
A new classroom dynamic
Because of this new dynamic making opens up space for all sorts of students. Everyone is good at something. This changes classroom dynamics. Old patterns fade, new ones are created. With more room for different skills, more room for different students. This works just as much the other way around. Making creates a new social structure. Maybe it is because nobody knows the outcomes of a maker project, so everybody at the start of a project is equal.
In our after school maker program (FABklas = FABclass) is the only structure we have, a social one. At the start students tell what it is they’re going to make. They indicate if they will need help. At the end students tell (and show) what they have made. There are no grade levels; students of different ages (12-18) and ability work together. This way it happens a 13 year old girl may be explaining how to use the laser cutter to a more advanced level 17 year old boy. We had a lucky hand in accepting all grade levels and their choosing the social structure. But it turns out to be a golden one. Looking back on the many projects I’ve done, I saw a pattern emerge. Groups with a strong social structure do well in maker projects.
Being part of a network.
“The teacher knows everything”. Doing maker projects makes you quickly realize the exact opposite. Many times students have skills that surpass your own. For example, I once had a student that was fluent in 40 (!) programming languages. If you take into account the free maker project where students can do everything, using new materials and tools, you know you don’t know everything. The teacher becomes a student. However, one key difference remains. You are noticeably more experienced (with learning) then students. But turning yourself into a ‘student’ too puts you in the middle of the social structure of the class. I find this really interesting. You start to learn with your students. There is a real learning dialogue.
Learning is a social endeavour
During regular classes (I teach high school Biology) I’m more dialed in to this social aspect of learning. It seems a bit strange, but I didn’t use it that much in regular teaching. Reading ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘ by Graham Nuthall I know this was a mistake. “Social relationships determine learning“. Students use each other to learn. They learn as much from – as with – one another. Much more than we know. During maker projects in the classroom this became for the first time really clear to me. Learning is a social endeavour.
Learning is a social endeavour which I try to tap into and explicitly be a part of.
Give students freedom to learn
This is really straightforward. Students need to have the freedom to learn. But do they have it? How much freedom is there for students within the curriculum? With my first maker experience, the ‘masterpiece’, students did get a lot of freedom. My directions: Make whatever you want. Do it in this much (24 hours) time. It was overly enthusiastic and also, very naive. About 20% of the projects made it to a somewhat final stage – partly because there were, luckily, some very good makers in this class. The other 80% all halted at an earlier stage….some even got just an idea. Giving students freedom is super easy to do. Helping them to use the freedom is extremely difficult.
Now, ten years later, we do much better. It still is the maker assignment that has the biggest degree of freedom within our curriculum. (FABclass is a after school program, so it’s outside the national curriculum.) Students all make different, unique projects. I’m always impressed by the ideas, the products and the quality of the work. How did this became a success?
Nothing is more tempting than to help fantasizing about crazy ideas students would like to make. But, there is a but. It’s called reality. The idea needs to be turned into a real product. This relationship between idea and product is the core of maker education. It is the engine. Turning ideas into products. It’s all about applying knowledge and using skills. I think knowledge and skills are key for students dealing with (a lot of) freedom. The more they have, the better they become.
Keeping the ideas small was one of the first things we learned. Students quickly need to know if their idea is going to work. This will get the engine running. And when it runs, so much is possible! We frequently send students home because school is closing. They can’t stop working on their project. These are the same individuals who, at home, won’t refill the toilet paper.
If you know your base idea is going to work then you can try to scale it; make it bigger, better, more beautiful… We do this the same way, setting goals, one by one.
Guiding students during a maker project can be a narrow and difficult path. It’s almost an art form – to keep students’ idea alive and at the same time small enough to get the engine started. Being critical about the idea may help. In general this improves the original idea. I learned this from our science/art project with my colleague Petra who is an art teacher.
The last thing I would like to point out is about frustration. You can read the previous points as frustration management. Every student is entitled to climb steep learning curves, but we always assess each student to see if they have a fighting chance. We tend to leave this process mainly with the student. (we sit on our hands and bite our tongue a lot.) We only intervene when a student is giving up. After 10 years we still misjudge students. Sometimes they can do more than we thought, sometimes less. But, the percentage of misjudgement is much lower now.
Give students freedom to learn
Giving students more freedom to apply knowledge, not only to reproduce it, is what is changed in my regular classes. I assign mostly maker style projects but with some control/setting boundaries. There is a tension between freedom and controlling what students do. I find this fascinating and keep (re)searching ways to do both. How do you get students’ engines turned on AND cover a curriculum? This Scratch modelling assignment, made with Marten, is a example of this.
Giving students freedom has to offer a lot (motivation, authenticity). Prior knowledge and skills are good indicators as to how well theys can manage the freedom. Guiding projects with high levels of freedom boils down to setting small goals.
Former student Victor Hupe (first generation FABklas 2013) TEDx talk about giving students freedom.
The product is a learning process turned solid
Process and product are both essential and invaluable to maker projects. This post only briefly addresses the process. It deserves more attention but for now we focus on the product. My brother in arms, Arjan, likes to say that the products students make are learning processes turned solid. I love this. It’s such a beautiful way of looking at products.
Process turned solid
I agree that the products students make IS learning turned solid. Every product is preceded by prototypes and little experiments. It shows what students are learning. As a teacher I just love this! It’s easy to talk about and with the products.
Mike’s Morse code machine. You can hand dial the code or turn the wheel and get a fixed message (S-O-S).
Making learning visible
Products are easy to share. This is another nice property. You can show them, make an exhibit out of them, take them with you or find a spot and add some flavour to your classroom. The latter is what I like to do with them. They show a culture of learning and is motivation for new students to get started making. For me, the barnacle of the classroom, seeing students flowing by are reminders of lessons learned.
Being a maker
It’s an important ability to be able to turn your ideas into products. It turns you from consumer to producer. You are a maker. From acquiring knowledge to applying it to create something new. It really struck a chord with our students. It’s something we fully recognize. Our whole staff is addicted to the same feeling. It’s so powerful when you’re able to turn your ideas into reality. If this is a valuable ability for the future remains to be seen. But…the pride I see in students, that alone is worth it.
Being a maker lets a student feel what it is like going through a creative process. The students learn skills (woodworking, using a laser cutter, 3D-designing, programming…) to turn their ideas to products and experience first hand how difficult this process is. I think, and it’s just a presumption, this give them appreciation for makers and for products. At the same time they get a feeling of self efficacy. They too can shape the world. This is important. I think the world can be a little better.
The product is a learning process turned solid
In my regular classes I use products to make students thinking and learning visible. It lets me ‘see’ inside their heads. While students are busy making, their thinking is figuratively ‘on the table’. This makes it easy so help and redirect students if necessary.
A product is a learning process turned solid. It’s easy to share, makes a culture of learning visible and provides new ways to engage with students about what they learn.
Follow that oxygen! Use the red (oxygen rich blood) and blue (oxygen depleted blood) to tape different organ systems together.
Just as for my students, maker education gave me freedom, made me part of the social structure of the classroom and awoke the maker in me. Teaching is just so much better and much more fun. This is something I wish for everybody.
As always, comments, additions and improvements, it’s all welcome!
Many thanks to Susan and Eva for helping me with the translation of this post. Thank you Susan for encouraging me to write this post. You’re the best!