What do they Learn?

The FabLearn conference in October 2016 signaled that Maker Education is ready for the next phase. After lots of try-outs, freedom and pleasure it’s time to face the difficult questions. How does Making in education fit into a set curriculum? When you read Papert, or ask Gary Stager, then the answer is clear. Both Papert and Stager say that if you truly wish for your students to learn something, then the first thing to do is to toss the curriculum out of the window. This is an interesting idea, but not my reality. Not that I don’t feel the attraction of a revolution every so often! Nevertheless, I choose evolution. There’s simply too much at stake here: the learning and development the students. I also love the system. To me making is a means for my students to express themselves and to expose their ideas.

Do away with curriculum. Do away with segregation by age. And do away with the idea that there should be uniformity of all schools and of what people learn. – Seymour Papert

In this blogpost I will discuss a few ways in which Making in education can be applied. The beautiful aspect of education is the infinite shades of grey there are. Making in education is no different. Perhaps it is more evident, as we like to celebrate diversity as part of the movement. For blogposts like these this does pose a challenge. The topics I have chosen to discuss in this post is not precise and should be seen as a starting point for a discussion of the matter. When I look at all the different projects that we have had at my school, then you can roughly distinguish three categories:

  1. Assignments in which students are left to make all their own choices.
  2. Assignments that have some freedom within boundaries.
  3. Assignments in which students are supposed to follow fixed recipes / manuals.

In the latter students have very little freedom. You could align maker assignments next to these three types of assignments with increasing freedom. Obviously, the boundaries are not as clear-cut, however I will go into these three: freedom, boundaries and recipe. One could call it the ‘how’ of learning. Because the curriculum deals with what (“What do they learn”), I will take that into account too. For each category I will discuss the how and the what, I will give examples and incentives for assessment.


The assignments that have the most freedom are those in which students make what they want to make. It’s doesn’t really matter what, you make what you want to. We often have only one restriction: the outcome has to be something that actually works. You could say that in this type of assignment you can’t measure how the student learns, but you also don’t really know what is learnt. Have a look at this video by The Children’s Museum in Pittsburg and you will understand what I mean.



Obviously this is the complete opposite of a curriculum. I presume that even Papert and Stager have this line of thinking when they discuss education. Still it does have value for an educational program with a curriculum. The learning takes place on different levels: knowledge, skills and meta skills. Obviously, students do need skills and knowledge in order to be able to start. The problem lies in the fact that giving students freedom makes it a challenge to know how, where and what it is that they are going to learn, prior to them doing so.

An additional issue is time. Have students work on different projects makes managing time difficult. This way of learning is probably not the best way for teaching pure knowledge. The quality of the learning, however, is most often very high. Students learn a lot from projects like these. It would be worth some research, but my personal opinion is that one’s long-term memory is challenged more often than in the other two forms. Taking the time aspect and the uncertain outcome into consideration it is difficult to find how this fits into a curriculum. We tend to use an assignment like this at the end of a trajectory. Like in the final module of NLT (High school course focusing on Nature, Life and Technology): de meesterproef (2015 and 2016). By selecting the modules carefully (so we cover all the exam objectives) at the end of a trajectory we are left with some ten weeks in which we can follow our own program. Students choose what they want to make and where their challenge lies. That way they are able to show us what they have learnt.

The best aspect of these kinds of assignments is that student motivation – the holy grail of education – is often extremely high. We have often seen an extremely efficient student turn into a hardworking hermit without a watch. It is most probably the best lubricant for starting the learning process.

Apart from that, it is a true form of art to get students to work on a proper and feasible project. Students who are used to a clear structure often have difficulties with these types of assignments. It’s simply a matter of letting them do it themselves. This is probably what makes it difficult to transfer (from classroom to classroom, between teachers) these kinds of projects. In my own school, experience has given us guidelines. We make sure the students’ ideas are feasible first and gradable after (bigger, crazier, better, more beautiful, …). Arts teachers often have a abundance of experience with similar processes and are therefore important to consult.

You don’t teach the maker mindset. The practice creates the mindset. – Dale Dougherty

Working on these kinds of assignments most often also means working on the school culture.

Because you, as a teacher, don’t always have all the answers, so you discuss your learning strategies with your students, and you use other people’s expertise (colleagues, outsiders, students). All this conversation makes the learning process the center of attention. It is great to see students asking for feedback themselves, helping each other and, above all, persevering in order to get things done. It gives them focus.


The assessment is often difficult. How does one assess a process in which the how and what isn’t clear from the start? For the ‘meesterproef’ we use a matrix.


In the matrix one axis represents the challenge (the assignment is: ‘make something that holds a challenge’), the other axis represents the product itself. You could say that the one axis represents the ‘how’ and the other the ‘what’, without it actually being worked out any further. The terminology used is mainly descriptive. We hand out the assessment beforehand, which seems to work rather well. The students are very capable at explaining their proceedings. Using a matrix also enables you to compare the students with each other, by using the same matrix for all their work. Do the mutual relations compare? These comparisons often lead to interesting conversations.

Summary of Assignments with Complete Freedom:

  • High motivation.
  • Creates a culture of learning.
  • Coaching is difficult and takes time.
  • Basis: knowledge, skills.
  • At odds with the curriculum: time and assessment.
  • Outcomes are unclear at the beginning.
  • Difficult to communicate (transfer)



Competitions are often examples of “maker” assignments that are more constrained. One of the longer standing assignments at my school (the Populier) Making in education avant la lettre, is the mousetrap car race. For the past fifteen years the final year Physics students have been making cars that drive on the energy from the spring of a mouse trap.

The assignment is simple: make a car that can travel farthest on the energy from a mouse trap. Instead of complete freedom, the assignment has an outcome – as well as the assessment (the result of the race) – that is clear-cut. There is still room for freedom: you choose yourself how to make the car. Motivation for these kinds of assignments is still high. One thing to bear in mind for the race is that not all students are competitive. You can easily deal with that by having different ‘prizes’. Best design, most beautiful product, although that one is difficult to assess. A good example of a race that contained more learning than merely the making process, is the Nerdy Derby by Jaymes Dec. Click here for this great project (including all the materials).

Nerdy Derby – a not-for-profit educational charity. from Tak Cheung on Vimeo.


Assignments with boundaries can be brought even closer to the curriculum. You can set the how and what in ways that align to standard educational topics and subjects. Make a product that clarifies the functions of the liver to your classmates. This is an example of an assignment, that has a set what. The function of the liver is knowledge you would have to teach in Biology anyway. You could use this supplementary assignment to do so differently and with more motivation.


Here too, the assessment can be done with a matrix. Here an axis is much easier to assess. Have all the functions (e.g. ask for five) been explained clearly, then you are rewarded with a point. The product can be assessed on the other axis. Here it will be more descriptive, from insufficient to sufficient.


Next to the what you can also ask students to use a specific tool, technology, or technique – the how. Make an animation in Scratch, which clearly shows the transmission of signals in nerve cells. You are obliged to use Scratch. Tell your class what you will be paying attention to. In the following example a matrix is used for an NLT module. The students were at different levels of prior knowledge (students with / without Biology), but all had to learn about signal transmission. The assignment made all students active (motivation), and they all learned something new. Next to that, the animations gave me, their teacher, insight into their individual levels. Because the how and what are set, this assignment is easier to assess and to explain to students.

Summary of Assignments with Boundaries:

  • High motivation.
  • Creates a culture of learning.
  • Coaching is easier.
  • Fits into the curriculum easier, but remains an area of concern.
  • Basis: knowledge, skills is less necessary, students work on them.
  • Part of the outcome is clear from the beginning.
  • Easy to communicate (transfer).



With recipes or manuals there is linear learning. You know what it is that they are learning, most often in set steps. The how is set too. Recipes are a good way of teaching skills, techniques, and basic knowledge. Because the outcomes are often uniform, recipes are usually used when safety is an issue. Learning soldering, for example. Motivation is a challenge here. You will have to be clear as to why they have to learn whatever you are dealing with in the assignment.


Because recipes are so clear in how and what, they are often found in regular curricula. Whenever you want to start making, then it is easy to incorporate new technologies and skills into the curriculum. Programming, soldering, digital designing, they can all be fit into one of the existing parts of the curriculum. This accounts for the fact that these kinds of assignments are easy to communicate. This explains all the manuals on skills that can be found on the Internet.  E.g. watch the classes by Instuctables.


Obviously it is nicer if the students feel the need to learn themselves. Skills and recipes can often be embedded into an assignment that has boundaries, but allows for some freedom.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I have manuals ready for those students who encounter difficulties in Scratch. Besides that, there are also students who learn Scratch on their own by trial and error, or they ask each other, or people outside their class – on the Internet (especially YouTube).

My goal is not to teach my students how to program. I want them to learn to express their ideas and I don’t mind them going about it in their own way. If you want to be sure that they all understand the conditional loop, then you will most probably have to try a different approach. Placing skills learning in a larger project is a good way to solve the motivation issue. In a project on LED objects the assignment is to make an object that lights up. First the pupils are shown all kinds of cool examples. Then they get to work with a standard practicum in which they make a series and parallel links. After that they are allowed to follow their own ideas and apply their knowledge.


Assessments is usually not so hard in these assignments. Checklists, rubrics, or grades, these are all possible when the what and how have been set. Because recipes are usually linear, they lend themselves well for the matrix axis that we used for freedom in the framework assignment. You can first teach skills separately and let them come back in a project after, in order for you to let them play and indirect role in a freer assignment. When you are already able to solder, then you will probably use that skill sooner in a project. When you can solder well, then your product will work better.

Summary of Assignments with Recipes:

  • Low motivation.
  • Creates a common starting point.
  • Coaching is easy.
  • Fits well in the curriculum.
  • Firm basis not necessary.
  • The outcomes are clear from the start.
  • Excellent communication (transfer)

This blogpost was a good incentive for me to share my experiences and to discuss the more difficult questions about Maker Education. In the times to come I hope to share posts about how to start Maker Education and other topics. So, join the discussion and start writing too!


Per-Ivar Kloen

(This blogpost was first published in Dutch and has been translated by Claire Ohlenschlager. Thank you Claire!)


Susan Klimczak

Thank you, Per-Ivar! I often think about these three ways to have youth create maker projects but your insights are very helpful.

I come from a background in self-directed and experiential learning both personally and professionally. In experiential learning, the youth and teacher/mentor/coach often do not know what the youth will learn. So, the “syllabus” has to be created at the end, as the youth documents and shares what they learned that was new and how it is connected to what they already know. For more formal classes, it is often helpful to have youth actually create a syllabus in traditional format afterward. I have also had groups of youth make mind maps around their learning and have extended group reflection discussions.

This connects to the idea that Seymour Papert puts forward about “public entities”: For the most learning to take place, youth must have many public opportunities to share their projects with others. We use informal and formal design reviews with rapid prototypes, proof of concept prototypes and daily circle-ups to share progress, explain obstacles and get feedback. These are often structured for both the presenters and those giving feedback with key questions to answer and key feedback to offer. At the end of the making, we hold a “project expo” with posters where youth have to explain their product, process and what they have learned over and over to visitors from the community. Often about a third of their learning comes on Project Expo day, when they have to articulate what they have learned over and over as visitors drop by their “booth.”

Per-Ivar Kloen

Hi Susan!

I agree, documenting is a great way to see what is learnt. Having insight in the proces (how) and what they learn is very valuable to me as a teacher. I love the idea of sharing, the public entities. I have to try this. It’s rare for my students to share their learning outside the school. When I think of it, it seems strange to me. Why don’t we do this more often?

I think time (not curriculum in itself) is the crippling factor for deep learning in formal learning. This isn’t necessary a bad thing. Memorising stuff/training skills helps you to gain knowledge quick so you can apply this in meaningful projects. However, in the Netherlands I’m bound by a national exam. The graduation of my students depend on it. Without diploma the formal route (university/college) is blocked. So there’s a lot at stake. Especially for the less privileged students. They’re often the first to make it to collage/university in their families. So time is a limited quantity in my reality. (That’s why I run a informal after school program besides my formal teaching)

For me, making has tremendous value but…it’s even better with more knowledge. Must all learning be through meaningful projects? What about direct instruction? It’s very effective. Is there a happy medium between self directed learning (trough making) an being educated? I don’t know.


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