Think of learning at its earliest stage: a baby learning to play with blocks or manipulate objects in three-dimensional space. It’s something our human brains are hard-wired to do. Researchers like Dewey and Piaget talk about constructionism — suggesting that learning is an active process in which people actively construct knowledge from their experience in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them.
This idea of making, of building, of constructing has a strong basis in research. Active learning increases the rate of learning faster than passive learning, Even just watching others build or make things fires up parts of our brain that are left untouched by passive learning.
While the maker movement has been around in many forms, it’s only now that we’re starting to see technology catch up with our aspirations for a powerful, active, authentic education.
Last week we broke the bracket that holds up the towel rail in our bathroom. The first thing I thought was not, Oh, we’ve broken it. It was, ‘I wish we had a 3D printer’, because I could scan the broken part with the camera on my phone and print a replacement. And it’s conceivable that there will be some form of 3D printer in many homes in the foreseeable future.
Is your Nan having trouble plugging the jug in because of her arthritis? There’s your year 7 technology project. Learning about insects for science? Design and print a bug hotel that you can attach to a tree or a fence for insects to live in. It’s all made possible by the magic of 3D printing, and a range of 3D modelling software tools — many of which are open source, and able to be installed on any computer learners have access to.
Another driver of the maker movement has been the emergence of a powerful suite of small electronic microprocessors that you can programme with a bit of code. Often they snap together with little extras, like light or movement sensors or Bluetooth and wireless modules, and all of a sudden you’ve got something you can attach a solar panel and a rechargeable battery to, and you’ve got a completely self-contained, internet-connected data-gathering tool. So what do you want to know? How many sunlight hours there have been each day this month? What the maximum temperature has been every day this week? The Arduino and the Raspberry Pi might sound like funny names, but they are essentially tiny, extremely affordable computers that kids can add onto like Lego. This freedom and creativity is right at the heart of the maker movement.
Art, technology, design, music, film, science all come crashing together in the maker movement. Want to sew a circuit into the hoodie you wear when you ride your bike home so that a arrow made of LED lights on your back indicates which way you’re turning? Piece of cake. What about creating an interactive sculpture that changes colour depending on the kind of music you play in the room? No trouble.
So what’s the impact of all this possibility on learning? For one thing we've got more chance to unleash student creativity than ever before. And we’ve got the chance to really connect our learning to the real world for another. We can solve real world problems and give students the kind of voice and confidence
Our learners have the ability to shape and bend all sorts of technology to meet their needs — we need to make sure we’re giving them plenty of opportunities to do it. Design thinking and design processes need to be central to our planning, not only to meet learners’ needs but also to give them opportunities to meet others’ needs. We can start small:
- Grab a little electronics starter kit that doesn’t need soldering skills or even a good understanding of circuits, and see what your kids can do with it.
- Talk to your principal about getting a 3D printer
- Download something like Sketchup so kids can start playing around.
Because, it’s this playfulness that’s at the heart of the maker movement.
Examples and links:
- Arduino website
- Make: DIY projects
- Instructables website
- MAKERS ORG NZ
- Ponoko: Laser cutting and engraving
- LilyPad: sewable electronic pieces
For more about the Ten Trends: