Let me tell you about a little annoyance I have in my life — maybe it’s in yours as well. No matter how carefully I fold them, knot them gently or, carefully place them, my earbud headphones always unravel in my bag and (like a little octopus) wrap themselves around everything in sight. So when I need them, I end up emptying my whole bag just to disentangle them.
Every. Single. Time.
So rather than accepting a future of pulling everything out of my bag when I need my earbuds I chose to do something about. My two options were:
- hope someone has created the perfect solution for me (and made it available at a reasonable price) or
- take destiny into my own hands, learn a few things and make something myself that solved the problem.
This second option, which taps into human-kind’s innate ability to make tools and solve problems, is at the heart of what’s known as the ‘maker movement’.
Let me give you a bit of background: the maker movement takes advantage of the fact that technology is at the point now where previously industry-level prototyping tools (modelling software, 3D printers, electronics, laser cutters) are now affordable for many schools. So we literally have the tools available to us to help our kids be inventors.
Some examples of products that can produce amazing results in the hands of students are:
- Polymorph: a rigid plastic made malleable by being placed in hot water. Scoop it out, shape your creation and let it cool! Made a mistake? Put it back in hot water and start again.
- Squishy circuits: play dough recipes that are either conductive or insulating. Kids can build circuits by rolling out the playdough, linking it together with electronic components and adding a battery.
- Conductive Ink: imagine a pen filled with ink that conducts electricity. Now imagine no more- these things make the creation of a circuit as easy as drawing it on a sheet of paper. Place electronic components on the page and bingo! You’ve got a circuit.
These tools allow learners to build solutions to problems they see in their world. From this point of view, the maker movement is about authentic learning.
So the technology is widely available and affordable to allow our kids to build things that solve real-world problems in their lives. But the maker movement is as much about culture as it is about stuff. Maker movement inspiration Quinn Norton describes makerspaces as ‘temporary autonomous zones’ and advocates for schools to have them. For her, the makerspace is about helping kids (and adults) learn to be okay with having no formal organisational hierarchy: working alongside a range of other people with no clearly designated power structure to get the job done. As Norton says “Learning how to navigate these autonomous groupings is a key skill for people who are going to be working on projects that are not going to be managed from the top down.” The maker movement is about who holds the power.
When Kim Baars from Taupaki School describes the learning taking place in her class, she mentions things like live tweeting for solutions to problems kids are finding, teachers and other students working together in collaborative problem-solving, and having open communication channels. The maker movement is about inclusive communities.
Kim also talks about the powerful differentiation taking place in the maker space. It’s ‘learning by doing’, but in a way that is controlled by the students. It can be as complex or varied, simple or difficult as the learner wants or needs it to be. They are free to go on wild tangents, and free to have more control over their learning. The maker movement is about agency.
So what did I do about my earbuds? I solved my problem! I learnt to use these cool things called Perler Beads — little plastic beads that you set out on a board and melt together using baking paper and a clothes iron. You can make just about anything out of them, and I made a headphone tidy! I did what Kim told us all to do: just start!
Some points to consider:
- What support might we as teachers or parents need in order to help students run their own projects?
- If maker culture is built on non-hierarchical learning communities, what kind of culture will we need to have in place to make it work?
- How might providing a makerspace prepare students for the future?
Which of our students are already building and making things at home, in their garages, or in makerspaces and how can we give them space in the school day to work on these talents?
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