The Big Picture: What are we making in school?

Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning organized an educational symposium during Maker Faire Detroit. The symposium brought together educators and practitioners who explored engaging the hands and minds of students, sometimes called thinkering. As a group, they experienced Maker Faire and then met to discuss “how making can be an integral part of how young people figure out who they are in the world.” This is a really key idea, I think: what we can learn by making is a process of discovering what we can do, and we begin to participate in making and changing the world around us.

Elliot has shared his thoughts in a Huffington Post article, Making Their Way: Creating a New Generation of Thinkerers. Here is an excerpt:

Making provides opportunities for young people to use their hands and their minds together. Untold numbers of youth are messing around with all manner of tools to create, in tangible form, what’s on their minds. Equally important, the maker movement nurtures communities of practice that bring adults and young people together around common interests. Thus, to visit the Maker Faire or a community-based fab lab is to see an aspect of our young people that we seldom witness in schools.

Sadly, however, to observe these young “thinkerers” is to be at least temporarily deluded into believing that this is what many of our young people are all about. Not so. Unfortunately, most young people do not experience making in their schools or in their lives. Literally and figuratively, most of our young people are not at the Faire. Research reveals that the vast majority of them are not into making at all and instead are frittering away their time in a variety of wasteful and unproductive learning activities.

Making is a celebration of an alternative and powerful way of knowing and of thinking things through. Consequently, making is typically antithetical to what traditional schools are all about. That is why the communities of practice that come together at Maker Faires and fabrication labs usually–some would say thankfully–flourish outside of schools.

A few educators, however, are circling these making places to determine where and how they fit in schools, if at all. Educational historian Larry Cremin once wryly noted, that educators respond to a new area of learning by creating a course in it. Recall how schools responded to technology by creating a course “down the hall at fifth period” without ever thinking about changing every course because technology existed. Similarly, educators run the risk of demeaning hand and mind work by creating separate courses for making rather than bringing making into all aspects of the school curriculum and thereby thoroughly reconstituting it.

Recently I learned about a East Bay School for Boys, which is opening this Fall. Incoming sixth graders begin by building their own desk, which according to a consulting teacher David Clifford, gets them involved in creating their own learning environment. In a video on the EBSfB site, one of the organizers of the school said that students can learn through “Play, Practice and Production.” That’s a really nice framing of how we naturally learn to do things, whether we’re talking about soccer, music or robotics.

Will schools find ways to integrate making into the educational experience of students or will students continue to have to look for this experience outside of school — seeking patchwork alternatives in the community or at home?