Makers By Design

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When a principal wanders into my office during the middle of state testing and just a week or so away from the end of the year, I am realistic in not expecting the same charged enthusiasm I heard earlier in the year. After all, I’ve been there. The end of a school year can sap a principal’s energy as s/he engages in a faster than typical urgency to make decisions and take action. Principals spend the end of the year in both start up and wind down mode – hiring new teachers, taking part in celebrations, often dealing with increased discipline issues and last minute parental concerns while pitching in with anything that needs to get done to bring a school year to closure. In May, the pace can suck the life out of a principal.

This week I ended my Friday chatting with a principal who brought a fresh energy into my office, delighting me with his affirmation that working in an at-risk school is his life’s work. I’ve always known that about him but his perspective was different yesterday. Why? The school staff has imagined and embraced a change that he believes has energized children, brought families closer to the school, and catalyzed  a renewed joy of teaching among staff. I’d love to be able to bottle his perspective and share it with America’s educators. But, I don’t need to. This school’s secret is encapsulated in one word.

MAKE.   Make not as an add on to the “real” work. Make as integral work. In this school where kids experience a design, build, and create ethos across the entire school, the staff realize that kids who make things are engaged – and empowered. They are curious. They want to learn. They are having fun. Discipline issues are basically nonexistent this year. State test scores are up. The principal’s imagination is on fire. The teachers are already thinking about how to make an even more powerful maker school experience next year.

Kindergarten maker work

Kindergarten maker work

Why has making ignited educators, parents and students in this school?

Making embeds informal learning into formal learning experiences. Kids develop more complex vocabulary, apply critical math skills, and explore a range of knowledge as they make. As the principal shared a digital image portfolio with me, his stories jumped out of joyful learning narrative. The story of a young child who decided he didn’t want to make the Statue of Liberty (his choice) but to be the Statue of Liberty complete with cereal box sandals, cardboard body and scepter, and a post it note tablet. The idea that making can be captured in movies and art work and iPad interviews. A project in which two fifth graders created a design for a maker patio outside classrooms, presented it to a landscaper, and now will get to see their project actually built with PTO support.

As we’ve embedded a #make2learn #learn2make mindset as a learning transformation pathway across 26 schools in my district, we are learning there are no linear instructional recipes or boxed programs for this work. Instead, maker education represents learning opportunity embedded in a conceptual frame of choice, interest, curricula bending, risk-taking, collaboration, curiosity, inquiry, tool cribs, and time flexibility.

Interest. Engagement. Passion. Empowerment. Agency.

Because of our work to bend curricula, instruction and assessment away from the standardization movement and toward the maker movement, I am particularly interested in the impact of making as a pathway to learning – a pathway along which children and teens pursue interests, engage their hands and minds, find passions, empower themselves and others, and discover a sense of personal learning agency. The stories this principal shared with me parallel stories that are emerging all over the district.

The STEAM Faire

The STEAM Faire

When I listen to teens describe how they work together to create contemporary music in a music industry studio (created in an old library storage room, no less) – writing lyrics, constructing music and beats, learning to use recording devices, practicing, producing and marketing – I am reminded that making to learn comes in a variety of forms and that when we step away from the standardization we practice in schools, making allows young people to access curricula that otherwise might not be available or of interest to them.

Imagination. Creativity. Ingenuity. Problem-solving. Solution-finding.

Why are we pursuing making? We humans naturally are curious creatures who seek to solve dilemmas, discover shortcuts through invention of new tools, and to express their understanding of the world through art forms. As soon as we can bang pots together, stack blocks, or smear paint we become makers. Children spin their imaginations into creating as they use the materials around them in ingenious ways to solve problems and find solutions to grand challenges. They persist. They ask questions. They seek knowledge. They share ideas. They try new ways of doing things. They dream.

When I watch young people challenged by thorny problems begin to work together to find solutions, it strikes me that boredom is not in their vocabulary. I’ve seen learners, elementary to high school, use 3-D printers to re-engineer artifacts such as the Vail telegraph and Civil War mini-balls. They’ve designed and printed unique smart phone cases, screws for library furniture, and science lab pulleys.  These learners don’t recognize the limits set on their learning by content standards created by people far from the classrooms they attempt to standardize. Instead, these learners seek rigor in their own learning as they take on challenges that build all the competencies that an adult might use in the home, at work, and for a lifetime of wanting to know and do more.

jesse

phone case designed and 3-D printed for the principal

Exploration. Discovery. Design. Experimentation. Invention.

I’ve experienced the joy of children and teens in school this year who find themselves with opportunities to sustain their natural curiosity along learning pathways as they search, connect, communicate and make in and out of school. I am reminded in other classrooms that learning doesn’t happen so well when children and teens are seated in rows for hours on end and expected to vicariously acquire knowledge from the dominant teaching wall. Children and teens like to explore the world in which they live. They seek challenges and take risks as they discover pathways to learning that take them beyond the known horizons of their lives. They tune in through play, stories, movement, games, apprenticeships, and interaction. They design, experiment, and invent to take on new challenges.

They experience ….

Joy. Why would anyone question that joy fuels learning? When young people accomplish hard work they experience joy. When they pursue an interest, they find passion and that passion fuels them to keep on working even when they might quit. When they become makers, they delight in the products they create.

This year, I’ve watched children build wooden boxes, design and construct electric guitars, exhibit their handmade pottery and oil paintings, cook soup, sew bow ties, sing original lyrics, direct, produce, and screen video documentaries. I’ve observed them writing code for websites, games, and apps for smart phones. I’ve read their published prose and poetry in paper and virtual formats. I’ve been delighted by their choreography for musicals and their performance of original drama productions.

For humans such as this teen choreographer are ultimately #maker learners by design … 

I am convinced from my observations that when children are afforded opportunities to explore a rich ecosystem of learning inside and outside of school, they experience an authentic growth in knowledge and competencies that has seldom been available to learners since the printed book began to dominate the ecosystem. When maker experiences become prevalent, all learners thrive, even those who experience great difficulty in traditional school.

Why would I want to offer learners anything less?

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A Summer of Maker Learning

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Coder Dojo Maker

Coder Dojo Maker

“… Design and thinking is … idea of making creative leaps to come up with  a solution… allows people to not just be problem solvers with explicit, but also tacit knowledge… they are learning by doing… coming up with solutions by making things.”

Bill Moggridge, former Director (deceased)                         Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum                           Design and Thinking, the Movie

Public educators and young people have lived in a world defined by standardized test results for well over a decade. We now see millennial educators entering our profession, having grown up in what I sometimes refer to as the “test prep” generation. They, in many cases, never experienced some of the learning opportunities that older generation teachers remember or experienced themselves as children.  In many public schools, field trips, school plays, guest speakers, in-depth discussions, inquiry projects and hands-on activities no longer exist.  In others, professional positions from art teachers to librarians have disappeared from our school staffs. Imagine the recess play that used to be the norm in elementary schools, but now often is the exception.

Consider time. Consider resources. Consider children.

Consider these questions.

How are our schools better spaces for learning and learners as a result of the standardization movement? Are our little “widgets” happier, more creative, more capable critical thinkers? Can we say they’re learning to … play well with others … contribute positively to their communities … acquire competencies needed in contemporary and future workforces?  Can they access and use the learning knowledge they need from multiple sources both virtually and in the real world?

A Summer for Young Makers

This summer, I’ve had a unique opportunity to watch children of all ages across my district engage in maker “summer school” curricula, one not predefined by standardization or test-driven results. They’ve created, designed, built, engineered, produced, played, marketed, and contributed as they have worked to make, take apart, problem-solve, and understand what it means to learn through your hands and mind. In doing so, they’ve balanced the use of embodied and encoded languages, the DNA of human learning. I’ve walked spaces where children are improvising jazz for the first time, learning how to use a drill, making soap, constructing squishy LED circuits,  designing cardboard buildings and arcades, building robots in every form and material imaginable, and programming in computer code from Scratch to Python.

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Maker Corps and Maker Kids

Our district’s elementary maker summer camps were fueled by our Maker Corps affiliation with MakerEdOrg. In  another elementary school, children both made and marketed their wares to raise funds to donate to the SPCA. A diverse group of high school students participated in a Leadership Academy designed to infuse a cadre of different leaders into their school. They built teams and designed a project to wash cars, earning money for Habitat for Humanity. Over 800 learners ages 5-18, worked in multi-age Coder Dojos to develop and extend coding skills, making games, websites, and programs. Middle school summer schoolers participated in cooking classes, learning all sorts of key math and reading skills along the way. And, the jazz makers – kids who came together for two weeks in beginning to advanced jazz camps – culminated their summer learning with a free concert at the downtown pavilion.

A Spark that Inspires Teachers and Learners

The educators who worked with our young people this summer say “these kids have been so engaged, fun, excited, curious, hardworking, and collaborative. And, some are kids who really struggle with ‘doing school behaviors’ during the regular year.” Rather than a summer school experience centered in tutorials and repetitive practice work designed around standardized tests, our kids have built complex language through experiential learning in rich environments, been challenged to use math, science, history, and the language arts as they’ve designed and created – everything from jazz to video games.

Why are we focusing on #make2learn and #learn2make as a pathway to lifelong learning rather than the current test prep mania? Because educators everywhere know that children who are bored by school work, turned off by worksheets, tired of listening to adult talk, and stripped of opportunities to stretch their hands and minds are kids who struggle to sustain attention and value learning. Those with effective “doing school behaviors” might get their A’s and look like good students but they also often feel disconnected from joy and passion for their work as learners.

Boredom in school is the number one reason listed by dropouts for dropping out. It’s also felt by our top students – not because of content lacking rigor. Rather, it’s because teachers  today feel compelled to fly through a scope and sequence of standards so their students acquire information paced so students will have covered what they need for a test one spring day. Teachers often feel compelled, if not required, to subtract from their teaching the very things that engage and entice children as learners – field trips, special guests, extended discussion of interesting topics, hands-on projects, inquiry activities, and interdisciplinary opportunities.  In subtracting the school experiences that enrich and extend learning, opportunity gaps between  middle class children and children living in economically disadvantaged homes only grow wider.  “Test prep” disadvantages all learners as experiential learning has been subtracted from our classrooms and schools. Our children who face challenges associated with risk factors are disadvantaged the most.

Why is it that big, huge corporations get beat by kids in garages? … because they’re inventing the future.”

Roger Martin, Dean                                                      Rotman School of Management                                       Design and Thinking, the Movie

Making is a process, not a “one-right answer” end in mind. It’s a process of learning,  developing knowledge, pursuing interests, and developing the confidence and resilience that comes with making mistakes, too. It’s not a bottom line of measuring what students know in standardized test results. Rather, it’s a bottom line in which lifelong learning is assessed when kids show what they can do with what they know.

Making is the fuel of America’s inventive spirit; its citizen-thinkers, workforce, entrepreneurs, artists, and solution-finders.

That’s why we value our kids spending time as active makers of their own learning – a competency built for a lifetime.

Leadership Academy

Leadership Academy