The Expanding Universe: Why the Maker Movement Matters

Involving great minds in the design of our Makerspaces

My son is 8. He’s a maker. His world-changing skills and talents never will be reflected in an educational world of worksheets, end-of-chapter review questions, course exams, and bubble tests. How will you accommodate and recognize his gifts?
Scott McLeod

The Maker Movement has been described as the next Industrial Revolution, the outcome of a massive dialectic between an increasingly open internet and the real world. This summer we will implement plans to add two new Makerspaces at our school as part of a major building renovation project that focuses on the provision of flexible, transparent spaces for collaboration and student-centred learning, the essence of what our school is about. This post is an attempt to explain why the Maker Movement should be an important component of the shifting learning landscape of our schools. I am no expert. The Maker culture is about sharing ideas and learning together.

What is the Significance of the Maker Movement?
The desire to make things has been intrinsic to human nature since the creation of the first crude tools for hunting and survival. Throughout history, personalised endeavours like weaving, woodworking, food production, and the myriad activities of DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists have all ostensibly been conducted by “makers”. The Maker Movement has come about – a little like the vanguard days of the microcomputer industry – as a result of a convergence of new technologies and wider access to tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, and microcontrollers such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi devices. As the focus on technology has rapidly transformed users from mere service consumers to active creators of digital knowledge and content (as evidenced by the popularity of sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia and Twitter), the culture of making has dramatically increased as the internet and relatively cheap technologies provide new opportunities that have democratised the creative production process. It is now possible for people to tinker, hack, design, code, prototype and create in Makerspaces, Fablabs, and Hackerspaces with cutting edge technologies, much like Jobs and Wozniak did with circuit boards back in the legendary days of the Homebrew Computer Club. The real power of making – and why it is truly deemed a “movement” – lies in the groundbreaking possibility of global and open collaboration on a scale and with tools never before available. What was once merely digital dreaming has become physical reality.

Why Should the Maker Movement Be Brought Into Schools?
In her book, Worlds of Making, author and Makerspace creator, Laura Fleming captures the essence of this question: “Bringing the Maker Movement into schools … immediately allows … young people to come together in a space that eschews the traditionally siloed curricular domains; that puts the learner firmly at the center of the learning; that enables teachers to encourage a much more participatory approach for students; and that often, it has to be said, encourages teachers out of their teacher-directed shells to experiment with the kinds of learner- focused activities that the makerspace fosters.” Fleming makes a compelling case for innovation and for embracing this cultural shift in learning. Some would argue that this movement is yet another passing fad, that it is untested ground, and that there is little evidence that it will have any significant impact on learning. Others contend that the already crowded curriculum needs to be protected. The real focus needs to be on the unbounded potential, exciting opportunities to engage students, and innovative ways to make learning real that making offers. I believe the truth is that we are on the cusp of a major revolution in learning that is as significant as that described by Libow and Stager in their work, Invent to Learn:

There is every reason to believe that fabrication technology will change the world even more than the information technology revolution has. We are at the forefront of a revolution, where every part of the global economy will be disrupted.

Can we afford to ignore such a disruption? Is it not our obligation to invite disruption if it offers new, engaging learning opportunities for our students?

What Are the Essential Implications For Schools?
The Maker Movement offers an opportunity to integrate the disciplines, to apply learning in authentic ways, to create a culture of sharing, of openly learning from mistakes, and of promoting a joy in unlimited possibilities that cannot be neglected. It is a natural focus for what are often referred to as the STEAM subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Add to this the need to be able to think creatively and communicate with passion and we have one of the most compelling cases for integrated, personalised learning that education has ever encountered. This is not to suggest that these possibilities are not already present in good, thoughtful schools. Mark Hatch, in his book, The Maker Movement Manifesto, makes clear that the rules for success for our students in the years ahead, “are radically different from the rules in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Making is a central part of the key to problem-solving and the more elusive skill of problem-finding. These skills are essential if we want to teach young people to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet. It seems we should all have a manifesto that includes making as part of the learning process.

The real implication for schools is a need to acknowledge the truth that David Perkins has articulated:

What’s conventionally taught may not develop the kinds of citizens, workers, and family and community members we want and need. The basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, even if strongly developed, aren’t enough. The familiar disciplines in their traditional versions, sitting in their silos, constrained by regional perspectives, and taught to all comers for purely academic understanding aren’t enough. The universe of what’s seen as worth learning is expanding.

The Maker Movement may well be seen by some as a fad. As soon as a new development is described as a “movement”,  this is perhaps inevitable. Teachers have every right to be sceptical of fad-followers. But teachers must also be – and the very best usually are – open to genuine change and innovation that prepares our students for a workplace reality that is very different from our own experiences. I would contend that every time our learning environments today remind us of our own when we were in school, that there is something intrinsically wrong with what we are doing. We are a considerable way from changing this reality. The Maker Movement can help us get there.

I think a perspective that perhaps best captures the potential of the Maker Movement is that offered by Bre Pettis, the founder of Makerbot: “I think it’s a time of greatness. I think everybody has this greatness inside them … We grow up thinking we are not great. We grow up thinking that 100% is all we can achieve and we can only do worse. When you experiment with something and it fails but eventually you succeed, it gives you this resiliency and I think more and more people are just coming awake to the idea that they can change the world.“ Pettis, of course, has a vested personal and economic interest in advances in the maker movement. We must be cautious that decisions we make are for the right reasons and that in joining a “movement” we are not simply succumbing to the latest fad because it is the new trend. Making and learning by doing are by no means new. Advocates for learning by doing and making have existed for centuries. This is not new, but the technology is accelerating access.

People’s desire to make, to create, to envisage and build things never before considered is not new: the ability to make these dreams possible for our students today is. The generational shift back to making is not a fad. After all, it is almost five hundred years since the greatest maker of them all died. From Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs, the creative learning opportunities available to our children are greater today than ever before in history. The imperative for schools is clear. As da Vinci once famously remarked, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” I hope our schools and their leaders have the conviction to embrace this opportunity, even if it involves a gamble, a degree of uncertainty, a risk on behalf of our learners. Surely we will all learn in the process?