When we launched the Agency by Design website early last year, we also released a white paper previewing the findings from our investigation of the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning. At the time, we had developed the two key concepts of maker empowerment and sensitivity to design, and we had also conceived of the three maker capacities that lie at the heart of our framework for maker-centered learning: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. But we had not yet finished analyzing the data we had collected in a way that allowed us to answer our primary research questions.
A year and a half later, we are happy to report that we have completed that work. In our forthcoming book Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds, we fully describe what we have come to understand as the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning, as well as the practices and pedagogies that maker educators use to bring about those effects. In the spirit of sharing new ideas, here we present a preview of our findings in response to our first two research questions:
Understanding the Primary and Secondary Outcomes and Benefits of Maker-Centered Learning
While the popular narrative in the media suggests that the driving force behind maker-centered learning is an interest in developing young people’s proficiency in the STEM subjects, our investigation of the promises, practices, and pedagogies associated with maker-centered learning revealed a much more nuanced story. This inquiry took many forms, including qualitative interviews with maker educators and thought leaders in the field, site visits to a variety of maker-centered learning environments, and an ongoing process of co-inquiry with a cohort of educators in Oakland, California. As one may imagine, each of these strands of inquiry surfaced a wealth of rich and varied data. After analyzing this data, we came to understand that the primary outcomes and benefits of maker-centered learning were developing agency and building character, whereas the secondary benefits of maker-centered learning included the development of discipline-specific knowledge and skills and maker-specific knowledge and skills.
The distinction between these two sets of outcomes can be described in terms of the difference between developing dispositions and developing knowledge and skills. We learned that maker educators thought of the primary outcomes of maker-centered learning as being disposition-based. In other words, relating to how one sees her world or makes meaning of her experiences. By contrast, the secondary benefits of maker-centered learning can be described as being more capacity-based and involved developing discipline- or maker-specific knowledge and skills. Examples of capacity-based outcomes of maker-centered learning span the STEM subjects, such as developing a working understanding of a particular science, engineering, or math principle like Ohm’s law, iso-elasticity, or fractals; the humanities, such as becoming proficient in the use of a particular literary device, like foreshadowing, metaphor, or the skillful application of onomatopoeia; and more maker-specific content areas, such as becoming proficient in the use of a tool like a soldering iron or a coding platform like Scratch.
Starting with the primary outcomes associated with maker-centered learning, the table below indicates how the maker educators and thought leaders we spoke with discussed agency in two different ways. First, in terms of stuff making and second, in terms of community making. The distinction here is between developing agency in regards to building tangible objects and systems, and developing agency in regards to positively effecting change within one’s community.
While the maker educators and thought leaders we spoke with discussed agency in terms of stuff making and community making, they discussed character building as a form of self making. Here, we heard the participants in our study suggest that maker-centered learning helps young people develop competence and confidence as a maker, which in turns leads to establishing an identity as a maker. We also heard the maker educators we spoke with discuss the character building that happens in the maker-centered classroom in terms of general thinking dispositions. These thinking dispositions are not unlike the 21st Century Skills we hear so much about today, that include learning and innovation skills which range from resilience and persistence to empathy and perspective taking.
As we write in Maker-Centered Learning: “In addition to the disposition-based outcomes of agency and character, the participants in our study identified two sets of maker-centered learning outcomes that have less to do with supporting students as they develop a new way of seeing themselves in the world and more to do with providing students with new knowledge and skills. These capacity-based outcomes include cultivating discipline-specific knowledge and skills and cultivating maker-specific knowledge and skills. The educators we spoke with viewed these capacity-based outcomes as important but as secondary to the disposition-based outcomes discussed above. Cultivating discipline-specific knowledge and skills and maker-specific knowledge and skills, however, does not occur separately from cultivating the disposition-based outcomes discussed previously; rather, the participants in our study viewed these capacity-based outcomes as being instrumental to developing agency and character.”
Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom
Beyond understanding what maker educators and thought leaders in the field viewed as being the primary and secondary outcomes and benefits of maker-centered learning, we were also interested in understanding what strategies these individuals employed to achieve their learning goals.
The table below provides an overview of these strategies as they pertain to four key questions:
As this table suggests, teaching and learning in the maker-centered classroom is highly distributed. Not only do educators and learners play many different roles, they also may include individuals who are not in the classroom at all—such as local experts or participants in any variety of online communities—or may include inanimate objects—such as tools, materials, or digital information—that are not often thought of as “teachers.”
Both teaching and learning in the maker-centered classroom highlight the importance of learning with and from others, with an emphasis placed on sharing knowledge, expertise, and information. There is an added element of figuring it out that takes place in the maker-centered classroom—wherein young people are encouraged to tinker, prototype, iterate, and experiment throughout the making and learning process.
While exploring the various decisions educators make when they design their maker-centered classrooms to achieve their learning goals, we also surfaced a number of tensions. As the above table indicates, these tensions revolve around the decisions maker educators make concerning tools and materials, storage, and the designated use of space for certain purposes (or multiple purposes). Ultimately, we learned that there is no one way—and certainly no right way—to design a maker-centered classroom. Instead, we found that maker-centered learning environments are as varied as the many different things that are made within them.
Our forthcoming book explores each of these topics in greater depth; our goal here has been to provide a window into what we have learned about the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning, after three years of talking to maker educators from around the country and visiting dozens of maker-centered learning environments. Of course, we’re curious to know what you think. To what degree do the findings discussed in this blog post resonate with your own understandings of the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning? And where do you see differences?