I'm participating in a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) put on by Mozilla called "Teach the Web" for the next couple of months. It seems like a good way to get exposed to new tools and new approaches to teaching digital literacies to our youth at the Academy and beyond.
This week's assignment is to blog about one of several prompts. The one I have chosen is :
What is the advantage of making as learning over traditional “forward facing” pedagogies? Disadvantages?
As someone coming at the Maker Movement as mostly an outsider, I'm perhaps not the best person to respond to this prompt. That said, I have implemented a number of maker experiences in youth programs I have run, and done a small number of Maker / DIY / craft projects of my own over the years.
One of the advantages of making as learning that I observe is the kind of "lean in" engagement I experience and see in young people when doing a maker project. They are totally focused and on-task when they have decided to create something, to the exclusion of all outside input and realities. They get to be in a "flow state" where time is experienced differently, and the entire universe collapses into the one activity and goal.
For example, earlier this year, we introduced a group of Cal Academy teens to "upcycling" of plastic waste by bringing in an artist who works with upcycled trash to make jewelry and other crafts. Then we had our kids do their own research into possible upcycled plastic crafts, decide on their favorites, and then make them themselves. Our teens were at first hesitant about how to get started, but once they settled on their projects, they were totally focused on working on them together. We had to physically eject them from the building to get them to stop working, and several of them took their projects home to do more work on them.
As an educator, to be able to provide a space for young people to get into the flow state, to be 100% deeply engaged, is very powerful and beautiful to see. When and if they produce something at the end that they are proud of, that's icing on the cake. But really it's about them being caught up together in the making experience that I love.
Skills and knowledge that are gained from these kinds of high-touch experiences are long-lasting and deep for the young person.
One disadvantage, or possible obstacle, of the making as learning approach is that this might not connect with how a particular young person likes to learn. For some kids, they are more familiar with a more traditional lecture-exercise-test model of learning. Some kids might experience embarassment and anxiety if forced to make something by hand. Others might prefer to observe and emulate on their own, rather than within a time-bound classroom setting.
There was an old study of a group of Native American youth who were underperforming in school, and were the subject of an educational research project. The researchers upon getting to understand the culture and upbringing of the youth, found that this particular Native American culture didn't align well with the "stand and deliver" mode of traditional American classrooms. They emphasized watching someone else do something (like make a bow), and then going off by yourself to practice along, and only approaching an adult when you felt that you had sufficient mastery to not embarass yourself. The traditional stand in front of the class and answer questions from the teacher approach led to students looking and feeling dumb compared to other Caucasian students.
I worry that a mandated "making as learning" approach might have a similar effect on certain kinds of learners.
On the other hand, it's the very discomfiting nature of making experiences that can make them so valuable. You are constantly confronting possible failure, trying things out, experimenting, iterating, and testing the boundaries. It's a place where small risks are valued and encouraged, in order to get bigger payoffs.
And as an educator, facilitating activities where the outcome is no pre-determined, and I am learning with my students is also inherently "risky." When I tell our kids that we are going to learn and explore something together, it creates a totally different dynamic in our classroom. We get to collaborate together, we can celebrate small discoveries, try out prototypes, fail together, and eventually create something at the end that is surprising and wonderful. It's sometimes exhausting, but a hell of a lot of fun.
So as a whole, I'm excited about the possibility of integrating more "making as learning" into my pedagogical practice as an educator.