Sunday, August 7, 2016

Making is a Process

No two makerspaces should be exactly alike, because no two school communities are exactly alike. Properly planning your makerspace will ensure that you uncover themes that are unique and meaningful to your school.  It will ensure that your space is vibrant and relevant, as well as one that is sustainable into the future. “ – Laura Fleming, author of Worlds of Making

When we created our makerspace at New Milford High School many years ago we never fully realized the positive impact it would have on our learners. In a time where wood shop, metal shop, and agriculture were cut for the mere reason that the content was deemed non-essential or could not be tested something had to change. This was the reality for many schools in the Northeast. In our particular case not having trade-based courses was devastating as one third of our population was classified special needs. For all intensive purposes most of these students could care less about the curriculum, Common Core Standards, or standardized tests (i.e. PARCC).  The creation and evolution of our makerspace solved this problem.

The premise was simple; allow students to utilize guided inquiry in an informal learning environment that was facilitated by the use of real-world tools to do real-world work. Students were not only able to actively explore their passions, but also learn from failure as well as trial and error.  Our students thrived in an environment where the word “fail” really stood for first attempt in learning. There was no clearer evidence of this as when students were using old computer parts to design and create an entirely new operating system from scratch.

The makerspace was less about the latest technological gadget and more about the process of tinkering, inventing, creating, and making to learn. This is probably the single most important lesson I learned from Laura Fleming, the teacher librarian extraordinaire who was the original architect of our makerspace.  I say original architect as after the space was initially established she empowered the students to chart its course going forward. Success rested in her ability to focus on her role as a facilitator or coach as opposed to someone who knew who to use all the stuff.  She was the quintessential guide to possibilities who unlocked the learning potential of our students.  

In a time when we tend to focus on the next big thing in technology we learned that planning was key and that a focus on learning and pedagogy would help us to achieve better learning outcomes for our students. This was true for many of our change efforts including BYOD, blended learning, and virtual learning. The makerspace was no different. We meticulously planned with our students a vision for how the space would foster powerful learning experiences grounded in rigor, relevance, and relationships. Maker activities naturally align themselves to Quad D work as outlined by the Rigor Relevance Framework. It is through these hands-on activities that students employ a range of higher-order thinking skills to solve real-world, unpredictable problems that have more than one solution. Through this engaging process students also readily make connections to a range of other disciplines. 

Planning is key. Many people take the approach of ordering equipment and materials before taking time to plan out the space (same can be said with 1:1 initiatives). This should be the last step. Talk to your students, watch them, and understand their needs, wants, and interests first. Assess existing curricula, programs, and offerings within your school community Consider global trends and best practices, which will then help you to develop themes.  After considering these important steps a systematic approach to ordering technology and other items will help to create a makerspace that best meets the needs of your learners.

Process is everything. I try to emulate this when I conduct hands-on makersapce workshops.  The key takeaway that I want educators to leave with is a focus on open-ended exploration.  There is no better prompt than make something that does something. It is simple, yet so powerful in that educators (or in your case students) have to work collaboratively to come up with a creative solution to solve a problem. Take a look at this video from a workshop I recently conducted (also below). In addition to set materials that I provided, I encouraged attendees to utilize anything else they could find. The results were nothing less than spectacular.

The most important aspect of a makerspaces is that it can spark your student’s natural desire to learn.  I think we can all agree this should be the intended outcome when leading the maker movement. With a careful attention to planning and design thinking your makerspace can transform the learning culture of your school like ours did.

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