Sunday, December 16, 2018

Making is in Our DNA

I have such fond memories of the time I had with both my grandfathers, albeit much too short as one of them was taken from us too soon.  Each of them had such a great fondness for the outdoors, which influenced my decision to pursue degrees in marine environmental science and biology.  William Sheninger, or “Pappy” as we called him, was always outside fixing things and my brothers and I would often hover around to see what he was doing.  Robert Lewis, otherwise known as “Grandpop”, lived on the Jersey Shore and loved to fish in the surf.  Each morning when we visited, he would be out there like clockwork.  My brothers and I loved when he would catch sand sharks and place them in a nearby gully for us to observe. 

Besides the outdoors, both of my grandfathers had an interest in making things in a world that had yet to experience the types of disruptive changes that we are now seeing thanks to the exponential evolution of technology.  It was the late 1970’s and 1980’s after all.  At the time I only viewed these activities as hobbies, but now see that the time they both invested was much more.  Their passion manifested itself into unique creations that involved skill, knowledge, and patience to learn through doing.  Much of what they were doing didn’t make sense as it was the complete opposite of what I was doing in school. 

Pappy was the ultimate engineer as his day job was that of a master mechanic this comes as no surprise. He could take any broken tractor and either fix it entirely or design a whole new contraption.  I remember him re-engineering one tractor so that we could use it to ride through trails we had created in the acres of forest behind our house. It was amazing how he could get almost anything to work no matter what condition it was in.  His hands were always dirty.  Beyond mechanical devices, he was still willing to put his knowledge and skills to help out my brothers and me.  When my twin and I became fascinated with camping, he said let’s make a campsite.  Pappy helped us raise and then level a site in the woods out back.  He also helped us build a fire pit with old scrap metal to ensure that the hot coals wouldn’t spark any nearby debris.  Even though he did not have a college degree, Pappy was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known.

Grandpop also made things with his hands, but his creations were much different than that of my other grandfather.  During the day he was a certified life insurance underwriter for New York Life and had years of higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree. On evenings and weekends, he engaged in another job, but not one to make money.  In the guest room of his house was a workstation where he made jewelry.  One of the favorite stones he loved to work with was the Australian white/light opal. He also worked with amethyst since my grandmother loved the color purple.  They had purple carpet for crying out loud. Grandpop would make necklaces, rings, and pendants all of which he would give to my grandmother and other family members.  He was also fond of Cape May diamonds, which he collected on the beach in Ocean City, NJ. I remember scouring the beach with my brothers to locate these stones for him, after which we would use them to make some incredible jewelry.

With all the hoopla in regards to maker education and makerspaces I wanted to take a minute to share that this is not a new concept. Has it evolved – definitely! The process of making has been in our DNA since the dawn of human civilization to create tools for hunting and survival.  For many of us who grew up before the Internet, we spent countless hours playing with popular toys such as LEGO’s, Lincoln Logs, Construx, and Erector Sets.  It has also been the livelihood for many people and a focus on hobbies or passion projects.  Now we have 3D printers, Arduino’s, Raspberry Pi’s, Little Bits, Makey-Makey’s and an array of other innovative technologies to unleash the maker in all kids.  Regardless of the tool, the process is rooted in constructionism, which can be traced back to constructivism. Jonan Donaldson sums it up nicely:
Terms such as collaborative learning, project-based learning, metacognition, inquiry-based learning, and so on, might be new to some audiences, but they have a relatively long and well-documented history for many educators. The most widely-known and promising pedagogical approach is constructivism grounded on the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Constructionism brings creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation to the forefront of the learning process.
It was Seymore Papert who developed the theory of constructionism.  Donaldson goes on to write:
Constructionism, a theory developed by Seymour Papert, articulates a theoretical foundation for learning based on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation. Papert had previously worked with Jean Piaget but felt that Piaget’s constructivism placed too much emphasis on the internal mental processes of learners. He insisted that learning occurs not only through learners constructing meaning but also through constructing real-world inventions which can be shared with others. He argues that the construction that takes place ‘in the head’ often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’—a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what is meant by ‘in the world’ is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there.
The connections above to the maker movement are indiscernible.  He goes on to share the following synopsis of constructionism penned by Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman (2009).
Constructionism is based on two types of construction. First, it asserts that learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experience in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them. This aspect of construction comes from the constructivist theory of knowledge development by Jean Piaget. To Piaget’s concept, Papert added another type of construction, arguing that people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful products.
When it is all said and done, the process of making is a powerful catalyst for meaningful learning.  In some cases, it can be the identification of a problem followed by the development of a workable solution.  How Pappy approached making is an excellent example of this. On the other hand, it can be the creation of meaningful products that are personal in nature, like what Grandpop created or how many kids have used building toys listed previously. Age is irrelevant.  Making is and has been, in our DNA forever.  Sure, the tools have changed, but the will to tinker, create, and invent hasn’t. The role of educators and schools is to seize on the opportunity inherent in this type of learning to unlock the potential in all of our kids not for grades, but instead the gratification of creating something that has meaning to the creator. There is no finer beauty in learning than making something that matters. 

For more ideas, strategies, and resources related to maker education check out this Pinterest board

No comments:

Post a Comment