After watching a room of students working and learning via a maker project, one can’t help but be awed by the level of engagement. There’s a low hum as students buzz around, helping one another troubleshoot problems and figure out next steps. They suggest improvements and model skills for one another. Groups are working on distinctly different projects; some are engaged with wood and electronics, while others are programming, sewing, and drawing. Yet despite the wide variety, they’re all so focused that a classroom visitor attracts nary a glance. Their teacher leads, supports, and educates, all by taking a step back.
Maker education is being increasingly integrated into classrooms of all grade levels. It’s an approach that draws upon philosophies and pedagogies of the past (constructivism, constructionism, inquiry, hands-on, and project-based learning) and integrates methods from the present (design thinking, effectuation). It reimagines a progressive approach to learning through modern affordances. It democratizes the tools of creativity and empowers the learner. It develops a maker mindset that that has been described as “playful, asset- and growth-minded, failure positive, and collaborative” (Martin, 2015).
Traditional direct instruction focuses on content knowledge, while maker-centered learning orients around the learner’s context. It’s a framework for learning that can be applied to any content. It allows the learner to actualize his or her own ideas. In any subject area, with any materials or equipment, maker education is a tool or vehicle for learning that focuses on the how: the process, the social-emotional skills, and the application of problem solving, collaborating, and persisting. Yes, there is absolutely content, but maker ed creates a meaningful context for students to engage with content on their own terms.
Anyone who works with young makers sees this level of engagement, collaboration, and creativity. Indeed, there has been an explosion in the number of makerspaces in schools. But as with any new education model — particularly one with roots outside of education — there are serious questions that arise:
1. Does maker education raise test scores? (go here to find out…)
As part of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (the Alliance’s) ongoing series about how districts and schools are fostering deeper learning outcomes for students, the Alliance contacted Chad Ratliff, director of instruction for Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia, to discuss his efforts to bring Maker-centered work to the district and its connections with deeper learning. ACPS is one of the first school districts nationally to recognize the value of Maker-centered learning, an instructional approach that encourages students to solve problems by tinkering, building, inventing, or otherwise creating physical or digital artifacts. ACPS started its efforts three years ago when the district’s Monticello High School converted its library to a Makerspace. The district also reimagined the elementary remedial summer school programs asMaker academies. Below is an excerpt from the discussion with Ratliff.
Alliance: How does ACPS define Making? What is a Maker?
Ratliff: We are committed to young people getting opportunities to construct knowledge and skills through the processes of imagining, creating, designing, building, engineering, evaluating, and communicating learning. We believe that it is essential that our students learn how to be Makers in all phases of their lives, rather than just consumers. We are committed to Making as how we learn, not as an add-on or event, and we understand that both learning to make and Making to learn are essential in everyday classroom practice.
Alliance: How does this approach work in a school district? How did it start in ACPS?
Ratliff: Our approach to Making begins with grassroots educators who value young people of any age, color, gender, or background getting the chance to answer the question, “What do you want to make?” When administrators from the superintendent to building principals support experiences for students to ask questions, be curious, explore interests, and pursue passions, then Making takes root as a path to learning in which our young people actively participate in what we call a “search, connect, communicate, and make” model, rather than what education has been defined as being in the past—more of a passive “read, listen, write, and recall” content model. Making became integrated into Albemarle’s culture through a project called Design 2015 that began in 2012 as a way of accelerating shifts in practice that were more likely to engage our kids in learning for life, rather than just to pass tests and courses. We’ve allowed Making as a big idea to scale across the district rather than to force fit it into a program that we attempt to replicate or scale up in schools.
Alliance: How does Making support deeper learning?
Ratliff: Making is deeper learning. Kids who make often find themselves delving deeper into the rabbit hole of their interests. For example, (go here for the rest…)
This post originally appeared on Ashoka’s Changemaker Education Medium site.
A Culture of Learning
School districts often function as institutions of oppression. Hierarchical and compliance-based, they are reluctant to change. The model starts at the top, permeates the organization and lands squarely on students. Albemarle County Public Schools wants more and wants better. Here, learning how to learn is most important, and we work through seven key pathways to get there. We believe real change happens from the inside out and that leaders need outsight, not just insight, to catalyze district-wide culture of learning.We trust teachers, and we trust students.
Empowering Pedagogical Entrepreneurs
As a district-level leader, I seek to encourage, support, and resourcepedagogical entrepreneurs — those instructional risk-takers committed to enhancing the public school experience for every child. I work to shoulder the administrivia and shield them from the bureaucracy that encumbers their wings. In other words, it’s my job to hold the umbrella so the muck from above doesn’t hit them. Their job is to keep me from using it.
Many educators enter the profession with a sense of altruism. When talented, student-centered educators are given the support they deserve, empathy-based learning opportunities naturally emerge.
For instance, Sutherland Middle School teachers Robbie Munsey and Beth Evans designed a year-long, cross-curricular learning experience in which students empathized with the physically impaired. They developed an appreciation for both the power and the limitations of everyday objects. In the culminating project, students invented resources for people with disabilities. The designs supported activities the student-inventors found meaningful in their own lives (think prosthetic hands designed to operate a lacrosse stick). Scottsville Elementary School teacher Phil Woodson sets the tone each year through his “Change the World in an Day” activity that prompts students to identify a social issue that’s important to them and design a solution that they continuing developing throughout the year.
We encourage our educators to take instructional risks. We ask them to design for learning, not just plan for teaching. To feel what their students feel, the voice of the end-user should be at the core of the work.
Unleashing Student Potential
We are born changemakers. Most children walk through the schoolhouse doors ready to make the world a better place. As with the altruistic teacher, the cells-and-bells model of schooling offers little time and space for actionable empathy beyond a token fundraiser for the latest natural disaster. That changes when we democratize the tools of creativity and create time to access them.
High-schooler Noah was known to hang around Monticello High School’sLearning Commons — an award-winning hub of student innovation resulting from a reconceptualized library space. His friend Brenda’s condition caused her to struggle with eating independently. Leveraging the tools and materials openly available in the Learning Commons, Noah innovated and iterated. Because Brenda struggled to move her wrist separately from her arm, the spoon required a bend. The initial prototype was a basic spoon modified to be angled at 90 degrees. When Brenda indicated the handle wasn’t substantial enough, Noah redesigned the spoon with a large-handled clamp that grips a standard spoon at an angle that can be determined by the end-user. Today, Brenda continues to the clamp, benefiting from a tool that can be adapted for access with her changing skill level. Noah was not only able to expand his 3D design abilities, but he also grew as a result of his positive, impactful contribution. No class, no grade attached, just the agency, autonomy, and space to tap into his own amazing potential.
We can also create authentic opportunities to innovate beyond the school day. For instance, we organized an education-themed Startup Weekend last fall that was open to the public. A high school student that suffers from muscular dystrophy-induced hand fatigue pitched an idea for “Paperless Math,” a tablet application for digitally writing mathematics. Lisa Boyce, a teacher at Henley Middle School, pitched “Gogoloc,” a protype for fingerprint locker access. Considered a Universal Design for Learning solution, Gogoloc allows special needs students unrestricted access to their lockers:
Can Empathy Be Taught?
Maybe teaching empathy directly is not our job. Perhaps our job is to provide the fertile ground, to nurture the seeds that are already there. We create experiences and opportunities for empathy to not only be cultivated but to become actionable.
If we want to actualize empathy — to make feelings tangible — then we must move away from cells and bells toward a place where agency matters. Through trust and support, and by democratizing access to the tools of creativity, we are cultivating changemakers. They will make the world a better place, because they will believe they can.
We talk a lot about entrepreneurship in my district. We cultivate entrepreneurial experiences for students in formal ways and informal ways. We have entrepreneurial teachers making lockers universally accessible and a teacher saving the world. And we’ve made a commitment to the White House — the only K12 signatory — to democratize access to entrepreneurial opportunities and the tools of creative production. But, perhaps most importantly, we also talk about pedagogical entrepreneurialism. I described the pedagogical entrepreneur in a 2010 interview this way:
Some entrepreneurs are interested in making money, others are interested in making a social impact, and still others are interested in both. At its core, though, entrepreneurship is the art of seeing problems as opportunities and putting ideas into practice to address them.
Entrepreneurs are willing to be held accountable for the inherent risks and outcomes of idea implementation.
The risks could be financial, personal, or professional.
For example, in schools the entrepreneurial teacher risks instructional time, test scores, and his or her own evaluation for every innovative strategy they try to implement. These risks broaden and become increasingly financial in nature all the way to the superintendent and school board. The current educational model is not well designed for innovation. Risk soars as room for error decreases, and the one-two punch of high-stakes testing and hyper-accountability are exacerbating this problem. I’m all for accountability, but we need to re-examine what we should be holding educators accountable for. Let’s identify the innovators, finance them, and let them run. It’s naïve to assume educational entrepreneurs must come from outside the system. I talk to educational entrepreneurs daily, but most don’t even realize that’s what they are.
When an idea emerges that aligns with the values of the organization, I work to secure resources, connections, energy — and, most importantly, protect — the pedagogical risk-taker. The dynamic is simple: my job is to hold the umbrella so the shit from above doesn’t hit them. Their job is to keep me from using it. As subversive as it sometimes may be , the risk is worth it.
Slide deck for my presentation to National Science Foundation (NSF) leadership for their internal workshop, “Engineering and the Maker Movement: Intersections and Opportunities”. Other presenters were White House OSTP Deputy Director Tom Kalil, Maker Media Founder Dale Dougherty, Arizona States’ Michael Lande, and New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) President Margaret Honey.
For most, start-ups and school districts couldn’t be more different. One is constantly changing, trying new things. The other is stuck in time, mandating a one-size-fits-all solution for unique situations. In the Albemarle County School District, we see things a bit differently.
At Albemarle County Schools in Virginia, we’ve come to support both district and school-level “skunkworks” innovation and design teams. By encouraging an entrepreneurial mentality in our schools, we are constantly exploring new kinds of learning spaces and pedagogies. We are integrating digital technologies in meaningful ways and expanding the portfolio of customized, intra-district program options.
What School Districts Can Learn from Start-Ups
Visit Albemarle County’s 726 square miles and you’ll see 26 schools with very different identities.
That’s why we support an alternative approach, one that recognizes the value of grassroots–rather than top-down–research, design and development work in our schools.
We believe entrepreneurial thinking is critical to driving organic, meaningful change. We face the future boldly, reversing the traditional risk-averse culture of many school districts to create one where educators at every level are willing to break traditions and take instructional risks. We believe the startup mentality offers a good model to support educators in accomplishing that. Here is one way we build an entrepreneurial culture within our district walls.
Start With Connected Educators
In the world of contemporary technology, one key ingredient is connectivity. It is both a fuel for a startup mentality and a by-product of the startup process. We skype, tweet, facebook, blog, and google hangout within schools, across the district, and outside the boundaries of our local community. We find resources, explore expertise, share ideas, ask questions and engage in research that allows us to create new pathways for our learners to sustain curiosity, creativity, passion, and enthusiasm in their own learning.
Connect With The Outside
We also think it’s valuable for our educators to experience a variety of learning environments–other Pre-K-12 schools, universities, hospitals, museums, businesses, art galleries, cafes, playgrounds and parks–to gather new ideas and consider possibilities that we might not have on our own radar screen.
Yet we know we can’t afford to take every Albemarle educator to visit those sites. Connectivity provides a new, effective pathway for educators to pursue potential ideas that might result in grassroots invention, design, and innovation of work with contemporary learners.
It started with the Maker Movement. We began to explore the Maker Movement several years ago as a perfect dovetail with our efforts toward a student-centered educational model. Through this, we became aware of Maker Faire.
We found it easier to connect with other risk-takers via Twitter than with more traditional communication avenues. Email sometimes gets lost in the avalanche that clogs our inboxes today. Phone calls never make it through the office hierarchy of those outside the district with whom we want to connect. But a tweet can usually gets someone’s attention.
And that’s how we found Dale Dougherty. Dale led us to @makeredorg, itself a startup that spun out of MAKE in response to a children as makers movement spreading across the U.S. As we studied the movement, we could see the value of make-to-learn work its way into education, allowing young people more experiences for hands-on work, problem-solving, and connecting with others. This caught our attention because it was consistent with our district’s vision to educate children as lifelong learners, not standardized test-takers.
Design Something New
This year, we offered startup design funding to 26 schools in an effort to make transformative learning go viral across 726 square miles. Schools essentially shared proposals with a central team, receiving feedback and eventual funding. Several elementary schools wanted to transform the traditional summer school into a make-to-learn program, experimenting with the hopes of implementing the model into the general curriculum.
As we connected staff with MakerEd.org, we found the opportunity to be a part of Maker Corps–recruiting and selecting interns to help us run maker school summer programs. We reached out across our professional learning network (both face-to-face and virtual) and found college and post-high school students who were interested in being a part of maker corps. The prospective interns posted video portfolios to youtube. After selection, they participated in eight weeks of virtual maker ed training to prepare for working with elementary children in our “start up” summer maker schools. We also reached out via twitter to the folks running the Tinker Lab at the Chicago Children’s Museum and sent an elementary teaching team there to learn more about setting up
We see connectivity as key to a startup mentality across Albemarle County Public Schools. And this start-up mentality has delivered results.
We’ve engaged in research and development to bring three middle school mechatronics labs to reality, a return to fostering the natural maker spirit of our young people while adding a contemporary technology “attitude” into the mix. Kids in these programs use Arduinos, K-nex, Maker Bots, and other techie tools along with traditional saws, hammers, and other construction tools. In our STEM high school test-bed academies, teachers are experimenting with flipped classroom strategies, case studies, design challenges, take-it-apart opportunities, real-world internships, and transdisciplinary curricula. This past year, a diverse team of students at MESA entered an international sail-bot competition traditionally for college students–and took first place.
We believe in our work to create a startup culture in our schools. We see connectivity–face to face, across school communities, and beyond our county boundaries–as integral to our startup culture. Connectivity offers opportunities to unleash the potential of our educators as they develop as designers, creators, builders, engineers, and makers of learning.
Had a great time helping organize and facilitate a StartupWeekend-inspired event to develop a concept for the “High School of the Future” as part of the Governor’s STEM Summit. The winning pitch received a development grant to further flesh out the plan.