Five Problems of the Maker Movement in Schools

October 7, 2013 — 5 Comments

Making at Maker Kids in Toronto

I am curious about making. Maker Faire, Arduino, soldering, 3D printing, electronics and more.  They all sound so delicious. This month I will be attending FabLearn a conference dedicated to the topic of digital fabrication. I am very grateful to Stanford University and the organizers who have provided me with a scholarship to attend.

3D Printing

For an example of what a child maker might do, check out Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show and her corresponding You Tube channel.  Yes, this movement is making it’s way into the classroom and many teachers are snapping up copies of the book Invent to Learn to guide the DIY and tinkering in the classroom.  Many teachers that are making the move are science and tech teachers who have proper shops already.  Yes, the design and tech shop of my youth where we got to use a bandsaw is still around and is enjoying a resurgence thanks to the maker movement in schools.

I think there are a few problems with the maker movement:

  1. You need specialized tools.  Having a bunch of crafts does not cut it. You need soldering irons, power drills, small tools, big tools, power tools, and a wood shop wouldn’t hurt.  Ask David Hann, an Ontario teacher who engages his students in making.  He has a full wood shop at his disposal.
  2. If you need speciliazed tools, you also need specialized knowledge.  If you magically gave me a shop full of materials for electronics, CNC machine, 3D maker bot, wood shop, I would not magically transform into a super maker teacher.  David Hann, Andrew Carle and other maker teachers I have been talking with are beyond brilliant and have mad maker skills.  This is a lot harder then hacking out a good science experiment.
  3. What about pedagogy? Okay, let’s say you have the tools and you know how to use them are you ready to go? Not yet, you also need a sense of the pedagogical moves. Namely, the focus on design thinking.  As mentioned, the book Invent to Learn could help here, but you aren’t going to be a star like David or Andrew just yet.
  4. It’s dangerous.
  5. Making isn’t really a part of the curriculum (yet).
    • Grade 4 studies light and sound, you could sneak it in there.
    • Grade 6 science includes a strand on electricity
    • Grade 7 has an expectation about ergonomic design, you could do some DIY furniture pro typing

Despite all of this, I am still fascinated with the notion of making at school. I think there is a place for making at school.  I think the science curriculum might be dated. After all, it was revised in 2007.  Perhaps our needs have changed since then and there is a need for making and digital fabrication at school.

Here are questions I have about making at schools:

  1. What’s the big deal with the 3D printer?  I remember one of the first things I did with my computer in the late 80s was print out a colour image from Corel Draw.  Maybe we love the 3D printer because it brings a concept off the screen and into our hands.  There must be other, better ways to engage in digital fabrication where we connect making on screen to making in our hands.  But, the 3D printer seems to define the maker movement as schools purchase printer bots and then claim they have a maker space. Is it so important?  
  2. We use the term maker movement to include a massive range of activities. What is the range of activities and possibilities for the school maker kid?
  3. What do we really learn about ourselves, our community and the objects in our lives through making? If we were going to write expectations for the maker movement at school, what are the outcomes? What do we expect kids to learn and be able to do?
  4. Is the maker movement a response to an society that is overly focused on consumption? If so, in what ways does digital fabrication resist consumption and in what ways does it magnify our ego-centric needs to have products that are tailored to our own unique needs.
  5. What is the roll of collaboration in the maker movement?
  6. Design thinking and the design process is at the heart of the maker movement, why is this important to students today?

ON Button
In an evening of making at Maker Kids in Toronto, this is what I came out with. It’s my *ON* machine. You press the red button and the light turns on.  I know, I know . .. you are deeply impressed.

Just wait, my Arduino kit just arrived from AdaFruit. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!



5 responses to Five Problems of the Maker Movement in Schools

  1. Michelle, I think a lot of this depends on how you define making and the maker movement and its role in education. While its true that much of the what you read in Make Magazine or see at a Maker Faire has to do with building some really cool objects (sometimes of questionable utility), that’s not really what its all about when you look deeper and think about how this applies to learning. You bring up some interesting “problems,” but I’d like to explain why, from my perspective having helped build a maker program in my school over the last couple years, these problems, in practice, can be relatively minor or even non-existent:

    1. “You need specialized tools.” – I’ve found that when you emphasize the process of creation our students find they need to use these specialized tools a lot less frequently. In fact, for programming that currently serves approximately 100 middle and high school students, we share 2 arduinos, 2 makey makeys, 1 raspberry pi, and a 3d printer built from a kit that in two years has never been able to be calibrated well enough to actually print anything of value. When we are designing and prototyping, we are much more apt to use cardboard, duct tape, pvc pipe, and other materials where the learning curve is much shallower. The students are much more excited to create a speedy proof of concept of an idea, and this first draft rarely requires complicated fabrication or electronics.

    2. “You also need specialized knowledge.” As they continue to iterate these ideas they will find the need for the more complicated tools, and with that the motivation to really learn to use the tools. I have no idea how to program an Arduino board. I have many students who have learned to do this or are on the way to doing so. No teacher will ever be able to keep up with all the skills and knowledge that may come into play when trying to create something new. There are too many potential tools, skills, and areas of expertise and they are all changing incredibly rapidly. A maker program is not a good place for a teacher who feels that they always have to know the answer to any question a student might ask. A makerspace is a great place to co-learn with your students.

    3. “What about pedagogy?” Your question here is mostly about the apparent mystery of this thing called “design thinking.” I think that this professionalizing term can really cloud what is at the core of the idea, which is collaborative and creative problem solving. Every designer will describe a slightly different process when you ask them what “Design thinking” is, and ultimately, there is no right way to do it. When push comes to shove, its really just all about critical thinking and collaboration. Too many rules or structure just make this scary for teachers by creating a sense that you can’t do this unless you’ve engaged in countless design thinking and human centered design workshops. That’s just not the reality of it. We always encourage our students to begin a project from a place of solving a problem, rather than making something cool. Sometimes those two things go together, sometimes they don’t. We recently presented our students with a school-wide problem of what to do with backpacks when everyone is in assembly. Typically, backpacks are just left in piles in the cafeteria, not a great system for many reasons. Some students approached this problem by trying to redesign the backpack, while others tried to redesign traffic patterns or other systems. There are many approaches to designing a solution to a problem, and many of them require no physical construction at all. The only “rules” we really push on their process of doing this is that “there are no bad ideas in the initial phases of design” and “make sure to take into account all stakeholder perspectives by researching the problem thoroughly.” While it doesn’t hurt to learn about the processes of other great designers, there is no one right way to do design thinking.

    4. “It’s dangerous.” It definitely can be. Most things that really matter have an element of danger, be it mental, emotional, or physical. If we didn’t do anything dangerous in school than school would be really boring (actually, this is what has happened in a lot of schools). It’s important not just for maker teachers, but for all teachers to recognize that the safety of their students is their first priority. However, we can’t let fear of danger stop us from doing important work. We just have to be diligent in our supervisory duties.

    5. “Making isn’t really a part of the curriculum (yet).” Again, this an area where I think if you boil all this down to creative problem solving, there is a place to fit this type of thinking into any traditional curricular area. Of course, making anything – idea, system, or object – and taking it to completion takes time. In a curricular world where content is king, this can be very difficult. It will take a combination of creative teaching and some structural changes in the system to really make this work. If only school boards and governing bodies implemented more of a design thinking approach to making decisions about education…

    I work in an independent school, so the problems of mandated curriculum are not as large an obstacle for my, however, I hope my perspective was still helpful. Check out to find out more about the programming I am involved in at my school.


    • This is a supremely awesome response that I find very inspiring. Thank you, Josh, for the time and effort you have taken here to respond to each of my concerns/problems. To be honest, I have a total crush on making, the maker movement and makers. I am a wannabe. After hanging out and messing around with some maker types, I was starting to feel bogged down. I think reframing the movement with design thinking and shifting focus on tools is helpful, very helpful. I think we need to have a lot more discussion around the place of making at school. I am going to check out your stream.

      Thank you again for the dedication and ideas you have posted here. I am very grateful.

  2. Hey you got an Arduino??? Cool. Here’s something I did with my students a few years ago. It combined work between computers and shop. I think I need to fundraise to get a few more Arduinos!!!

    For question 2 I’m thinking primarily about the way you can (or should be able to) take things apart and try and do some DETECTIVE work… kids LOVE being detectives. What did this thing do? WHY is that thing there instead of here. What happens if I take this out… etc. Ultimately seeking to answer the question HOW does this work… a higher level thinking, ANALYTIC question.

    For question 4 i’m thinking self-reliance (full or partial). I don’t know how to change my oil (yet!?!) so I HAVE to rely on others. This can be good (vis a vis Q5 re: collaboration)… OR it can simply feed into the consumption ethos: “I have lots of money so I’m not going to do anything I’ll just pay people to do everything for me”. I’m particularly big on environmental concerns, and I think that many hackers/makers end up Re-Using things others would simply throw out. I hadn’t thought of the ego-centric argument before… perhaps (law of unintended consequence) Making leads to more ego-centrism than less? I’m kind of hoping that hacking/Making will help to empower people, especially people in developing nations!

    Thanks again for your generous compliments!

    • David, I can’t thank *you* enough for the great post here and also the amazing conversations we have had the last few months on this topic. You can see I am fumbling a bit with moving forward so your feedback is very helpful.
      I look forward to seeing you at ECOO. Thank you for the link.

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