I am so energized by makerspaces, where people — children and adults — have access to all sorts of equipment to invent, try out ideas, and make things. I’ve spent some time in makerspaces at a number of conferences, and last summer I wrote about my experience at Gary Stager’s Constructing Modern Knowledge 2014 (CMK14) conference in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Read CMK post # 1. Read CMK post #2).
At my school our fifth graders have a small but lively makerspace where they can try ideas, often fail, and always have an opportunity to keep going and try again and the room is awash with small motors, LED devices, needles, fabrics, and even a few arduino boards. Parents and teachers should become aware of the trend for these innovative spaces and learn more about them. It will only benefit the learning of their 21st Century children and students.
What is especially interesting to me, however, is that my teaching career is bookended by two types of makerspaces, and my experience with the first is instructive for the current reincarnation. I hope that the revival of these innovative learning places has staying power, and I hope that many schools have the opportunity or create them — including less affluent institutions. These types of spaces have been around before. They supported and extended students learning, and even welcomed student groups during the week. Then this type of teacher center disappeared.
Way back in the mid-to-late 1970s, as I was beginning my career as an educator, we had teacher centers. During my graduate study at the University of Chicago, we emerging educators were required to visit the local teacher center on a regular basis and to keep a log of the new skills we learned and the new materials we created. I learned to use tools — drills, saws, levels, wrenches, glue guns, and lots more — planning and building complicated pieces with tri-wall, half-inch thick cardboard, for my classroom. I used chicken wire and all sorts of wire-related tools, and I learned to do a lot more with an electrical circuit that makes a light go on and off with a couple of wires and a battery. I used every sort of school and hardware supply store to design curriculum materials for the kids.
I could go on and on about my weekly interactions with the teacher center, which at that time resided in a YMCA, but the most important idea I want to share is that my experiences all focused on creating a learning and dynamic environment where my students could explore, learn, and gain skills to discover more information, and, yes, even to create new knowledge. I made sure that many of the tools that I used were also in my classroom. The kids made a maze during our study of Greek myths and a sort of pinball game for a math probability unit — without the benefit of digital tools, I might add.
When my husband and I moved to Washington, DC, I located the local teacher center, visited, and introduced myself before I taught a day at my new school. Not unlike my haunt in Chicago, it was filled with enthusiastic and committed educators all focused on project-based activities and helping students learn.
And then, within a few years, in the early 1980s, all the independent teaching centers of this type were gone, although plenty of district-wide curriculum teaching centers exist, although few of them that I’ve seen feature tools and building materials. The easy explanation was that funding dried up, but that was not the real reason. The real reason was that the world of education turned in a different direction.
People, especially politicians began talking about student literacy. President Reagan’s 1983 Commission on Excellence in Education set out to assess the “… quality of teaching and learning at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, in both the public and private spheres.” The report, A Nation at Risk, zeroed in on test scores and the lack of a consistent curriculum for most students. Later in the 1980’s E.D. Hirsch wrote his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and at about the same time Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation. Teachers and schools, we were told, were not doing what they were supposed to do — everything needed reform. So schools developed curricula that focused on well-sequenced skills and facts. Project learning, problem-solving, and inventing? Not nearly as much.
Twenty-five years later, with digital tools and practically the entire world of knowledge instantly at our fingertips, a new generation of teacher centers are back — this time in the form of makerspaces, hackerspaces, knowledge incubators, and fablabs. Those of us lucky enough to teach in schools or districts with wide-ranging resources (and attend conferences like CMK14) are once again thrilled to be promoting ways for our students to study new information, create more knowledge, and follow-up on their ideas. Today many of us are fired up about what our students can create, invent, code, design, connect and — Oh! — learn. A few well-resourced schools have set up makerspaces, but most are foundation-funded, residing mostly away from schools. So what will happen when, once again, the funding dries up?
Now we are in another period of standardized test promotion, and while today’s common core attempts to focus on thinking as much as facts, the bottom line is that those tests take enormous time away from real learning. Will the amazingly creative makerspaces, fablabs, and other innovation spaces survive? If they do, schools will need to ensure that a generous amount of time is devoted to those missions.