Maker Mindset, then MakerSpaces

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Gary Stager and Will Richardson both have similar ideas about MakerSpaces. They’re worried they’ll add to inequality, and that they’ll continue to be used as hangars for equipment and technology, relegated to a few narrow functions, and ultimately not really put to use.

Gary says in one source (not quoted in Will’s article):

The greatest threat to realizing the potential of the maker movement in the schools is the coupling of the words “maker” and “space:’ It turns out that
it is comparatively easier to hang a sign on a room full of stuff than it is to change classroom practice.

The makerspace threatens to repeat the historical accident of the computer lab :The enthusiasm of an early adopter and presence of new technology created a specialized bunker that kids would
visit each fortnight for the next two generations — like a field trip to colonial Williamsburg . We need to avoid any chance that making, like computer integration , will remain a novelty and be left to a “specialist ” while other teachers remain disengaged .

Gary’s article

And then, Will says this…

Much in the way that schools have spent tons of money on iPads and Chromebooks that have changed little in terms of the culture of learning or in the agency and autonomy kids in classrooms have to learn in classrooms, the same danger exists for Makerspaces. As Gary says, making is a “stance.” It’s a way of thinking about learning and schooling, not something that suddenly happens because of new technologies.

Why it’s so difficult for schools to put vision and philosophy ahead of tools and tech escapes me.

Will Richardson’s Blog

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 10.09.33 PMToday I listened to a new podcast on Thursday, Meaningful Making.  It’s good.  I like it.  They had a lot of good insights, including the recognition that the Maker community tends to skew white and geeky, and that we need to do more to promote greater diversity in the Maker community — shout out here to @Mr_Hutchinson_ who does remarkable things with very little… (but boy, do these podcast guys need Toastmasters… lots of uhs, and ummms. repeated words, filler statements… I recognize that a podcast is a different format than a radio show, but if you’re going to be a professional or semi-professional speaker, you owe it to your audience not to repeat yourself too much if you expect your audience to give you an hour of their time.)

Yet something one of the participants said gave me pause.  He said that there was a regular problem on the standardized tests that involved folding a net mentally, to see if it made a shape.  Could the students fold a given 2D net of triangles and squares into a 3D shape, and would the resulting net be complete? The teacher used a 3D printer to make a number of ‘manipulables’ — an ugly, not-really-elegant word — for  students to play with in order to see whether or not the given ‘flat nets’ folded into regular shapes.

Oh… you mean….

The people at have been producing these raw nets for at least a decade. They were one of the first things I turned to in the MakerSpace at my school in 2010 — because there were few things cheaper than paper for teaching Maker skills and Maker mindset to children, and when we started we had virtually no money for tools or materials other than what I could beg, borrow, or recycle.

It’s also a ready-made computer activity: “Use graphic design to make a net — a flat design — that when cut out and folded turns into a three-dimensional shape that can be measured.” It’s then less interesting to produce flat ‘manipulables’ that don’t fold into 3D shapes — and the kids who cut out and fold the real thing will find their skill improved when it comes to imagining the folding of 2d images, because their hands will have done it already. — Principle #4, what the Hands Do, the Mind Knows.

I produced one in five minutes in a word processing application and posted it as a screenshot here, but even a rough cut-out of the weird cross do-hickey on this page will produce a 3D cube.  This cube can be assembled inside out, too, creating six surfaces for decoration, or to make dice, or to assemble into structures, or to talk about crystalline structures… After all, that’s what ancient people noticed about crystals a long time ago: that they came in distinct shapes that appeared to be related to standard geometric forms like hexagonal prisms and cubes and octahedrons.

I’ve said elsewhere that Maker teachers need to be focused on the past (Principle #10, Past vs. Future Orientation) so that the students can be future-focused. The Maker teacher thus becomes a library of solutions, if you will, and can give a student guidance about how to put materials or technologies or techniques to use.

But it’s not always helpful if we turn to the flash and the heat and whiz-bang of the 3D printer when one of the key experiences we want students to gain is the knowledge of how to turn a 2D material (like paper) into a 3D object (like a cube or an icosahedron). I recognize that a) every person has their own entry point to Making; and b) people need to learn how the tech works before they can adopt the right mindset around teaching it to others.  That’s fine.

But we should be conscious of not over-investing in the technology for technology’s sake. Paper has the advantage of being scaleable in a way that 3D printing isn’t, yet, for schools.  Paper is a wonderfully diverse material: ephemeral in a way that 3D printer plastic isn’t, mark-able in a way that plastic isn’t, recyclable in ways that 3D printer plastic isn’t, and as dependent on how we mark it, as how we choose to shape it or design it to function.  It also folds, and it can be sewn, and it can serve as template for other projects; and it can teach complex concepts in short order which can then be programmed!

I do believe that this approach takes some of the “discovery” component out of student learning. After all, you’re using an adult’s graphic design skills and an adult’s mental library of past technologies to present students with ideas.  But you’re also putting ideas in student’s minds at the same time that you’re giving them tools and materials practice.  Just in this blog post, I’ve linked to the idea of using paper to:

  • build scientific instruments
  • teach core concepts of solid geometry
  • train the mind to recognize geometric 2D nets as 3D or not-3D objects
  • building books (which a 3D printer can’t really do)
  • fold origami patterns
  • build templates for sewing projects (including clothing)
  • building and coloring planetary globes
  • building cultural objects
  • teaching algorithms for cryptography (and introducing students to the ideas of secret-keeping).

So, guys — great podcast so far, really.  But you’ve spent two weeks talking about how awesome computers and 3D printing are.  Maybe you can remind people that cardboard and paper have important roles to play, too?

John Adams and Penwork

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In David McCullough’s book John Adams, I learned that the future president constantly urged his son John Quincy Adams to practice his penwork for at least two hours a day.  While I don’t have the book any more, my memory recalls that he said journal entries should be part of it, and the rest should be letters and articles, and maybe a book.  The whole point was to practice legibility (a quill pen was not easy to write with), and to get your writing known and seriously quoted.

While still under eighteen, young John joined the first American delegation to Russia, largely because his skill with a pen was so excellent and his effective writing skills were so well known.

Will Richardson, in today’s blog on Digital Inclusion (at Weblogg-ed). quotes Ira Socol’s response to Dean Shareski’s reflection on NECC 2009 (how’s that for a chain of connection??).  To be clear, these are Ira Socol’s words:

So, it is not a question of whether these technologies add value somehow to education; but the reverse, can education add value to the communications and information technologies of our present day world, and its future?

And there’s the chiseled goose-quill point of it, right there.

Of course education adds to the communication and information technologies of our present-day world.  We know — know with 100% certainty — that the more people who read and review an idea, the more likely it is to be accepted and acted on, and be useful to someone.  Our current walled garden approach to teaching is that a student will produce nothing of lasting value between the ages of 12 and 20.

It just ain’t so.

There’s a nominal line between the agora or marketplace, and the academy which we as a culture need to address.  The notion is that school is a walled garden, and that content produced in that walled garden is not for sale: the minds of the children in it are not for sale; nor are the minds of the adults; nor is the curriculum; nor are the walls suitable for advertisements; nor are school video screens appropriate real estate for ads either.

Yet I think we shut out the agora at our peril.  Numerous private schools have been hammered and hampered by the sudden drop in the value of their endowments; public schools face massive cutbacks.  And child-labor laws actually hinder students in poor areas from reaching for education as a tool to to leverage their future potential.

In the Anne McCaffrey sci-fi book about life on Pern titled DragonSinger, one of the music-school-going characters makes a comment about how he would like to sell some pan-pipes he’s made; only the master instrument-maker hasn’t yet put his mark on them, to show that the item is made by a genuine apprentice instrument-maker.  They’ll sell for more, Piemur asserts, with the right mark on them — the right branding — than without, and he wants as much as he can get for them.  But the master — who takes pride in his craft — won’t stamp them unless they are made well.  Then he negotiates the best price for those items in the marketplace, revealing his origins in a trading family.

Piemur from the McCaffrey novels, and Quincy Adams from American history, are not alone in wanting to present their work to the world and to the market.  Maybe their work isn’t very good; Piemur’s best efforts only fetch four marks, which we’re given to understand is enough for some dessert treats and a bauble from a costume jewelry shop.  All kinds of leverage is possible, though: Adams’ penwork earns him a trip halfway around the world — an adventure!

I think teaching students (and teachers) about the immediate marketability of some skills, and attaching monetary reward for them, would instantly boost interest in creativity and collaboration.  It would also give business some incentive to invest in local educational efforts: this kid can write and interviews people well; let’s send him to the state capitol to report on the news for a few days, or a week.

Ira Socol’s question reminds us that Pythagoras and his followers were hounded city to city, and eventually tortured to death, because the Pythagorean theorem and the secret of pi (π) had military applications; it wasn’t just weird math.  The Romans sought out Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse, Sicily, for his mathematics as much as for his military engineering.  Leonardo daVinci got a job as a painter’s apprentice because he scribbled pictures on every writing surface he found.

All the folks saying, “we have to teach the eternal skills, for the whole of their lifetimes” are blowing smoke and selling snake oil.  It’s worth remembering that our ideas about eternal skills are always complicated by the realities of techne.  Early Sumerian tablets record that a student learning write might be beaten twenty times a day — for cutting his stylus wrong, for improperly shaping tablets, for misspelling a word — until he invited his teacher home to dine with his parents; and then the mysteries of the scribal art would open with ease.   Two hundred years ago, John Adams insisted that his son practice with a quill pen for two hours a day, so that his penmanship would be good enough to do the work of an elected official or diplomat. For both groups, the most important skill of the day: write well with the best instrument available, and to as many people as possible.

Yet I don’t hear anyone suggesting that we ask our students to write emails and blog for two hours a day.  Quite the contrary, I hear the reverse.

Let’s say it loud and proud: Students, write e-mails and blog, use your cellphone to snap and share photos,  comment on other people’s blogs, and Twitter for two hours every day.  Put your ideas out there for as many people as you know to read and comment on.  Be energetic in generating ideas and seek active commentary.  Show the best face you can to the world.

Who knows?  It might get you an official berth on a visit to Russia. and what could be cooler than that?