Friday, October 30, 2015

Make a Makerspace?

       Not surprisingly, a recent #isedchat on Twitter focused on makespaces. (I couldn't participate that night, and I haven't read the archive.) They are a hot topic right now, and many schools either have opened or are planning to open makerspaces, often with some very clever names. Here at St. John's we have a couple of rooms that we are thinking of doing something interesting with. Of course, some people have suggested a makerspace. Right now, it's "the thing" to do. Meanwhile, I take pause.
       That hesitation does not signal some anti-makerspace stance. Actually, I love the philosophy behind them--that hands-on, make-a-mess, take-chances sort of experiential learning. I love the active engagement of makerspaces. I love that they are places where kids do rather than get done. So I don't deliberative because of any pedagogical reasons. I just want us to take five or ten and think about a big question.
       Shouldn't the entire school be a makerspace? Either literally or metaphorically?
       Instead, we create isolated areas that can serve as an analogy for how we treat what amounts to making in many areas of the curriculum. Let's consider a typical English program. Students learn how to parse sentences and to analyze literature; much of their writing becomes formulaic literary analysis, particularly as they grow older. Writing a short story is an "alternative" activity; creative writing is often available primarily through electives, if at all. All kids should be doing creative writing. Similarly, in history students can use their research--primary and secondary--to write the traditional research paper but also to produce documentaries. In math and science students could build scale models and simple machines, both of which would reveal understanding. Indeed, I argue that such activities lead to deeper, longer-lasting learning. I believe it gives students a stronger grasp on key concepts and skills, along with keeping alive positive attitudes about learning. It's why I'm proud that at St. John's we already take such an approach in many areas and always seek to add more.
       In a larger sense, the current fascination with makerspaces captures some of the truly sticky challenges with education reform. Some will dismiss them as just the latest fad, convinced that one only need wait until it passes and the next new thing (which may have been the next new thing once before) comes along.At the other end of the spectrum are those who glom onto the newest shiny object, seeing it as the silver bullet. The majority stand somewhere in the middle, not voicing too much dissent or excitement, not becoming too upset as long as they don't have to change too much of what they do. To extend the analogy another way, these folks are okay as long as the newcomer knows its place and stays there.
       At the risk of seeming cynical, I have to ask: How are makerspaces any different than the computer labs of 20-25 years ago? What's next--maker carts? Of course, it's now more common for technology to be more ubiquitous throughout schools. The hope is the same for the idea of making. Yet questions remain about how much of a transformative effect digital technology has had on education, especially versus the possibilities it creates. Part of the problem is inertia; part of it is fear; part of it is how we think we can measure success.
       Some irony exists in that I suspect part of the reason the makerspace movement has gained momentum is in response to the rise and spread of technology. Perhaps we've realized that we may have turned too much over to virtual experience. Did we really believe a virtual dissection would be just as good as actually wielding the scalpel and slicing into a frog, formaldehyde blasting our nostrils? Once again we are reminded of the need for balance.
       So perhaps in a way it is all cyclical. But makerspaces are different than computer labs in a key way. Early on, part of the reason technology remained in labs was cost. Another was portability. The truths of economics and Moore's law let us overcome those obstacles. When it comes to makerspaces, particularly if we focus on the philosophy, we face no such hurdles. The biggest stumbling block--perhaps the only one--may be people's mindsets.
       So here at St. John's do I want to make a makerspace? Certainly. For now, if I can't think of anything better, I'll take a great room. But ultimately I want it to be our school.

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