“Messy.” That’s the first word that Anna Kwan, a K-5 STEM teacher at a public school in Aurora, Colo., offers when asked to describe the making-focused lessons and activities that she uses with her students. By “messy,” Kwan means two things: both the appearance of the classroom and the style of inquiry and learning that students must adopt in order to thrive during making lessons.
“If anyone walked into the room, it was just complete chaos, and there was cardboard and scissors and everything everywhere,” Kwan explains. “But if you go up to any single one of the students, they can tell you exactly what they’re building and why they needed to do what they were doing.”
When they’re engaged in making activities, students are learning, but “learning just looks different” than the typical classroom, according to Kwan. She views the seeming “chaos” of making as a tool for students to take ownership of their own learning, adapt to changing circumstances, sit with frustration, develop problem-solving skills, collaborate with others, and exercise creativity.
Making Isn’t Just One Thing
We heard from dozens of educators who echoed Kwan’s view over the course of a five month research project to illuminate the experiences and challenges of K-12 educators who incorporate making into their lessons. The consensus among the educators who participated in our focus groups was that making is a way for students to make order out of chaos and that this path is expectedly going to be messy.
For the educators in our research, making was no one particular type of activity—whether programming robots or folding paper into shapes or inventing a solution to a common problem. Instead, educators described making as an approach to teaching and learning that puts students at the center; that encourages what educators variously termed “supported failure,” “controlled struggle,” and “failing forward”; and that teaches resilience, perseverance, empathy and problem-solving.
How does this look in practice? Devon Flamm, a K-2 instructional coach at a public school in Hardin, Mont., uses making projects—whether it’s asking kindergarteners to experiment with building structures with Magna-Tiles or forming second grade student teams for a cardboard construction challenge—to change the way they think about learning. Flamm says, “Once we’re in this type of setting it’s really controlled chaos. They’re learning, they’re exploring, they’re thinking outside of the box. They’re trying new things.”
While most educators in our focus groups expressed similar ideas to Flamm, they did not offer one singular definition of making. For example, some insisted on the importance of the process, while others believed that making ought to include some fabricated output. Elementary school educators were more likely than secondary school educators to allow students relatively unstructured time to experiment with physical materials, often in the form of manipulatives. Yet teachers of older students were more likely to provide direct instruction around foundational skills—for example, how to use a computer program or engage in design thinking processes—prior to engaging in making. And these educators in our focus groups were more likely than teachers of younger students to use technologies such as 3D printers and green screens.
Despite these differences, there was little disagreement about Kwan’s description of making as “messy” or “chaotic” and Flamm’s belief that making approaches could teach “outside-the-box” thinking through student-directed activity and collaboration. To achieve student progress around these skills, educators stressed that making needed to look messy—often figuratively as students came to the realization that there was no right answer, and sometimes literally as students experimented with glue guns, cut giant pieces of cardboard, and used power tools to assemble a new machine.
Feelings of Isolation for a Different Type of Educator
The only problem? Other teachers and administrators didn’t necessarily view the appearance of chaos and messiness in the same way as the participants in our five focus groups. In some cases, these teachers and administrators didn’t value the social-emotional and so-called “21st century skills” that making promised relative to specific areas of content knowledge. In other cases, they found no evidence that making could teach these skills. In still other cases, the unorthodox approach they observed during making-related projects seemed inconsistent with how they envisioned learning and teaching.
Educators in our research project underscored that these objections to making were also reflected in how students viewed their own learning. Flamm remarked, “So many kids these days want [just the] answers and [making allows them to] get out of the dredges of learning so that they can climb out and find out for themselves.”
Focus group participants reported that they often received pushback from classroom teachers and administrators who suggested that making delegitimized the teacher, failed to advance student achievement, was faddish, and could not be used in service of developing knowledge around traditional academic subjects.
As a result, many educators engaged in the making movement felt isolated in their own schools and districts and weren’t always able to gain traction when they suggested that others in their school community—whether teachers or administrators—incorporate making into their practice.Part of this isolation is because the promoters of maker education that were part of our research project tended to serve in solo school- or district-wide roles such as instructional coach, librarian, tech coordinator or media specialists. Few were subject-specific classroom teachers who had to adhere to a particular curriculum or set of academic standards and faced more difficulty slipping making practices into their day-to-day teaching. Some ran makerspaces that were not affiliated with any particular subject while others incorporated making into their lessons without a dedicated space. The non-classroom teacher educators in our study tended to have more autonomy to experiment with new approaches than the average classroom teacher, and did not face significant pressure to change their approach or to justify their making activities.
A Toolkit for Bringing Others Onboard
Consequently, the isolation of these educators made it difficult for them to convince classroom teachers and administrators of the value of making and means to embrace it in their daily practice—even when those other educators had expressed interest in learning more. To address this need, EdSurge Research drew on focus group research to develop a practical toolkit for educators who want to mainstream making in their school communities.
One of our tips? Watch your language. Remember that maker enthusiasts’ excitement about “messiness” and “chaos” can be a turnoff to many teachers and administrators. As Flamm explains, “I don’t just work with the students, but [I’m also] teaching the teachers.” This requires meeting teachers where they are.
Want to learn more about this research project? Visit our project page and download our toolkit for non-classroom educators who want to build support for making practices, concepts and activities in their school: