America’s obsession with STEM is dangerous, Fareed Zakaria warns us, and our hunch is that most readers of Hybrid Pedagogy would tend to agree. We, Colin and Josh, certainly do. But the conversation that typically follows that headline rarely seems productive: a turf war for institutional priority and students’ time drawn on traditional disciplinary lines. Even when STEM advocates throw a bone to the value of creativity by adding “A” for Arts (making “STEAM”), the pendulum still swings, and the conversation never seems to advance.

At the same time, “making” has turned into a “movement” and makerspaces are popping up in communities all around the US. A makerspace is a hub for invention: high-tech tools (laser cutters, 3D printers) and low-tech tools (cardboard, duct tape, sewing needles) sit side-by-side for anyone to access and use. Imagine some combination of a woodshop, a tailoring shop, a robotics lab, a kitchen, a media production suite, an art studio — then mash them together in a culture that celebrates creation of all kinds.

Makerspaces don’t fit our traditional expectations of school, but here they come. The emergence of makerspaces in schools is in part due to the fact that they have been riding the wave of popular momentum behind STEAM. But this partnership between STEAM programs and makerspaces is limiting. The ecologies of STEAM and the ecologies of making overlap — but they are not the same thing. STEAM is about blurring the lines between disciplinary content; making in schools is about a learner-directed, hands-on approach to learning and knowing.

Perhaps Zakaria has laid the groundwork for a cultural shift back towards the liberal arts, perhaps not. Either way, STEAM will eventually be replaced by something else, and when we discard this approach to curricular content, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The maker movement in education needs to distance itself from traditional disciplinary battlegrounds and make the case that creating sharable artifacts is a compelling way to learn anything — from science and art to literature and global politics.

The maker movement in education jumped on the STEAM bandwagon to gain a foothold, but before we ride that same wagon out the back door it’s time to plan the dismount.

In our school community, we have situated learning through making by emphasizing an inclusive, values-based approach. Instead of continuing to inflate the acronym with evermore disciplines — beyond STEM and STEAM lies SHTEAM (yes, we’ve seen schools add “H” for Humanities) and many others — we frame our work with three values of student learning and empowerment: agency, authenticity, and audience. We identified these values from our work with students and the theoretical frame provided by Seymour Papert’s constructionism. By situating our makerspace around values of agency, authenticity, and audience, we are spreading a broad, inclusive message that invites the school community to focus on an approach to learning before considering the logistics of tools, space, or discipline.

Agency, authenticity, and audience

Pedagogues from Montessori to Reggio Emilia have valued students as agents of their own learning. This philosophical stance is at the core of makerspaces in schools. In particular we draw from Papert’s constructionism, the idea that constructivist learning “happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity.” A school makerspace should promote student agency through choice, autonomy, and hands-on projects. When students are the ones holding the tools, agency is placed (literally) in their hands as well. We hope that “agency” does not just mean allowing students to choose which flavor of academic medicine to swallow. (“You get to pick which worksheet to do first!”) Instead we see agency as the fuel to empower students to make their learning intimately personal and unique to their own goals and lived experiences.

Following this first value, agency, we see a second value emerge: authenticity. In the projects that we have seen successfully promote choice, autonomy, and hands-on work, the learning experience has been authentic in a few different ways. When students have the agency to pursue ideas that they feel are uniquely their own, their emotional connection to the work is real. Work that is personally meaningful and embodies the students’ lived experience is affectively authentic. We find that when projects allow for student agency their work is cognitively authentic as well. Projects that do not allow students to build on what they already understand inevitably, and visibly, fail. The constructivist metaphor of students “building knowledge structures” indicates that new ideas can only exist on pre-existing foundations, and the truth of this is particularly apparent when students are learning through making. Finally, when students are empowered to work on meaningful projects using real tools (be they virtual or physical), they step beyond the artificial schooling confines of worksheets and bubble tests to do work that is socially authentic. In this way students are able to engage with work of the communities in which they may someday more fully participate.

These different ways of considering authenticity lead us to our third value: audience. Even the simplest projects in our makerspace begin with an audience or user in mind: typically a friend, family member, or oneself. The essence of constructionism is tied to the idea of making sharable artifacts — things that exist outside the head of the learner to be “shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired.” In considering the viewer or user of their work, students contextualize not just the place of their creation but their own place in the world.

In practice

It was only after observing these three values come to life in powerful learning experiences in the makerspace that we began deliberately to articulate them in our practice. And once we articulated them, new connections emerged. For example, agency, authenticity, and audience map very neatly to Deci & Ryan’s self-determination theory of motivation with three pillars of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  There are several ways we have attempted to infuse these values into both the formal and informal work of our makerspace.

When working with students on any project, we have three simple questions we ask them about their work: “What are you making?” “Why are you making this?” and “Who is it for?” These three questions help guide students and help keep our practice moored to our three core values.

“What are you making?” is the first question for students when working in the makerspace, and it is one that lets them know that they are their own agents, responsible for determining for themselves the path of their own making and learning. The second question, “Why are you making this?” pushes students to consider an authentic function or aesthetic value for their work (or in some cases to identify the process of making as an authentic goal in itself). Lastly we ask, “Who is this for?” to urge students to consider the needs and desires of the audience for their work. Even while many students begin by making things for themselves, they find that few creations are completely personal with no opportunities for interaction with others. These three questions form the entirety of our project proposal process for students working outside of class time, and they become simple touchstones to bring students back to deliberate thoughtfulness about their work when they find themselves lost in the process of creation.

When we collaborate with teachers to bring their classes into the makerspace we encourage them to consider the values more more explicitly. By collaborating with teachers around the three values, we hope to refocus the conversations on teaching and learning and make sure that the makerspace is more than just a resource closet. Our collaborative process with teachers is guided by three queries:

Agency: Do students feel valued for the talents they bear, empowered to take intellectual risks,  and capable of determining, without my intervention, when “good” is “good enough”? For example… we support pluralism: of cognitive approaches, of modalities, of ways to demonstrate mastery. Projects that are rigidly linear and/or have one expected “correct” outcome dismiss the unique gifts each individual student brings to the makerspace.

Authenticity: Does this project ring true with students’ aspirations, their lived experiences, or the reality of the communities in which they may some day participate? For example… we like to support an ongoing number of opportunities for students to iterate and improve their work. Some projects continue long after the class deadline passes.

Audience: Do students have opportunities to share their work, to see that what they produce can be worthy of other people’s time and attention, or to examine the objects of their learning from another person’s perspective? For example… we support sharing work online, offline, on campus, off campus, on a stage, or in the lobby. The magic of the makerspace does not come from the tools in the room; instead the learning theory that guides makerspaces is founded upon the unique power of learning through creating shareable work.

A few examples

A highlight for our makerspace last year was a collaboration with ninth grade English classes. While reading August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, students spent one day per week in the makerspace exploring metaphors by building them with their hands. In the English classroom they discussed when the play’s family heirloom piano was no longer just a piano. In the makerspace they considered analogous questions in their own lives. Students brought in objects that to anyone else just seemed like a thing — a computer mouse, a few pages of sheet music, a baseball — and then they modified the form or function of the objects to reveal their layers of significance. The mouse was no longer a tool for a computer but a wellspring for a student’s budding interest in graphic design; the sheet music was not just notes on a page but a collection of snapshots of a trio of musical friends coming of age together; the baseball was not only used for sport but as a frame for the nostalgia of childhood. Students modified these everyday objects to tell the stories of their lives. Metaphor was made personal and concrete. Students documented their thinking in ongoing reflective writing and through the development of the physical objects themselves.

The values of agency, authenticity, and audience resonated in this project:

  • each student had control to choose his or her own object and how to reveal the significance that it held;
  • each layer of significance in the objects connected to the lived experiences of the students;
  • and in sharing these objects and the experiences attached to them, the students’ stories — and their understanding of metaphor in a larger sense — were validated.

A few months after the ninth grade project on The Piano Lesson, we collaborated with another Language Arts class. In our planning we made the project prompt more elaborate and complex. We thought we were designing a more enriching experience and a more creative connection to the themes of the book, yet the more elaborate prompt was so cumbersome that we were forced to reveal it over time. The students were left to anticipate our next moves rather than to plan their own. The power remained in the hands of the teachers who could see the whole picture and limited the agency of the students. We inadvertently shifted back towards traditional hierarchy, where the students were forced to take a stance facing the teachers’ expectations first and crafting their own meaning second. Losing sight of the importance of these three values and the need for students to construct their own understanding was the pivotal moment that refocused our attention on agency, authenticity, and audience as the core of our work in the makerspace.

In conclusion

Laser cutters and 3D printers are expensive tools for schools just as desktop PCs once were. And yet, in the interests of supporting STEM education, schools continue to find funding for high-tech tools. Computers in schools have largely became very expensive spell checkers for writing essays. We can’t allow new tools for digital fabrication to become the facilitators of ever flashier dioramas. Defining making in education in terms of tools, spaces, or disciplines is insufficient. Learning through making is a philosophical approach that can affect classes across the curriculum and schools across the globe. It’s time to change the paradigm.