Saturday, October 18, 2014

Making Memories With Constructivism and the Maker Movement

Create by gfpeck, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  gfpeck 

 Hands on learning really isn't a new concept. Many educators are already aware that children learn often best by doing or engaging in projects that connect to authentic problem solving. In the article, "How the Maker Movement is Moving into Classrooms" by Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) in Edutopia (July 2014), she urges teachers not to treat making as an "extra" or a novel "sidebar" as she puts it, because it's been supported by researchers going back to Piaget, who is quoted as saying,

"[S]tudents who are thus reputedly poor in mathematics show an entirely different attitude when the problem comes from a concrete situation and is related to other interests."

Anyways what is it about the maker movement that grabs our attention? Is it because deep down we know that we all just want to play? I'm sure many of us remember a time when as a kid you felt like you "scored" when you got a refrigerator box and you could make it into whatever you wanted. Or a time when you were allowed to take apart a radio and look at the "guts" on the inside and tinker around with it. Or perhaps it was even a time when you built your dream house out of Lego.

Vicki Davis points out that even in an age when we look at apps for learning, classrooms are instead choosing to look at "maker projects", as some apps still encourage old thinking such as memorizing facts. How many apps have you explored that are basically "digital flash cards"? Davis points out that we are missing the point of technology if it is just programming kids to memorize the facts. Instead technology should encourage or provide students the tools to invent... Make an app not just use an app.

kids-invent-2004-15 by The Bakken Museum, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  The Bakken Museum 

So why is there suddenly a movement for making? Why are there Makerfaires springing up around the world? Why are people looking at the construction of cardboard projects, as a great place to encourage creativity and critical thinking, as seen in projects such as in "Caine's Arcade" - which actually sparked a global movement known as the global cardboard challenge. It seems interesting that there seems to be a resurgence in the philosophy that in order to promote critical thinking and problem solving, there needs to be a space for kids to create and apply abstract thinking by inventing. However, the question that I keep coming back to, is that how we did lose sight of creating and inventing and just engaging in these kinds of projects? How did "covering" outcomes begin to take precedence  over kids being innovative and inventive with their hands? At what point did it become easier to just deal in paper and pencil and fill in the blank?

I know in my own classroom, I have chosen to just do the "easy" route and avoided a project as often I felt I lacked the time to go down that path when I had so many outcomes to cover. But was I doing just that... covering. Is covering really sufficient? Has any student ever come back and said, "Wow, I really enjoyed that unit, we covered so many outcomes!" Probably not, but when they speak of moments in school when they felt really engaged in what they were learning, they probably reference a time that they worked on a project that truly captured their imagination or that required critical thinking in some kind of meaningful, authentic way.

It is for this reason that I have always been a fan of project-based or inquiry learning. There were times when engaging in these types of projects that I wondered, "Oh no what have we got ourselves into, this unit is going to take forever!" Or where I was going back to the curriculum to check and see whether or not that outcome was really being explored, but then I just needed to remind myself, were the students problem-solving? Collaborating? Inventing? Researching or critically analyzing? Were they excited about what they were doing? Would a worksheet or a set of questions based on a reading captivate them more? Probably not.


The principles of the Maker Movement is based on constructivism, where students construct, invent and problem solve and in doing so - construct their own meaning and deepen their own understanding. Rather than having information "spoon fed" through tidy worksheets and fact driven questions. 

So, where do we go from here? I think perhaps to promote the Maker Movement in schools we need to look beyond looking for just expensive kits or 3-D printers. Andrew Foreman points out in his blog titled, "MakeMake" that the equipment for these projects doesn't have to be super expensive. Yes of course we would all love to have some of this high priced equipment in our schools, but while we wait for that 3-D printer to be delivered or the robotics lab to be built, we can look at bringing in Lego into the classroom. As Andrew further points out, by incorporating digital tools such as Chrome Build and Google Sketchup into learning, you engage in that type of thinking without the huge pricetag. It's about how we can deliver outcomes with projects that encourage authentic inquiry-driven problem solving and creating - it's not the cost of the tools that we use.

Three years ago, I decided to "let go" and take a risk with a project that I applied to participate in a program with the Saskatchewan Architecture Association and "Architecture Goes to School".  This program allowed for grade 7/8 students from around Saskatchewan to engage in an inquiry partnership with local mentor architects. My grade 7/8 class of 33 students, was partnered not only 
with one architect, but two. The best part was that one of the architects was my father-in-law! (No really, it was great to have him involved). For the next two and a half months, Roger Mitchell and Chang Sun mentored my class two afternoons per week. In this cross-curricular project we explored the essential question,"How can we create a community where we can live, work and play?" Students examined not only aspects of ratio, design and urban planning, but more importantly, how we could create a community which reflected our classroom ideals - one of diversity and cultural inclusion. Students were divided into different community collaborative project groups then took on leadership roles within each group. The roles included: Writers, Sketch Up Experts, Artistic Graphic Designers, Visual Organizers, Sustainability Experts and Project Leaders. In creating the plans for our project, we utilized the power of Google Sketch Up. Throughout the project, we focused on our essential question, never on the digital tools... they just helped to bring our ideas and plans to life.

Now I think that the project reflected the ideals of the Maker Movement, but perhaps it lacked on thing, we didn't actually make the physical model of our community. We analyzed, collaborated, planned, created and composed a digital design, but didn't make the model. Why? It all came down to space. I just didn't have the room in my classroom to store the model. In some ways I felt like I was copping-out, but I wondered how we could keep a model intact with my classroom which was already crammed with kids. In spite of this short-coming, I felt like we had accomplished so much in this cross-curricular project. Learning in this way was messy.... Not as messy as it would be with a model, but worth it.

If you would like to read more about the Scope and Sequence of the project, please check out the Architecture Goes to School page on my blog, Stewie's Smart Thoughts in the Classroom.

Below is a powerpoint that provides an overview of the project.


  1. Great post. You gave me a lot to think about. How do you plan to bring in more projects vs. pen and paper in your classroom?

  2. Little by little I look at incorporating more PBL ideas. One thing I've learned is that you can't do it all. Sometimes you need to look at one idea and go with that. In time you have repertoire of projects and the experiences in setting it up. It all really comes down to balance.