This is the first post in a week-long series on makerspaces.
I once taught an eighth-grade student who had written four novels online, despite the fact that she had only been learning English for three years. She spent her free time in class looking up how to set up lead magnets and create funnels for an email list. She read blog posts about how to create more suspense in a plot and how to use action rather than description to develop characters.
She had a maker mindset.
I once had a student who taught himself how to code by playing around with Scratch when he was in the sixth grade. With the help of a teacher who mentored him along the way, he was the first child in his family to graduate high school. And now, he’s working on a master’s degree in engineering.
He had a maker mindset.
But I also taught students with immense talent who never pursued their dreams because they were waiting for an invitation that never came. They were compliant and well-behaved, but they weren’t self-starters. They were adept at the art of filling out packets but they didn’t know how to solve problems or design products. So, they continued for years, waiting for an offer that never materialized.
Making Isn’t a “Soft Skill”
I believe that creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators.
When kids embrace a maker mindset, they learn to think divergently and solve problems by connecting seemingly disconnected ideas. They learn to take creative risks and try new things. They learn to embrace iterative thinking as they move through the creative process. In the process, they experience failure and develop a growth mindset. They become systems thinkers who can navigate complexity but they also become hackers and rebels who change the world.
In other words, they become innovators.
Note that these aren’t “soft skills.” Rather, they are vital for success in life. These are the critical skills they need for the creative economy. But it’s more than that. They are a deep part of the human experience. When kids embrace a maker mindset, they experience the sheer joy of creative work.
Nobody Puts Making in the Corner
Every day, I ask my kids, “What did you make in school today?” Too often, they can’t give me an answer. But on the days that they do, their eyes light up and they passionately describe their projects. It’s in those moments that I am reminded that making is magic.
I want to see teachers transform their classrooms into spaces of creativity and wonder. But here’s the thing: this is hard to pull off. We all have curriculum maps and limited resources and standards we have to teach. We don’t always have the money to buy fancy new gadgets.
So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time. You have to make time for making. It has to be a priority. And it starts with three guiding beliefs:
#1: Every child is a maker (and every teacher is naturally creative)
All students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. All kids are unique, authentic, and destined to be original. Too many people have believed the lie that there are certain “creative types” who are the exception to the rule. And too many teachers have believed this same lie. But this is a huge lie. We are all creative. Every one of us. We just need spaces and opportunities for our creativity to thrive.
Here’s the beautiful part of this: you don’t have to have it all figured out. I recently interviewed Nick Provenzano about his maker journey and he gave some great advice. “You don’t have to know how to do everything in the makerspace. You just have to know how to learn and to help others learn how to learn.” He described how he got into Raspberry Pi and Arduino by learning with his students. As they watched him take creative risks, they grew more confident.
#2: Every student should have access to creative projects
Too often, making is reserved for the students who are already finished with their work. It’s like a prize for those who finish their work quickly. Meanwhile, design thinking and project-based learning are reserved for the honors and gifted students. But every child deserves access to creative projects. All means all. And this means special education students can thrive when they are given the chance to make and design and tinker. This means a child who is learning to speak English deserves access to maker projects as much as someone who has mastered the language.
#3: Every subject should have a makerspace
Too often, we associate makerspaces with STEM classes. People think about coding or robotics or 3D prototyping. But I’d argue that we need a bigger definition of making. When students create blogs, podcasts, and documentaries, they are exercising a maker mindset. In fact, makerspaces can be the perfect context for informational writing and authentic research in language arts. A makerspace can be the perfect setup for a Shark Tank style project in the economics standards in social studies. It can be a tiny house project in math:
A makerspace doesn’t have to be an elective that exists outside of the core curricular areas. Making can happen in any subject.
Where to Begin with Makerspaces
But where do we even begin? How do we create these spaces when we don’t have the time or money? How do we transform our classrooms into makerspaces when we have state-mandated tests and constant pressure to perform? Where do you even begin when there are so many different options and you don’t know how to code or do circuitry or run a 3D printer? Let’s deconstruct these questions for a moment:
How do we create these spaces when we don’t have the time or money?
Let’s start with the question of time. When teachers try out design thinking projects, maker challenges, or Genius Hour projects, they aren’t adding something new to their already packed plate. Instead, they are reorganizing their plate and choosing a different approach to the same standards.
Makerspaces aren’t about the “stuff.” They’re about the making and the mindset. For example, sometimes the best way to prototype is with cardboard and duct tape rather than a 3D printer. At the bottom of this post, you’ll see that
How do we transform our classrooms into makerspaces when we have state-mandated tests and constant pressure to perform?
I am sympathetic to teachers who are risk-averse because of the test. The test sucks. Really. There’s no way around it. I hated that gut-wrenching feeling that I had no control over how my students were going to perform on the benchmarks and I waited for that quarter when my name would be at the bottom of the graph with questions about why I didn’t do enough to raise student achievement. Makerspaces always felt risky.
But there are a few things to consider. The first is that we have to be a little bold. When our students see us take a creative risk with our own teaching, they are more likely to internalize that same mindset. On a more practical level, it also helps to communicate these ideas to your administrators. I remember when I taught sixth grade self-contained. I shared my whole makerspace philosophy with my principal and gave her a tour of what students would be learning and how it connected to specific standards. Often, it helps when teachers use the word “pilot” and when they collaborate with other colleagues. Let them know that this is simply something you want to try out.
Where do you even begin when there are so many different options and you don’t know how to code or do circuitry or run a 3D printer?
As I mentioned before, you don’t have to know how to do everything in the makerspace. In fact, you can share your own learning process with your class. Certain students will emerge from the group and you’ll watch them teach one another – and you – certain maker-related skills that you didn’t previously have.
At the same time, you can take a part of the summer to learn something different. Go make something. Get on Scratch and learn the beginning parts of coding. Try out circuitry for the first time. Get yourself a robot. Make stuff. Make mistakes. Make sense out of a new process. Just spend a few weeks making.
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