The Makerspace Movement

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Makerspace, or focusing on a “maker mindset,” involves learning and spaces where students gather to create, invent, and learn. Makerspaces are often found in libraries or other common areas in a school. They are also set up regularly in classrooms and flexible in their design or use.

Ultimately, a maker culture focuses on design and opportunities that both engage and empower students. This creative learning can vary greatly and may include both high tech and low tech examples such as;

  • writing a fairytale using Lego Story Starter
  • coding using an input/output device such as Makey Makey
  • designing 3D imagery with a 3D printer
  • creating a stop motion animation using an app such as Smoovie
  • inventing something brand new from “take-a-parts” or cardboard.
  • composing a song to show understanding of a concept
  • producing a movie using green screen and a platform such as iMovie
  • working collaboratively with a team to build a bridge; as long as possible, in a limited amount of time, using a finite amount of materials
  • creating a beautiful piece of art using a variety of mediums
  • designing a campaign to solve a school-based issue or concern
  • recreating the setting of a novel in Minecraft Edu
  • building a replica of a famous structure

Establishing a making mindset in schools provides for endless possibilities all built upon imagination, creation, collaboration and innovation in an engaging learning environment.

The idea of students as creators is nothing new. Classrooms, libraries, art rooms, dance studios, theaters, band rooms, and industrial arts labs have served as “makerspaces” for our students at varying degrees and in a number of different ways for many, many years. But what is new is the urgency to ensure that our present day classrooms invite a making culture and that moving forward all classrooms shift from a passive learner model to one where students are at the centre in a stance of active learning. This is essential as we strive to meet the diverse needs of our learners in our ever changing world. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet our learners’ needs and the demands of our society. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. Initiating programming that prioritizes students as makers is one opportunity to do so.

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Makerspace is not about a “space” and it is not about “stuff”:  it is about a “making mindset”.  A focus on ‘making” pushes past the traditional structure of student as consumer of information. It is a culture focused on student as creator. It is about ideas. It is about the joy and exhilaration of putting something new into the world and the rich learning that goes with the experience of doing so.

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Makerspace is not about a one size fits all model where all learners are doing the same thing: it is about honouring our students as individuals, differentiating our approaches and valuing the opportunity and structure of having kids learning and doing different things at different times.

Makerspace is not about being stuck in the perspective of “that’s the way we have always done it” such as following traditional instructional structures. It is about shifting that lecture, that worksheet, that textbook assignment or those end of chapter questions to learning opportunities that are more active, more student-focused, and more creation driven. It is about flipping those traditional approaches and opening the door to creativity, critical thinking and problem solving for our students early on and giving students the opportunity to learn THROUGH the creative process.

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Makerspace is not about “sage on the stage” or teacher as the imparter of all knowledge: it is about the teacher as facilitator, “guide on the side” and coach, ultimately putting students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Makerspace is not about learning fitting neatly into subject areas and prescribed learning outcomes: it is about offering our students a number of possibilities, putting the appropriate materials and opportunities in their reach, and helping them make the connections.

With a strong basis in the theory of Constructivism (Vygotsky & Piaget), Constructionism (Papert) and Inquiry-based learning, hands-on learning such as makerspace initiatives offer students unique learning opportunities in which they can construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. Using a Makerspace model allows a student to ask questions, find ways to answer those questions and carve their own path while producing something to demonstrate their new learning. Teachers can not only step back into more of a role as facilitators or coaches but quite often as learners themselves.

Supporting our students in developing a maker mindset also gives learners the chance to develop a special skill set that is so necessary in today’s world. These skills include critical & creative thinking, project management, flexibility, agility, innovation, risk taking, and resilience. Giving our students more opportunities to create builds essential skills and competencies which are embedded throughout the curriculum. Learning focuses less on specific content related outcomes and more on drivers of learning, and key essential skills.

We can look to 4 key pillars that serve as foundational pieces of a learning environment that emphasize students as creators:

  • 4 C, Competency focused, Deep Learning – a focus on Critical & Creative Thinking, Communication and Collaboration
  • The Design Thinking Process – steps in a process which students use that has universal application, regardless of what they are creating (bridge, sculpture, poem, tower, campaign, animation etc.)

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  • Reflection & Metacognition – reflective practice gives students the opportunity to think deeply and reflect upon their own thinking, doing and learning and plan for next steps.
  • Personalized, active, inquiry-based learning – students’ individual strengths, interests, skills, driving questions and passions direct their own learning experiences

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When we personalize learning opportunities, let students take initiative and focus on building knowledge through creation instead of only consumption we support learning for ALL. We can look to the example of the Ecole Victoria Albert Learning Commons Makerspace for inspiration. It recently received an Honourable Mention for the CEA Ken Spencer Innovation Award and is a flagship for makerspace development for both Winnipeg School Division and the province of Manitoba as a whole. Vic Al’s diverse community of learners has benefited greatly from the makerspace in their school building. This dual track school of 400 has a high mobility rate and one of the largest newcomer populations in the city Winnipeg. About 70% of the school’s students are EAL and 25% are First Nations. They received 60 Syrian Refugees in 2016 alone.

Renee Sanguin, Inquiry & Innovation Support Teacher at Victoria Albert School explains, “The programming at Victoria Albert School promotes access to learning which is deep, inclusive, equitable and empowering for all. It opens doors for learners in a very personalized and experiential learning environment. The foundational tenets of deep learning driven by Makerspace have transformed the school from a traditional teacher-directed model to one where students are at the heart of all planning and learning. The focus is on “learning skills” that will prepare students for the future of change that is their reality.

The Victoria Albert initiative is an example of a transformative learning environment aimed to help support and prepare our learners with the modern literacies, skills, competencies and attitudes necessary for students today.” (Sanguin, 2016)

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 2.41.30 PMPhoto: http://cea-ace.s3.amazonaws.com/media/CEA-2016-Ken-Spencer-Award-Finalists-Booklet.pdf

When we focus on learning through the creative process we can approach curriculum and learning outcomes in an innovative way. We can support numeracy by making connections to problem-solving, computational thinking and reasoning. Through coding, robotics and game-based learning students are able to utilize a number of math skills in relevant and engaging platforms. Students also can practice and consolidate a number of math concepts and applications in meaningful contexts while estimating, measuring, building, revising, constructing and applying numerous math skills in real world situations.

In the way of literacy, the possibilities are endless. Using Lego students can build a beginning, middle, and end and incorporate all elements of a story in this unique medium before capturing their story with images, text, and written or oral documentation. Students can ask questions to drive their learning and then find answers by researching, interviewing, reading, viewing and listening. Students have opportunities regularly to capture their work and the steps they have taken through procedure writing.

Learners read instructions. They write instructions. They draw diagrams. They label parts. They storyboard, write scripts, perform and do retakes. They reflect deeply through writing, sketch noting, video or apps such as Adobe Spark or Seesaw. They network and connect through social media, digital portfolios, video conferencing, blogging and more. In a making context, the visible learning that takes place in the way of literacy learning and beyond is endless.

When we offer students opportunities in our schools and classrooms to learn through making, inventing and creating we promote student ownership, student agency and developing autonomous, self-directed learners. It is an opportunity for students to manage their own personalized learning in an active, student-driven, empowering environment. It is a chance to support deeper thinking and foster curiosity with minds-on, hands-on tinkering, and constructing. Makerspaces or promoting having a “making mindset” is a powerful learning opportunity for our 21st C learners as they become creators, critical thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, communicators and most importantly life-long learners.

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Paradigm Shift to Personalized Learning

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This tweet resonates with me for many reasons….it brings forth big ideas related to personalized, student-driven learning as well as learner engagement, empowerment, and agency. We know in the realm of education, these are topics on the minds of many.

We also know that our contemporary learners are vastly different than previous generations.  They are far more diverse, as are their needs. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet their changing needs and the demands of our society.  Past practices, and only focusing on filling our learners’ minds with knowledge, are no longer enough. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. We know that the extensive research, knowledge, and experience we now have access to must drive the changes necessary to not only better meet the dynamic needs of our students but also our society as a whole.  

We also know that many of the students presently in schools are disengaged.  They struggle to see the relevance of much of the content they are learning and to connect it to their current context.  Traditional classroom practices leave them disinterested and simply going through the motions. We can look to the Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) initiative on this topic, entitled What did you do in school today?  It has shed much light on the topic of engagement in schools with its survey results from over 60,000 students investigating how student engagement impacts academic outcomes, instructional challenge, and intellectual engagement.

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These wise words from Maya Angelou, seem fitting. “When you know better, you do better.” We now do know better, but often following through with the action or the “doing” part is easier said than done. In order, to see the true paradigm shift needed to transform educational practices and support our students in becoming dynamic learners, a number of changes will need to happen.

First, we will need to see less of a focus in our classrooms on content related outcomes, and more emphasis put on the skills and competencies our students need to be successful.  This includes critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, along with a myriad of personal and social attitudes and skills around such things as; global awareness, empathy, reflection, risk-taking, resilience, and self-regulation. We see examples of curricular reform happening both internationally and nationally with BC leading the way with their recent  Redesigned Curriculum.   The curriculum models a shift in perspective which highlights the same 6 Core Competencies supporting pedagogy and practice throughout the grades from K-12.  Big Ideas drive a focus for each subject area, with a stronger emphasis on Curricular Competencies and a reduced number of Content related outcomes at each grade.  

Second, as suggested in the Tweet by Jason Hubbard above, we need to ensure that classrooms are in fact, “their classrooms”, that is our students’ classrooms driven in many ways by their interests, strengths, and needs. Moving towards a model of teacher as mentor and facilitator of learning is essential. It is only through a more personalized, student-driven learning approach, that we will see our learners engaged in their learning and invested in their education.

There are a number of schools we can look to as models.  High Tech High being one of the most well known.  At High Tech High schools, a strong emphasis is put on personalization.  These schools practice a learner-centered, inclusive approach that supports and challenges each student individually. Students have the opportunity to pursue their passions through projects and reflect deeply on their learning.  The focus integrates hands-on inquiry across multiple disciplines, engages students in work that is meaningful and connects learning to their community and world. High Tech High teachers work together to design curriculum and projects, not only with colleagues but with their students as “design partners”.There are a number of other schools or programs that have parallel approaches; some Canadian examples include SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning), Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, Connect Charter in Calgary and the PROPEL program in Winnipeg. In visiting all of these personalized, inquiry-driven programs one thing is evident, the students there are not only actively involved and engaged in their work, they are driving their own learning.

Last week, I attended one of the PROPEL program’s final presentation celebration events.  I witnessed four high school students share a half hour presentation on the personal learning project that represented much of their learning for the semester.  PROPEL uses an integrated approach to curriculum and students receive a Transactional English credit, a Technologies credit and an Electives credit related to their area of pursuit, a model feasible for many high schools. The students take coursework in the other core subjects in the alternate semester.

At this particular final presentation evening, one student shared her perspectives on creating music videos and her own YouTube channel to share her amazing songwriting and singing talents.  One student described her deep, reflective learning journey in all of the work placements she had organized for herself over the five months,  ranging from apprenticing as a mechanic, to implementing art therapy with people with developmental disabilities, to working in a dental office. The next student described how he had found his potential life path by working on his own film and delving into the filmmaking world through acoustic engineering.  And the final student reflected on a two-year project he had been working on first designing a 3D model of a warming hut and then constructing it.  His creation is now accessible to thousands of Winnipeggers on the skating trails at The Forks Market.

These four students were eloquent and impassioned in describing their learning journeys.  They could not have been more invested.  One of them, Seah Kohli, the creator of the warming hut, summed it up as he spoke about how valuable the experiences at PROPEL had been for him as a learner.  He suggested that programs and approaches to teaching and learning such as PROPEL are “the future of education”.  We can only hope that he is right and that all of our students’ school careers include learning as powerful and meaningful as the PROPEL experience was for these ones.  

Over the past few years, I have been involved with implementing an experiential learning initiative through Winnipeg School Division’s STEAM Centres. I have seen firsthand the power personalized learning opportunities and a flexible learning environment can have on developing autonomy, confidence and agency in young learners.

The WSD STEAM program is offered to students in grades 4-6, across the division’s elementary schools and is built on four key pillars; the 4 C competencies, the design thinking process, reflection, and, strength based learning. After taking part in a variety of learning experiences related to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics such as coding, design, instant challenges, game based learning, and other creation, makerspace type learning, students spend time exploring areas of strength and interest.  The program uses a very hands-on, inquiry based, active learning focus and students are highly engaged and successful. Further to this, we now see many other K-6 schools across our division, adopting this type of STEAM centred learning approach through practices such as makerspace, challenge learning or Genius Hour initiatives, and it is exciting to see this elementary movement growing.

We can look to the examples above to help drive change and guide us towards a more competency focused, personalized approach for our learners, but the reality is that these schools and programs were in fact designed and created with this exact purpose, mindset and intent in mind from day one. With that in mind, they may not face many of the same challenges that is the reality for all other established public schools.  Moving towards programming such as this within the realities and contexts of our current school systems as a whole is a bigger challenge.  In Will Richardson’s and Bruce Dixon’s 10 Principles for Schools for Modern Learning they suggest,  “Today, truly transformative change at a systems level in pre-existing schools is very difficult to find. It’s easier to build a new school than to change an old one.” In our current context in many schools, we see pockets of innovative practice and student driven approaches being used by teachers, but finding examples of where this may be happening school wide is tough.  This may be the reality for a variety of reasons. Challenges may arise when teachers don’t have support and big picture understanding from the administrators in their building. Or on the flip side, in other situations learning leaders in schools are faced with resistance from teachers who are reluctant to let go of traditional methods which place students as passive learners, or still focus solely on content.  It’s complicated.  It is imperative that these changes occur and are supported at all levels and by all stakeholders.

There is much to do and at times this work will be messy and wrought with many stumbling blocks, barriers, and failures. The most worthwhile endeavors are rarely easy. Change is hard. A shift in paradigm involves a fundamental evolution in approach and often challenges much of what many believe and assume to be true.  There is no one clear path, no magic formula, no silver bullet moving forward.  But moving forward in this direction is not optional.  

We owe it not only our youth but to society as a whole, to offer an education that best prepares our students for the future that is their reality.  We owe it to our students to find the best ways to support building the essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed today in a meaningful, and engaging context. We owe it to our students to facilitate learning opportunities that are active, student driven, authentic and personalized.  Ultimately, we owe it to our students to ensure our classrooms are in fact “their classrooms”.