Before I started facilitating regular maker experiences in my classroom, I had quite a few reasons in mind for not pursuing this type of instruction. I didn’t think I had the right space set up. I didn’t think I taught the right subject (I was a reading teacher at the time), and I didn’t have the funds for what I thought were the right materials. I also didn’t know what it “should” look like and that made me hesitant to try. What if I got it wrong, it was a disaster, and I wasted everyone’s time? Once I finally started to give students more intentional making challenges and eventually made a shift to teaching at a STEM science center, I discovered the importance of providing everyone with more hands-on learning opportunities. I regretted that it took me so long to truly understand how powerful these experiences can be for student learning. There are a lot of misconceptions about what can and can’t be done when it comes to makerspaces and providing students with time to pursue hands-on learning. So, I thought today I would share three myths about making that I wish someone would have told me when I was hesitant to try. I hope they give you some clarity about what it means to make, and maybe even help remove some hesitations.
Myth 1: If you want a makerspace, you need expensive tools.
Some of the most engaging projects I completed with students were made with completely low-tech materials. I would argue that the most important materials to keep stocked in your makerspace are cardboard and other recyclables. Milk cartons, plastic water bottles, Lysol containers, Kleenex boxes, and any other type of container that you can get your hands on will be useful in your makerspace. And, I have found that when I give students more material constraints, they tend to have even more creative, out-of-the-box ideas than when I inundate them with a variety of materials.
I also encourage anyone who is just beginning to start small. Tools and equipment for a makerspace can be extremely beneficial, and when added and curated intentionally, they can provide students with wonderful experiences that teach valuable twenty-first-century lessons. But, too many materials, particularly tech tools, all at once can be extremely overwhelming for everyone. I have also discovered that it can be easier to lose focus of the learning goals when we are always looking for the next tech tool of the moment. Of course, giving students time to play in order to learn new tools is important, but don’t forget to take it further. What will the students make with the tool once they learn the basics of it? When we are planning makerspace time, we should never center the learning around a tool. If we are constantly just teaching them tools, what happens when that particular gadget becomes outdated or obsolete?
Instead, approach making with these questions:
- What are the foundational skills we are trying to get students to practice and/or master?
- What are the larger learning goals?
Then we can ask:
- What tools help our students practice and learn the concepts?
When we approach it with this lens, we stay focused on student learning and the materials become less important.
Myth 2: Making must be unstructured.
Student choice is engaging and can be a huge motivator. However, if we present a big idea or challenge without giving any direction or support, it can also be extremely paralyzing. What happens if students don’t know how to solve the problem or challenge you present? Where and how do they get started? Providing students with some structure to guide them through their own making process is necessary.
Rather than giving students specifics on how to achieve a solution or an end result as we might do with a more teacher-centered model of instruction, we can instead set up and guide students through a step-by-step, cyclical process for brainstorming, planning/designing, prototyping, testing, and improving the product. There are many road maps for this type of process that have already been developed such as various Engineering Design Plans (EDP) and Design Thinking Frameworks. I recommend reading about John Spencer’s LAUNCH Cycle, or for younger learners, I really like the Engineering is Elementary Engineering Design Process. No matter what framework you choose or choose to develop, use it to create scaffolds, design lesson plans, and break up parts of their projects into smaller, more manageable pieces.
For example, rather than telling them to brainstorm, guide them through their brainstorming.
- What kind of brainstorming might support students best?
- What questions might they want to consider in order to begin to tackle the challenge you’ve presented them?
- How might they collaborate to bounce ideas off each other and improve?
And, as students practice the process you’ve introduced, they will grow, and you will likely be able to give them more freedom as the school year progresses.
Myth 3: Making requires you to throw out your curriculum and create brand-new content.
Making will require some new lessons and materials just as anything else that you try for the first time. However, you can weave in making into many lessons and units that you are already doing in the classroom or library. For example, you can still do the same science circuitry unit, but what if at the end of the unit, instead of testing them with a paper and pencil, their final project involved creating something with a Makey Makey, Chibitronics, or even making a circuit from a tea light?
You can still read the same novel, but instead of students writing a final paper analyzing the book, what if they made something that demonstrated their own understanding and interpretation of the novel? They might use robotics to illustrate Shakespeare or engineer a solution to a problem a character faces in the book. Angela Stockman, author of the book Hacking the Writing Workshop: Redesign with Making in Mind, writes that “making is a gateway to writing.” If students only practice engaging with writing through more writing and discussion, we are closing off an additional pathway to deep learning.
And, if we focus solely on students demonstrating their learning through writing and speaking, we are not giving our students the opportunities to discover the connections that our content has to the real world. So, give your students time to create their own understanding through making.
For more strategies on making, read my blog Key Strategies for Maker Education.