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What’s Maker Education?

‘Making’ is a very popular topic these days. There is plenty of information available on the web so I will just give a few pointers as a form of introduction.

Digital making is the process of creating a product or output. Although it is often associated with software programming, it can also involve modifying, adapting and personalising existing digital or physical tools to make something relatively new or original. According to its many advocates, it’s as much underpinned by technical skills as by the ability to work together, solve problems creatively, and think critically about technologies and what can be accomplished through them.

All of the above applies to digital ‘fabrication’ which, however, also has a distinctive emphasis on the increasing availability of ‘output devices’ such as laser and 3D printers which, although still rather expensive, are beginning to ‘democratise‘ sophisticated design practices. The notion of fabrication as an educational process originated in the US, with some high profile developments like the ‘FabLabs’ (Fabrication Laboratories). For some, fabrication represents the ‘superior’ form of making – especially in formal school settings – as fabricated objects easily become ornamental displays that turn classrooms in creative studios or science museums. By contrast, purely digital artefacts don’t have this power as they exist solely within the confines of a computer screen.

These ideas have been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years. Unsurprisingly, they have been become part of the global ‘STEM deficit’ narrative and have informed policies and programmes to foster ‘innovation skills’ and computational expertise, especially among ‘underrepresented’ groups such as young girls. The number of digital making/coding/fabrication initiatives is mindboggling with state departments, ministries, and large tech corporations the world over sponsoring campaigns, projects and competitions.  Some of these ironically missing the point and unwittingly touting the same gender stereotypes they set out to challenge – see the recent IBM campaign inviting women to #HackAHairDryer.

In some important ways, the movement is the ‘computational’ rehash of traditional tinkering and crafting practices, which have interesting histories of their own largely tied, again, to shifts in gender roles and the growth of disposable time for interest-driven activities. An equally important factor is now established recognition that important differences exist between technological literacy (a general set of skills and intellectual dispositions for all citizens) and technical competence (in-depth knowledge that professional engineers and scientists need to know to perform their work).

A recent review made an attempt to group the Maker Movement into three categories – which in fact overlap significantly but are a good way to start teasing out some interesting aspects for our own project: making as entrepreneurship and/or community creativity, making as STEM pipeline and workforce development, and making as inquiry-based educative practice. Some also praise maker culture as the sign of a growing interdisciplinary attitude to skills development, whereby STEAM (i.e. STEM with addition of Arts) seems to offer a more inclusive and less threatening framing for the development of educational curricula and ‘cool geek’ identities.

In the UK, the maker movement has been largely assimilated in the various ‘learning to code’ initiatives launched after significant changes in the ‘computing’ curriculum in English schools. Some thought provoking accounts of the entanglement of interests and forms of governance surrounding the computational turn in UK education are available.





Welcome to the ‘MakerEdLeeds’ official blog. MakerEdLeeds is a small research study funded by the Society for Educational Studies (SES). As the name (hopefully) suggests, the project is concerned with ‘maker education’ and, more precisely, with how the maker movement is impacting on the cultures and practices of formal education. I am Carlo and I am the project coordinator. Assisting me in the task of ‘making sense of making’ is Claire, who knows much more about coding, fabrication and hacking than I do. To be totally honest I am rather ignorant about designing technology and engineering practices. I am (full disclosure) a social researcher, mainly interested in how this ‘movement’ is being talked about and how it became an ‘educational thing’. Something directly and indirectly shaping curricula and driving investment in hackables, wearables, programmables, microcontrollers and credit-card sized computers. Mostly however I am interested in how regular, non-tech savvy English students and teachers understand ‘maker education’, and where they place it in relation to other interests, commitments and to the barrage of expectations and social pressures competing for their precious time and attention spans.

We are working with two secondary schools in Leeds (Swallow Hill Community College and Carr Manor Community School), running sessions with Y8 and Y9 students, and involving teachers as observers and researchers. This blog’s purpose is to document the project as it progresses until its scheduled conclusion in the summer of 2016. The project officially started in September, and since then we have been busy refining the overall approach and method and examining our own assumptions about maker education. We have also run a few sessions with students and interviewed some teachers, and we now feel more confident about sharing some of the things we are learning. Enjoy… and please leave (constructive) feedback in the comments section!