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Making and Innovation: Balancing Skills-Development, Scaffolding, and Free Play

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This post discusses some of the challenges and proposed solutions for implementing maker education activities into a learning setting.  Several trends drive this post:

  • The Play Deficit – diminishing amount of free play in which kids engage
  • Lack of creativity and innovation in children’s lives and toys
  • The Maker Movement -Maker Education

The Play Deficit

I think many adults, me included, have fond memories of free play during our childhoods . . . playing kickball and tag at recess, flipping baseball cards, creating carnivals in the backyard . . . all done without any guidance or interference from adults.  These memories are more vivid for me than any time I spent in school.  Fast forward to today  . . . school recess is shortened or does not exist at all, kids come home from school and sit in front of TVs or computers playing structured games, teens lives are structured with school, sports, social events with no free time.

The health of a society should be measured by the health of its play. The play of a healthy society should be rich and varied: imaginative, dramatic, physical, cooperative, solitary.  Play should be afforded the same importance as math and reading, valued as truly integral to curriculum, as the foundation of learning.  Yet, a current Play Deficit exists. It is the very real decline in child-driven, unstructured play in U.S. society, and it has critical implications for the physical and developmental health of children and adolescents as well as the health of communities. Signs of the Play Deficit can be found almost everywhere.  http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog

The health of a society should be measured by the health of its play. The play of a healthy society should be rich and varied: imaginative, dramatic, physical, cooperative, solitary. Children—in urban, suburban, and rural areas—should have ample and easy access to safe and stimulating outdoor play spaces: creeks, woods, adventure playgrounds, pocket parks. Caregivers and parents should feel comfortable allowing children the time, independence, and freedom to play in their neighborhoods. Kids should be safe playing outside. Play should be afforded the same importance as math and reading, valued as truly integral to curriculum, as the foundation of learning – See more at: http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/public-health%E2%80%99s-untold-crisis-the-play-deficit#sthash.8tFXNgnW.dpuf

The benefits of play, although hard to measure, cannot be overstated.

A playful society is filled with problem-solving, resiliency, communication, and exploration of acceptable boundaries and risk. Play promotes all these faculties, and more.  While hard at play, we unwittingly built the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical skills which continued to support us as we made the transition to adulthood. http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog

The health of a society should be measured by the health of its play. The play of a healthy society should be rich and varied: imaginative, dramatic, physical, cooperative, solitary. Children—in urban, suburban, and rural areas—should have ample and easy access to safe and stimulating outdoor play spaces: creeks, woods, adventure playgrounds, pocket parks. Caregivers and parents should feel comfortable allowing children the time, independence, and freedom to play in their neighborhoods. Kids should be safe playing outside. Play should be afforded the same importance as math and reading, valued as truly integral to curriculum, as the foundation of learning – See more at: http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/public-health%E2%80%99s-untold-crisis-the-play-deficit#sthash.8tFXNgnW.dpuf
The health of a society should be measured by the health of its play. The play of a healthy society should be rich and varied: imaginative, dramatic, physical, cooperative, solitary. Children—in urban, suburban, and rural areas—should have ample and easy access to safe and stimulating outdoor play spaces: creeks, woods, adventure playgrounds, pocket parks. Caregivers and parents should feel comfortable allowing children the time, independence, and freedom to play in their neighborhoods. Kids should be safe playing outside. Play should be afforded the same importance as math and reading, valued as truly integral to curriculum, as the foundation of learning – See more at: http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/public-health%E2%80%99s-untold-crisis-the-play-deficit#sthash.8tFXNgnW.dpuf

At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults. what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning. http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play/

Lack of creativity and innovation in children’s toys.

The symptoms of the play deficit can be seen in the types of commercial toys being bought and sold.  Legos provide the perfect example of the changing nature of toys.

Lego, loosely translated, means “to put together” in Latin. But “to put together” doesn’t fully encompass the value – and purpose – of those buckets of colorful bricks. Legos are about putting together, then taking apart, then reassembling in new ways. Legos unleashed my creativity when I was growing up. They drew out the part of me that had to know what things looked like from the inside out, how they worked, how they might work better.  Since that time, Legos have changed. Instead of all-purpose boxes of bricks, with no rules or instruction manuals, the company now sells Star Wars Legos and Harry Potter Legos, complete with step-by-step instructions and stated objectives. Follow these steps to build a Jedi Starfighter or Hogwarts Castle; when you’re done, your creation should look just like the picture on the box.  These Legos require a level of precision, and a measure of patience. But no longer are they about imagination; instead, the point is replication. In an essay in his wonderful collection, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon described the transformation like this:  “Where Lego-building had once been open-ended and exploratory, it now [has] far more in common with puzzle-solving, a process of moving incrementally toward an ideal, pre-established, and above all, a provided solution.” Still, we lose something when the nondescript buckets of freeform Lego bricks are moved to the back of the toy store, while the highly specialized Disney sets fly off the shelves. We lose that chance to inspire a future engineer, the one who will grow up to revolutionize solar power, or make the iPhone as obsolete as Steve Jobs made the Discman.  This isn’t just about Lego bricks and Star Wars kits; it isn’t just about playthings. It’s about the way we prioritize and encourage creativity in society. Which is to say that we don’t do it nearly enough. http://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2012/01/27/parents-buy-kids-legos-but-throw-away-the-instructions/

Many of kids’ toys are promoted and sold with directions, solutions to problems, and expectations for end products.  Creativity and innovation are enhanced when directions and expected end products are intentionally omitted from the toy packaging.

Unfortunately for kids today, the designed world doesn’t leave much room for them to explore. Most toys come with pre-defined identities and stories, which rob children of the joy of imagining these things. This leaves few opportunities to figure out how to use a toy, experiment, fail, and invent the story of where it came from, and why it does what it does. Imagining, understanding, and becoming who we are is a process informed by play, and both toy companies and designers are taking all the exploration out of it. http://www.fastcodesign.com/3048508/the-case-for-letting-kids-design-their-own-play

The Result: Uncreative Children

No free time play time to experience, interact with, and experiment with the real world; toys that lack room for divergent and creative play; and a school system that focuses more on results, accountability, and  standardized products has led to a society of less creative children and research provides some evidence of this.

In a 2010 study of about 300,000 creativity tests going back to the 1970s, Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, found creativity has decreased among American children in recent years. Since 1990, children have become less able to produce unique and unusual ideas. They are also less humorous, less imaginative and less able to elaborate on ideas, Kim said.   Experts say creativity is innate, so it can’t really be lost. But it needs to be nurtured. “It’s not that creativity can necessarily disappear,” said Ron Beghetto, an education psychologist at the University of Oregon. “But it can be suppressed in particular contexts. “The current focus on testing in schools, and the idea that there is only one right answer to a question, may be hampering development of creativity among kids, Beghetto said. “There’s not much room for unexpected, novel, divergent thought,” he said. http://www.livescience.com/15535-children-creative.html

At least two conclusions can be drawn from this literature:

  • Making, creating, innovating, experimenting are needed now more than ever in this rapidly evolving world and our children are severely lacking in these skills
  • If these skills are to be integrated into formal and informal learning settings, some direct instruction and scaffolding will need to occur.

The maker movement and education has the potential to do both.

The Maker Movement – Maker Education

Thanks to new rapid-prototyping technologies like computer numerical control milling and 3-D printing, we’ve seen a convergence between hacker and hipster, between high-tech coding and the low-tech artisanal craft behind everything from Etsy to Burning Man.   Maker culture, for all its love of stuff, is similarly a culture of resourcefulness in an era of economic scarcity: relentless in its iterative prototyping, its radically adaptive reuse of ready-made objects, its tendency to unmake one thing to make another — all in a new ecology of economy http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/learning-from-legos.html?_r=1

The Maker movement has sparked a Maker Education trend in some informal and formal education settings.  The intent and mission of the maker movement is:

Fortunately for educators, making overlaps with the natural inclination of children to learn by doing. The maker movement values human passion, capability, and the ability to make things happen and solve problems anywhere, anytime.  The maker movement treats children as if they were competent. Too many schools do not. Making builds on each child’s passion by connecting their whole being with constructive materials in a flow that results in fantastic artifacts that almost always exceed our expectations. We want our kids so engaged in projects that they lose track of time or wake up in the middle of the night counting the minutes until they get to return to school. Never before have there been more exciting materials and technology for children to use as intellectual laboratories or vehicles for self-expression. The learning-by-doing approach also has precedents in education: project-based learning, Jean Piaget’s constructivism, and Seymour Papert’s constructionism. These theories explain the remarkable accomplishments of young makers and remind educators that every classroom needs to be a place where, as Piaget taught, “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” http://www.iste.org/learn/publications/learning-leading/issues/l-l-may-2014/feature-the-maker-movement-a-learning-revolution

So, in essence, the maker movement-maker education can counteract the negative effects that school and our society have had on children’s and young people’s playfulness and creativity.  

Scaffolding and Building Skills as a Foundation to Making

Maybe in the past, educators could throw out a bunch of materials and tools; and ask the kids to create, but as discussed in the previous sections, many of today’s kids don’t know how to just make.  Also some of the more common technologies built into some of the new maker tools (i.e., Arduino, Makey-Makey, Little Bits, 3D printers) require some basic user skills.  The scaffolding of learning needs to occur. Learning and developing basic maker skills can occur through direct instruction by the educator, watching videos, using manuals, and learning from peers. It is important, though, that the learning experience doesn’t stop there.  Learners need the time, tools, encouragement, and support to go beyond the “what already is” to build and develop new and unique designs. In conclusion, for maker education and similar initiatives that drive and are driven by innovation and creativity to work, several things need to occur given today’s learning and teaching climate

  1. Educators and other involved in curriculum development would need to let go of the focus on deliverables, measurables, and expected products.  The process of doing and creating needs to be the focus.
  2. Creativity, innovation, experimentation, tolerance and acceptance of mistakes need to be viewed as being as or even more important as learning content area knowledge,
  3. The educator should take on the role of lead learner – demonstrating, modeling, and scaffolding the use of the maker education tools and techniques.
  4. Educators would need to let go of control and embrace the ambiguity that comes with the messy learning of maker education.
  5. A sense of play and fun should be expected as part of these learning activities.
  6. In essence, the educator’s role in this learning environment would be a tour guide of learning possibilities. S/he would show learners the possibilities and then get out of the way.

makered teacher

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Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

April 21, 2014 at 12:24 am

2 Responses

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  1. The great thing I found when starting Maker Ed was how awesome the community was in helping me to get started. With the help of more experienced Makers I now offer classes, project groups and flexitime robotics. Once students have basic skills they are creating their own ideas well ahead of what I could envision! This post explains how helpful the community was in geting me/us to this point: http://stevemouldey.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/an-acclamation-for-the-maker-community/

    stevemouldey

    April 21, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    • Your blog post provides a great account of the process, Steve.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      April 22, 2014 at 3:50 am


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