More than a worksheet: the power of hands-on, challenging, learning at home

What case studies from American ‘makerspaces’ teach us about the power of creativity during lockdown and beyond.

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Learning from lockdown has meant very different things for students in different personal and family circumstances, and depending on what curriculum their schools followed. Since the beginning of lockdowns in March 2020, I have been interviewing secondary students and education practitioners around the world about what worked for them, what did not work well and what changes they have been implementing in their learning and teaching practice since.

As more schools worldwide have started the academic year online or as a blended practice, I reflect on how maker spaces have adapted their practice to remote learning. Maker spaces engage students in “active learning” (B. Cope, M. Kalantzis, 2017): students manufacture artefacts from raw materials, working independently or in teams, and practitioners weave curriculum content and work and life skills into the project brief and methodology.The “maker practice” is centred around creating enjoyable, challenging and interesting learner experiences. These are typically met with greater intrinsic motivations to learn (Kantar, 2018). Given that student engagement has been one of the greatest challenges met by schools during lockdown, there are important lessons we can learn from how maker spaces tackled this.

BEAM Center, New York, US

The Beam Center in New York collaborates with educators, artists, scientists and engineers to deliver school-based activities, summer camps and apprenticeships predicated on two learner’s skills: collaboration and creativity. The Center also helps students develop work-ready skills, such as fabrication, prototyping, metalwork, physical computing, construction and design. 

Serving students from under-represented and less privileged backgrounds, the Center designs learning experiences which also: “honour [the students’] individual voice, celebrate the joy of producing something larger than ourselves and inspire a lasting sense of wonder and accomplishment.” 

With the beginning of the quarantine, Beam developed a library of projects to be done with household materials: Beam Anywhere. “The process of developing those projects gave Beam’s staff the opportunity to think about an approach to possible Summer programming offers”, Brian Cohen, the founder, tells me.

Two months into the lockdown, the Center launched Future Humans: a 5-weeks maker programme in which middle and high school students explore a variety of electronics, craft, and physical computing projects to make wearable interactive accessories and use them to “experience” an imaginary planet. Students complete weekly projects, using materials received at their doorstep and engage with “counselors” through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. They also participate in Live YouTube shows, featuring project tips and student work, and a weekly Instagram Live show & tell.

By the end of the Summer, the Center had delivered materials kits to 400+ young people throughout NYC. If we measure its impact beyond the number of kits or artefacts produced, surveys show that the students advanced in their level of:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management in home work/learn environment
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills, incl. vulnerability in sharing work and receiving feedback
  5. Decision-making
  6. Communication and analysis

Taking advantage of the digital delivery, the Center extended their offer even further. They engaged teenage makers as ambassadors, to create and facilitate their own Beam Anywhere projects for the younger audience. The digital delivery also meant that the team could enrich surveys and interview assessments with new, data-driven insights from the student/staff chat interactions. 

Beam Center’s paid summer internships went online too. The internships are meant to facilitate “exploration, skill building, community building and project making”. The team structured a Learn Anything maker programme, centred around work-ready skills and delivered it in conjunction with Hats and Ladder’s youth employability online course

In the middle of the lockdown Beam’s staff rolled out the Youth Participatory Action Research, where its students joined researchers from Harvard, Yale and six other nonprofit organizations to conduct a youth survey investigating “youth-led solutions for digital health in our tech-infused world”. The survey results helped inform a 2-years national research initiative by research institute Change Focus NYC: “I’m glad I was part of something big”, one of the students reflected on its completion.

Notwithstanding the adversity of having to move a physical maker practice online, the results from Beam’s NPS Feedback survey demonstrate how students grew their aptitude for self-directed learning through the remote learning programme: “When you build things by yourself, you focus more and you are more free to think of things that you find cool and interesting”. And crucially, they built a more positive attitude toward remote learning: “I have realized that it is very effective and productive and that it is not as limiting as I thought”.

What would we learn about our schools if they too had to produce a similar survey?

Maker Ed, Berkeley, US

California-based, education non-profit Maker Ed offers workshops, convenings and online learning centred around STEM.

At the start of lockdown, the team had to shut down their maker studio. They partnered with educators at after school programs to distribute 250 home-maker kits to Oakland families and an additional 500 kits at weekly “Grab and Go” meal events and drive-through graduation ceremonies. 

To support shared learning and positive connections during remote learning, Maker Ed invited students to share how they were exploring making at home on the online blog. To help educators improve remote engagement rates, Maker Ed published Cyber Arcade: Programming and Making with micro:bit: a fun and creative introduction to computer science and hands-on making for youth in elementary and middle grade levels. They also curated a weekly maker video programme for everyone, including educators, to learn about maker techniques.

In conversations with educators, one thing we’ve heard is that during emergency remote instruction in the spring it was difficult to understand how students were doing. Through a webconference window it was often hard to gather evidence of students’ learning or emotional wellbeing. Students themselves also had fewer opportunities to see what their peers were working on and give feedback and kudos”, the team explains. Therefore, Maker Ed set out to build a guide for educators, including tips and exercises to think about assessment in a virtual classroom environment and to practice using the formative assessment toolkit: Beyond Rubrics.

Beyond Rubrics was developed in collaboration with MIT’s Playful Learning Lab. It includes exercises to assess pre-determined learning objectives, but also for “recognizing and celebrating skills demonstrated in all kinds of projects, whether they are part of remote schooling curricula or driven by students’ own interests and passions during quarantine”. For instance, the toolkit features “get unstuck cards”: prompts to facilitate video reflections, when students feel “stuck” on an activity or content. Students can share their videos with peers and seek feedback over the Flipgrid video and chat platform. 

Other lockdown innovations include reflection checklists for designing more effective Zoom classrooms:

  • How might you design for collaboration in your online classroom? What would evidence of this collaboration look like?
  • How might you share back things you’re noticing about a student’s troubleshooting skills with the student using your school’s LMS?
  • How could students collect evidence of each other’s processes while working side-by-side in virtual break-out rooms?

Student-centred, outcome-focussed learning design

Whilst it is reductive – and most certainly wrong, to state that e-learning does not work, years of practice by global education leaders like Big Picture Learning demonstrate how the most effective medium for engaging in learning is: “entirely dependent on the the learner profile; their learning goals [curriculum]; context [what is being learned, where, under what constraints] and outcomes [e.g. gain new skills or enter university]”. Beam Center and Maker Ed took a user-led, design thinking approach to develop, test and iterate their remote offering. What came out of this process were multimodal and shared learning experiences for both the students and the educators.

What we can learn from maker spaces goes beyond their pedagogical approach to content- and skills-based learning. It concerns taking a more human-centric approach in an industry which starts and ends with its people.

We would love to hear more voices of students from maker spaces and other active learning experiences, like project-based learning; role-playing; simulations/games; experiential learning, etc. Share yours here with the Thrive community!

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