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What Counts as Learning While Making?

As the maker movement makes strides in education, it's important to identify its learning benefits -- and find more robust ways to define and document success.

If I had to choose one takeaway from SXSWedu last month in Austin, it would be the impact of the maker movement on education. The "making" theme permeated nearly every aspect of the conference, from the keynotes and sessions to hands-on exhibits — even a press event where education industry reporters constructed ducks out of Legos alongside Dan Rather. (Rather was at SXSWedu with his grandson, Martin Rather, to present the inaugural Rather Prize, awarded to a student, teacher or administrator with the best idea to improve education in the state of Texas — and it should come as no surprise that making and experiential learning factored into many of the finalists' proposals.)  

In the session "The Importance of Micro-Credentialing in Maker Education," Jessica Parker, education community manager for the Maker Education Initiative, provided some great insights on the relationship between making and learning. "We can learn a lot from the maker movement and maker educators by asking a simple question," she said: "What counts as learning while making?"

Parker asked that very question to educators over a period of 18 months, and came up with three primary reasons that making is meaningful for students:

  • Making promotes social and emotional learning. Learners gain an increased willingness to try new things, to struggle, to collaborate. They seek out resources from one another or online; they tend to be more self-directed.
  • The learning process itself. Brainstorming, tinkering, exploring, iteration and building on ideas result in learning that is generative, not only for the students, but also for the facilitators and adults in the room.
  • An increased opportunity for reflection. With making, ongoing reflection is embedded throughout the process. The learners themselves gain insight into how they learn.

Interestingly, Parker's survey of maker educators also revealed that the instructors themselves have something to gain from the experience. Some of the benefits she cited:

  • Understanding students on a deeper level. When educators actually see the students making, they get to know them better and can promote their individual strengths.
  • Sense of renewal. Many educators told Parker that the act of making with their students helped them reconnect with the reasons they got into the teaching profession in the first place.
  • Improving classroom practice. The making experience inspires educators to change their own teaching methods: They are able to offer more hands-on opportunities, step back to allow students to explore, promote more active engagement with students, and create a more student-directed classroom.

Parker highlighted the need to document the learning that happens throughout the making process. "So often in our discussions around learning, we tend to overemphasize the outcome — that final product," she noted. "We focus in on that degree, the diploma, the teaching credential. What becomes lost in this is really the opportunity to highlight the amazing learning that happens during the process itself of earning said degree or said diploma."

One solution may lie in the growing popularity and sophistication of badges and micro-credentials, Parker pointed out. "If we move toward an economy of micro-credentialing that allows maker educators and young makers to broaden what success looks like, we can highlight different forms of success and the valuable gradations of learning that happen on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis, not only in our classrooms, but in our libraries and our museums, in our communities and also in our own households."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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