I keep running into articles about makerspaces and maker programs that are written in a way that makes me wonder why so many people assume that by virtue of “making,” transformative learning is automatically taking place. While I’m all for the informal learning opportunities that makerspaces offer, and I do believe they have the potential to support learning, I also know that several key ingredients are necessary to give maker activities even a remote shot at actually transforming learning.
Ingredient #1: Makerspaces must be designed as constructivist learning environments (CLEs).
To discuss the details of designing CLEs is way beyond the brevity of this post. However, I can say that one particularly promising approach is the use of activity theory as a framework for structuring a CLE that brings the individuals, the tools, and the objectives together to foster a community of practice. The graphic below illustrates the concept of activity theory, where the individual is referred to as a subject, the object is the objective or learning outcome, and the instruments are the tools (e.g., maker tools, scaffolding) that allow the individual to reach the objective. The community includes all the players in the activity system, and the rules and division of labor reflect the norms of the community of practice.
To learn more about how this framework can be used in the context of designing a CLE, you can read Activity theory as a framework for designing constructivist learning environments by Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy (Educational Technology Research and Development, March 1999, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp 61-79).
Ingredient #2: Maker activities must be developed with an understanding of how people learn.
One of the ideas behind maker activities is that productive failure (in the context of an unstructured activity) will lead to greater learning outcomes. In other words, through trial and error and experimentation, participants in a maker activity will theoretically gain greater understanding of a concept than through a more structured approach. The more structured approach (i.e., carefully designed scaffolding) is sometimes referred to as productive success.
There is a problem with productive failure though. First of all, not a lot of empirical research exists on its efficacy, whereas a wealth of research supports the effectiveness of learning with at least some guidance and structure, aka productive success. Secondly, in studies of productive failure, successful outcomes have invariably included a two-step approach: unstructured learning (invention phase) followed by instruction (consolidation phase).
What does that mean for the development of maker activities? To start with, even with a productive failure approach, some instruction will be needed to promote successful learning outcomes. It should also be noted that motivation and self-efficacy play a crucial role in learning, so while some learners may thrive in an unstructured learning activity (certainly many gifted learners do), scaffolding is essential.
How does structured learning look in a constructivist learning environment? Start by designing a well-guided maker activity. During implementation, allow participants to choose their own level of structure. Provide the scaffolding resources and an expert who can intervene when necessary. And remember, not all participants will seek out guidance when needed, and not all participants will recognize that they need help. That’s where instructor intervention comes into play.
Ingredient #3: To really know if learning is taking place in a makerspace, outcomes need to be assessed.
This ingredient may not be as important in public library makerspaces, though it may provide the kind of evidence needed to acquire additional funding. In school libraries, measuring learning outcomes from maker activities demonstrates the central role of the library in supporting the curriculum.
How do you measure learning from a maker activity? The obvious answer might be the product that is created. However, there is such a thing as unproductive success, where a problem is solved or a product created without the learner actually learning anything. For example, through trial and error a learner might construct a bridge, but have no understanding of the underlying engineering concepts of what makes a bridge work. The possibility of unproductive success is why measurable learning objectives need to be set in the development of maker activities. Assessment of whether or not the learner met the maker activity objectives helps shape and re-shape future maker activities to ensure the success of the makerspace as a constructivist learning environment.