Humans have been custom-making objects to solve their problems for more than two million years. This deep-seated impulse to make things on our own has stayed with us through countless technological revolutions.

In the last decade, newly available fabrication technologies like laser cutters and 3-D printers have made it much easier for individuals to design and make complex objects out of a huge variety of materials. These new technologies have opened up the possibilities for people to design and make, which has in turn reinvigorated people’s relationship to “old-fashioned” woodworking, metalworking, and sewing tools. With the right tools and skills, a single person can create their own computer code, repurpose existing objects, and make whatever they can dream up!

At the same time, a growing community of “makers” (hobbyists, technologists, engineers, and artists) has emerged to share ideas, problems, and designs. Maker Faire gatherings and publications like Make Magazine have helped fuel this grassroots movement. New companies have jumped in to develop increasingly easy-to-use tools and software, and people are learning to use these new tools to create and shape their world. Academia, the popular press, and the White House are paying attention to the maker movement. Some commentators are even calling the maker movement a new Industrial Revolution.

At the SMU Maker Education Project, we see makers as truly self-actualized, lifelong learners who believe that they can solve any problem with the passion, drive, and help from the broader community to learn new skills and troubleshoot stuck spots. In other words, makers are the sort of people many educators want their students to become: self-actualized, creatively confident leaders and problem solvers.

As many educators seek to develop these same behaviors and mindsets in children, maker education emerged as a new and exciting way to meet these goals. Maker-Based Instruction is emerging as a new way of engaging learners across age groups by connecting their academic learning to technical and social-emotional skills. This is why innovative educators are seeking to implement makerspaces and Maker-Based Instruction in their schools.

Further reading:

Who is a maker educator?

Our philosophy is that teachers are not information givers. Rather, teachers support students as they build knowledge through doing activities. We also believe teachers are creative problem solvers who are capable of making. In order to facilitate learning experiences in this way, we believe educators themselves must take on new attitudes and mindsets about their roles in the classroom.

Guide-on-the-side facilitators: The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning when possible and allow students to explore, engage, and struggle when productive for the student’s own learning. Importantly, when at all possible, teachers put the burden on the students to learn their way to a solution. Finally, teachers develop a process for encouraging other students to coach/teach each other.

Knowledgeable and wise observers: Teachers anticipate and design for when students need technical instruction and help. Teachers develop the ability to assess when to intervene and how to intervene in a way that optimizes the learning potential of every experience. Teachers also learn which types of struggles will be productive for students and which should be mitigated, preserving opportunities for productive struggle.

Questioners: Teachers ask probing questions that allow students to make connections, rather than making connections for students. Teachers develop a process for asking questions instead of intervening or solving problems directly. Some examples of beginning questions include:

  • What kind of problems are you experiencing?
  • What have you already done to solve the problem?
  • Who have you talked with to help you solve the problem?
  • What have we discussed previously that might help you solve the problem?
  • How did Student X solve the problem? What can you learn from him?

Assessors: Teachers use multiple methods of assessment to judge what students know. Formative assessment is a key component of Maker-Based Instruction. Also, it is important to design assessments for affective learning objectives in addition to cognitive learning objectives.

Risk takers: Teachers adopt an experimental mindset. Failure is okay. Also, teachers are willing to let go of tight control of the classroom. Teachers develop a tolerance for allowing students to struggle on their own. 

Modelers: Teachers model the kinds of attitudes and mindsets they want to see in students. 

What obstacles are there to Maker-Based Instruction?

At the SMU Maker Education Project, we believe Maker-Based Instruction is the key to meaningful reform of the way teachers teach and students learn. We also know that systemic change is hard.

As maker education continues to gain momentum as an instructional style, we see a number of potential challenges to address.

In the current climate focused on standardized testing as the primary measure of success in schools, we find that teachers are asking very practical questions about how Maker-Based Instruction ensures that students learn the content outlined in state standards and promotes teachers connecting content from grade to grade or class to class. We believe that Maker-Based Instruction is well suited to teaching content standards and affective learning objectives. We also believe that rubrics for both formative and summative assessments can aid in tracking students’ academic progress.

In addition to questions around addressing content, teachers are also faced with a variety of organizational questions related to Maker-Based Instruction. How do teachers use makerspaces? How can they optimize them to promote students’ participation in Maker-Based Instruction? How is managing a makerspace the same or different from managing a typical classroom? Should there be a dedicated makerspace teacher? How much guidance should teachers give students when they work to complete a task in a makerspace?

With such an emphasis on building the spaces, tending to instructional design and strategies can get lost. That’s why we are building out tools, resources, and pedagogical approaches to support the meaningful and sustainable integration of Maker-Based Instruction into classrooms.

We understand that educators might feel nervous or scared and that school leaders might struggle to get buy-in from their staff. We are actively working to address those anxieties and fears of losing control by developing pedagogical approaches, instructional strategies, and professional development and coaching modules that support educators adopting Maker-Based Instruction.