Should the Maker philosophy shape the schools of the future?

The Maker movement continues to grow apace by offering the public the chance to take back control over the materials and objects that make up their environment. The movement’s expansion and intrinsic values have brought it closer to school systems, in ways that tend to break with conventional models. Why should schools take an interest in the Maker philosophy? What do makers have to offer for teachers? Are there risks inherent to having students design, prototype and develop their own physical and digital products? Drawing from an analysis of the movement and examples from workshops held as part of the Les Voyages de Capitaine futur project, we will demonstrate how schools can adopt the tenets of the Maker movement and adjust certain components to develop innovative teaching approaches.

Maker: the origins of the movement

The term “maker” encompasses a wide range of circumstances, from a person who fixes their broken telephone on their own by watching YouTube tutorials, to collectives with machines such as 3D printers, laser cutters and 3D scanners. What do they have in common? “A maker is an inventive person who makes objects useful to their daily lives: an IT specialist who builds drones or robots, an artist who repurposes objects… People who subscribe to the philosophy of making things on their own and open access to consumer goods that bypasses the mass market”.

Dale Dougherty coined the term “Maker movement” in 2005 and launched Make Magazine, which features DIY projects. The movement took off the following year when he held the first conference for makers. The event introduced the public to makers’ inventions, taught the basics of DIY at workshops, and presented innovations in manufacturing and fabrication.
From its inception, the movement has formed part of the broader DIY approach comprising all activities that involve tinkering and creating on one’s own. At the same time, while humans have always built, tinkered and repaired to improve their environment, the movement only truly emerged in the 2000s via three concomitant developments. The first was information technology, namely computer-aided manufacturing, which provided amateurs with access to tools that previously been reserved for professionals. The advent of desktop manufacturing brought scaled-down industrial production tools at affordable prices. Over time, IT has come to focus (as a new discipline formed through hardware and software development) and drive (via the set of tools available) enthusiasts and creatives’ efforts by unlocking opportunities to experiment with new forms. Secondly, the Internet played a significant role in structuring and spreading the word about the movement. A network of discussion forums, blogs, social media and collaborative platforms fostered the emergence of online maker communities that spans borders and sectors, raising the movement’s profile as it continues to expand. Finally, the Maker movement also gained a real-world presence in physical locations that also helped boost awareness of its activities. The digital fabrication workshops that exist today (fab labs, hackerspaces, makerspaces, etc.) are the successors to community workshops on computing and electronics. These forebears inspired MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld to create the Center for Bits and Atoms in 2001. As part of his “How to Make (Almost) Anything” course, Gerschenfeld created the first fab lab to start exploiting the potential of new computer-aided design and fabrication machines. This groundwork established the baseline definition of a fab lab: a workshop that provides the public with tools for computer-aided manufacturing. The majority of fab labs created since have followed his model and charter, based on the following principles: inexpensive Internet-enabled hardware for collaboration and data sharing; diverse membership with a wide array of knowledge, expertise, and thought processes; an alternative vision of intellectual property (namely free and open source); and a strong community spirit that spans the physical and virtual worlds.

Openness and collaboration as fundamental values

From its inception, the core tenet of the Maker movement has been to share knowledge as part of an open-source approach. As such, makers’ creations can be distributed freely, offering access to source files and the opportunity to build on existing projects. Anyone can view, modify and improve on the community’s software and intellectual production. Sharing is a key component of this approach: creating an open-source work means creating with the intention to share with others. The Internet has advanced this movement by enabling users to share their projects on a global scale via tools and platforms like GitHub. Openness and sharing lead to collaboration – a project developed by a single person can be enhanced and improved by others or together with them. Collaboration also takes shape in fabrication workshops with a focus on “peer production”, which entails “collaborative work not based on hierarchical division and organisation of activities, but rather on the horizontal, voluntary assignment of tasks, in which each participant is responsible for the whole (via mutual adjustments) but their individual role cannot be isolated as such.”

Wikipedia is a prominent example of open, collaboration-based organisational practices. The online encyclopaedia offers free, objective, verifiable content that anyone can modify or improve without logging in – all the articles are a work in progress. These principles can also be seen in the Les Voyages de Capitaine futur project, which explores new technologies through contemporary art and education on new media. The goal of the project is to help young people and culture and education professionals alike to take a critical look at their relationship with technology, via experimentation with interactive works and hands-on workshops and tutorials that teach participants about the processes at play in the works. The methods utilised in these activities are underpinned by five pillars similar to the Maker principles: active participation by the children, the use of narration to recount the changes underway in contemporary society, stimulating all five senses to grasp technological environments, an emphasis on experimentation, and a focus on collaborative culture. What is more, the project workshops themselves were developed using an open collaboration approach. For example, the “Make your own superflower” workshop was designed and developed iteratively over the course of several months by children and teachers at Lab School Paris, following a meeting with the artist, Miranda Moss.

The Maker movement and its activities bring engineering practices and innovations to wider audiences, so that they are no longer monopolised by corporations. The goal is to achieve autonomy and empowerment in relation to a common need. By sharing ideas, knowledge and know-how, the Maker movement demonstrates that you do not necessarily have to be an expert to design objects, services and content. In this way, the movement also helps educate the public, helping to bridge the gap between citizens and technology production through practices and projects. They seek to “foster a critical approach to an (overly) compartmentalised economic model in which the roles of producer and consumer are fixed”.

Addressing societal challenges

Some of the technological innovations mentioned above are furthering the rise of a movement to wrest back control over technical expertise through experimentation, while also bringing about the emergence of a new industrial revolution, Industry 4.0. These new digital developments reflect the challenges we now face as a society. Various international studies show that the advent of the digital world has completely changed the skills valued on the job market. According to Bughin, Lund and Hazan, Industry 4.0 will require one in three workers to gain a new skillset by 2030. Demand for advanced technology skills such as programming and coding is expected to increase by 55%. In Belgium, some 4.5 million workers will have to get up to speed with new technology. In addition, making one’s way in society and the job market requires new skills such as the ability to express one’s emotions, empathy, attentive listening, communication, multidisciplinary teamwork and the ability to adapt or take part in continuing learning processes. As such, the pedagogical component of the Maker movement and its practices seems more important than ever, to educate – and arm – citizens to tackle technological challenges through experimentation and creation.

The Maker philosophy in the classroom

From the very start, Neil Gershenfeld established the first fab lab with a view to fostering discussion on pedagogy and providing wider access to technical knowledge. But he was not the first pedagogue to embark on a hands-on experimental learning initiative via a technical resource. In 1924, French pedagogue Célestin Freinet introduced his primary school class to printmaking, which would transform his practices and become a key element. His teaching philosophy was similar to the Maker movement and Les Voyages de Capitaine futur, particularly in how he taught through cooperation between pupils and an experimental approach in which they could construct their own scientific reasoning by forming a hypothesis, testing their prediction, and building knowledge. Freinet’s pedagogy helped children blossom and express their thoughts through communication. His entire approach was underpinned by reality-based learning that focused on actual situations reflecting real-life problems.

The Maker movement runs along the same lines, with a (socio)constuctivist pedagogical approach in which learners are truly actors in building knowledge. The workshops held as part of the Les Voyages de Capitaine futur project are a perfect example. While the children are guided throughout the workshops, their active participation is vital. They learn by doing and making objects by themselves, alongside teachers or parents to promote intergenerational collaboration. Each of the workshops introduces the children to a creative use for technology and teaches how the technology works through hands-on experimentation. The children are placed in a real-life situation and produce an actual physical or digital object. In addition, mistakes are used as a teaching tools and teachers can use the workshops to shift their methodology toward a problem- or project-based approach.

Makers’ equipment is a tool in its own right for teaching various academic subjects. A few of the main devices used are 3D printers, laser cutters and microcontrollers. The first is the most well-known; a digitally-operated machine that produces physical objects by using heat to stack successive layers of liquid polymer. Designing three-dimensional objects enables students to hone their knowledge of geometry, measurements and scales, while also introducing them to computer-assisted design and the creative process. For their part, laser cutters are used to cut out complex shapes in various materials, such as textiles, wood and adhesive vinyl. They offer the same teaching opportunities as 3D printers – technical drawing, geometry, measurements and scales – and enable students to craft their own objects. The last of the three, microcontrollers, introduces students to the basics of programming, electronics and robotics. These tools were used in the Robigami and Make your own superflower workshops held as part of Les Voyages de Capitaine futur. The Arduino microcontroller, for example, serves as an interface for actuators – motors, relays, etc. – and sensors measuring temperature, light and other readings. A very basic computer program manages the interface via a connection to the USB port on the card or a radio or network link, enabling even electronics neophytes to build interesting prototypes and assemblies. Its counterpart Raspberry Pi is a nanocomputer capable of handling an operating system which can be used to create robots.

The risk of ‘academicising’ the movement

While there are significant opportunities for hands-on learning at schools, and even the development of fabrication labs, incorporating the practices and tools of the Maker movement into a school setting is a delicate process. Schools remain dictated by academic constructs (a concept known in French as “la forme scolaire” ) – schooling is structured around a space (the classroom, a “separate universe for childhood”), time (allocated by the knowledge to be taught) and a professional responsible for teaching this knowledge. The school system also maintains a series of implicit principles that run counter to the abovementioned tenets of the Maker movement.

The progressive education movement and Freinet himself sought to break from this orthodoxy. Under their approach, classes exist but are viewed as a jumping-off point for various activities. Much like in the Maker movement, everything is organised around the children’s interests, with communal spaces to foster interaction. Freinet’s idea was to create a school of life – teaching through activities in nature, for example – and for life. Freinet, Decroly and others attracted disciples and established their own schools, but were unable to change the underlying constructs. A similar dynamic has occurred with most digital technology introduced in schools over the past two decades. “The school system could be held up as an illustration of homeostatic resistance in a system that endures unchanged while claiming to innovate on an ongoing basis.” These constructs remain intact by assimilating the innovations produced at schools, “either by embedding them in processes that reappear on a continual basis, as part of formats that perpetuate time-tested practices and spurn the flexibility of new technological resources (…) or by entrusting an initiative that tests these media in a school setting to local, non-generalisable experience”.

As such, the chief concern with regard to the institutionalisation of the Maker movement at schools is the loss of fundamental principles that could come with integration into the school system. Most of the movement’s values conflict with academic constructs: collaborative learning versus individual learning, research versus listening, use of knowledge versus studying, concrete information versus abstract information, mistakes as teaching tools versus mistakes as errors, and learning at one’s own pace versus learning at the same pace as the group.

There are further reasons why schools have yet to incorporate the Make movement, despite its undeniable advantages, in addition to the aforementioned constructs. The principles remain poorly understood, the process is too long and burdensome, and teachers feel ill-equipped to use ideation tools, design thinking and prototyping techniques. Teachers and education authorities alike turn to organisations such as La Gaîté Lyrique and KIKK for guidance. There is still a regrettable lack of training and guidance in schools to support teachers with the development of learning by doing.
What is more, the time required to develop the skills required for these practices – both for teachers and students – appears difficult to reconcile with the time that can be allocated at schools. Maker projects call for creativity, a clear goal, planning, and some knowledge of what can be accomplished with the tools at hand. These skills take time to develop, so there is a risk that Maker projects could be reduced to simplistic procedures completed by mindlessly following instructions.

The conditions for Maker pedagogy

Despite these challenges, our aim is not to set the Maker movement against the school system, but to highlight the risks of merely transposing one onto the other, at the price of dismantling the principles of the former. The Maker movement and its spaces, such as fab labs, must preserve their status as third places, meaning spaces separate from the home and school where several people or groups of people can pursue work together. Bringing these places into the academic fold would distort this status as a third place, in the same way as a school library. However, the Maker movement promotes elements from which the academic world can draw inspiration: hands-on learning, open-mindedness and collaboration, as well as the dehierarchisation of knowledge and innovations. As such, we believe that the approach to be considered should involve closer ties, with an eye to ensuring each party retains its fundamental values.

In view of our experience with the Les Voyages de Capitaine futur project, we have identified three focus areas for improved coordination between the Maker movement and the academic world. Schools can pinpoint potential improvements to teaching methods: remove the partitions from classrooms, promote interaction between students and teachers, and update teaching tools. The first area is the development of reference guides for teaching students that form connections between Maker practices and school curriculums. As the situation stands today, workshops and activities with 3D printers, laser cutters and microcontrollers are not specifically designed to develop the mandatory skills determined by the education system. Organisations such as La Gaîté Lyrique, KIKK and Cinekid could serve as the starting point for a collaborative, iterative approach that pinpoints practices enabling makers and the academic world to develop joint reference guides. The second focus area is the explanation of learning by doing so that teachers can harness the approach, which can be accomplished by drafting reference guides with teaching practices. Makers have acquired a great deal of knowledge regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their approach and have every interest to work with teachers to add structure with a view to integration in schools. Here again, collaborative workshops could be paired with trials in schools – backed by training and guidance for teachers – to lay the foundation for this convergence. The third and final focus area is the development of training and guidance practices. Building on the reference guides and more structured approach, this area involves persuading teachers to reconsider their attitude to knowledge transmission and to become “mediators for the access to knowledge under the new terms imposed by the digital world.”

The Maker movement and the academic world must draw from this groundwork to find the keys to collaboration aimed at creating the conditions for children to enjoy conscious, deliberate, reflexive autonomy vis-à-vis the skills crucial to the contemporary media environment.

Nicolas Roland, chercheur en Sciences de l’Education à l’Université libre de Bruxelles.