Process vs Product in Maker-centered Learning

The maker movement and with it maker-centered learning brings new possibilities and challenges into the classroom. It has spawned makerspaces and students are busy designing and making products. The danger with all this frenzied making is that it is very easy to miss the point, to focus on the product and not the journey.  

Our year six students are presently engaged with their Personal Passion Projects. Many of the projects fit neatly into the description of maker-centered learning. These are the projects where the students have identified a need and the solution is a product which they design and then prototype. The processes involved in the projects vary immensely as do the materials used and the challenges confronted. The learning curve for some students is very steep as they master new tools and methods. A significant piece of the learning that many of the students are engaged in is linked directly to the specific details of what they are making and this is important but ultimately this learning is secondary to a larger process. 

I doubt that many of my students will enter careers where the maker skills they are learning in this project will be of great importance. I don’t think they will become seamstresses, carpenters or factory workers. I wonder how many of these careers will still exist when they leave school? The fundamental skills of putting things together, of knowing how to use a screwdriver, understanding which glue works best with large flat surfaces or how to use fibreglass to create surfboard fins are nice to have but unlikely to play a part in the lives that the students are likely to live. So why do we have students engage in maker-centered learning? 

Understanding the value of maker-centered learning requires a fundamental shift in our thinking about the processes involved and the nature of learning. The output is not all important. This is not an easy concept for teachers to embrace as it is traditionally the output which we use as we evaluate and assess student learning. The essay at the end of the history unit, the maths test, the narrative, the speech are all examples of the output of learning and in each we hope to have captured evidence of the students learning. Maker-centered learning upsets this pattern. The process is what matters most and it is the process which we must assess even where the output fails to capture the learning which occurred.  

Failing is a part of the process and failing disrupts output based assessments. At the core of the maker philosophy is a process of ideation, iteration and emergence. Commonly it is called Design Thinking and with this comes a certain degree of structure. Students move through phases of thinking that include empathy, needs analysis, ideation, planning, prototyping and evaluation in patterns both linear and non-linear as needs require. Tinkering is another pathway with less structure but offering the potential for ideas to emerge from a free-form experimentation where ideas and goals emerge from play. Regardless of the degree of structure adopted the product will not always capture the quality of thinking that went into nor the level to which the student has mastered a process that they will be required to apply time and time again. 

The creative process that leads to innovation is understood through its practical application. Students need opportunities to learn the process of developing ideas that solve practical problems. Sometimes the solution will be a product, sometimes a service and sometimes traditional research. The common element is the process and it is this process that maker-centered learning teaches. With this in mind it becomes important to look for mastery of the process that students are utilising as they solve the problems they encounter in their making. How do they deal with obstacles? How did they plan their solution? How effectively do they collaborate? What did they do to understand the problem and how did they monitor their progress?  

Capturing evidence of the creative process can be challenging for teachers. Traditional assessment measures are easy to implement, easy to compare and easy to record. Increasingly though we want evidence of the so called soft-skills which students use. Creative confidence, risk tolerance, collaborative intelligence, critical thinking, resilience are important skills and dispositions but each is difficult to measure. Strategies such as those encompassed by ‘Making Thinking Visible’ (MTV) can help here. MTV strategies offer two advantages to teachers and learners. Importantly they provide structure to thinking and encourage a deeper engagement with concepts and ideas. They also allow the thinking that is occurring to be made visible and thus a part of the assessment process.  

MTV routines combined with reflective journals and process diaries can all play an important role in documenting student learning. Design thinking can be supported through the use of mind-maps, hexagonal planning with post-it notes and story boarding all of which captures the process towards a solution. Combined with digital portfolios of images and videos teachers and students can capture a rich story of the learning that has occurred within a maker-centered classroom and use this as a guide for future learning. By valuing the process and not the product in maker-centered learning we can celebrate our student’s success and point them towards their next achievement even when the final product doesn’t meet expectations.  

By Nigel Coutts