Maker-Centred Learning & STEAM

In 2016 we embraced the new possibilities that come with having a dedicated Maker Space and students in their final year of Junior School were the first to fully benefit from this. The Maker Space allowed for a significant expansion of the Maker Centred Learning which was already a hallmark of the Personal Passion Projects and many students developed projects which pushed at the limits of what was possible. The Year Six rooms and Makerspace were a constant hive of activity as students rose to the challenge and teachers endeavoured to ensure safety, respond to questions while facilitating ongoing inquiry and as all sought to solve complex problems. The process was richly collaborative, enormously creative and tremendously energising while also somewhat all consuming. That the day to day running of the school, the daily demands on teachers and the constant struggle for a work-life balance did not go away during this time meant that by the end of the term all involved were ready to collapse. Spectacular learning of this sort is demanding of teacher energy levels and there are no easy days. That said, all involved are keen to be involved in this style of learning again.
There is however,  a degree of resistance to this maker-centred style of learning and that must be acknowledged and overcome if it is to thrive. It is considered by some to be lacking the rigour associated with traditional learning methods and is not deemed to be an efficient method of learning the content so valued in the traditional classroom. Traditional curriculum, pedagogical and assessment models favour particular modes of learning and forms of knowledge. High-stakes testing reinforces this and encourages teachers to devote time to teaching facts, developing skills for communicating those facts in the ascribed method and assessing the ability of students to do exactly that. Making by contrast is messy, noisy, complex and difficult to assess. The challenge is to build opportunities for teachers (and parents) to see that Maker Centred Learning develops dispositions for learning far beyond the superficial skills required for a task. Our goal is not produce a nation of carpenters or crafts persons but to provide opportunities which demand creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication such that our students become agentic life-long learners. Making is one part of this process. The hands on nature of the projects, the natural feedback that is provided when an idea falls short of expectation and the very real challenges which are encountered, immerse students in a learning environment that prepares them well for the diverse challenges they will encounter beyond school.
The greatest challenge to change in schools, is our exception of what school should be like based upon our experience of it. This is true for teachers, parents and even students. There is an expectation that we go to school to sit in class and to be taught. Learning is something that happens to us, as a consequence of the actions of others. Teachers are experts who have all the knowledge we require and are skilled at transferring this into our heads. These notions are increasingly challenged by a growing understanding that this model of teaching and learning is not fit for the world we live in nor the world we will enter beyond school. The challenge when seeking ‘buy-in’ from the school community with non-traditional methods (IBL, PBL, learner centred models, making, tinkering, play) is to encourage a new understanding of the purposes of education. In 'Future Wise’ David Perkins challenges readers to seek learning that is ‘life-worthy’, that is learning that is likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live. 
Similarly for STEAM, further challenges exist as teachers are asked to teach across disciplines and to integrate learning time and goals across departmental boundaries. The economies of time which come from an integrated approach to curriculum delivery, the enhanced transfer of learning that it affords and real world applicability of cross disciplinary tasks are countered by fears of less face to face time, dilution of content, redistribution of budgets away from traditionally vaunted disciplines of mathematics and science and reduced rigour. STEAM will require the development of respectful collaborations, evolving understandings of the place that the traditional disciplines play in society and new approaches to pedagogical content knowledge. In Primary Schools, STEAM is easily accommodated assuming adequate professional development is provided such that teachers may develop programmes based on strategic integrations of the disciplines where the learning outcomes achieved are enhanced as a result. In Senior Schools and Tertiary Institutions STEAM faces the additional hurdles posed by timetables and interdepartmental rivalries.
The most significant challenge facing STEAM, Making and Maker Centred Learning is undoubtedly access to suitable professional development. In addition to building an understanding of what is possible in this area teachers need to be exposed to the maker mindset. Sharing what it means to be a maker, to see the world of products and environments as a canvas or set of obstacles to be overcome and hacked to serve new purposes is a key part of this process. Professional development that takes teachers through the Design Thinking process and shows them how this approach is broadly applicable will encourage wider experimentation and begin to shift teachers away from valuing the products of learning over the processes. Methods of planning for Maker Centred Learning, pedagogies for making and for STEAM and effective assessment strategies which adequately capture the breadth of learning which occurs for students within these programmes is vital but largely lacking. What exists presently is centred around guiding teachers through the specific details of a particular project where teachers learn to make a specific item and then run that same project with their students. Beyond this are projects which teachers or schools can buy into that provide students with a formulaic challenge and prescribed set of processes with which to develop a solution. As these projects are often associated with an inter-school competition the rules which are aimed at ensuring a level playing field serve to also limit true innovation and the resulting products are consequently identical in all key dimensions.
A broader approach seems to be offered by ‘Agency by Design’, (ABD) a part of Harvard’s Project Zero. A multi-year research project, it seeks to answer three essential questions:


  1. How do maker educators and leaders in the field think about the benefits and outcomes of maker-centered learning experiences?
  2. What are some of the key characteristics of environments in which maker-centered learning thrives?
  3. What kinds of educational interventions can we develop that support thoughtful reflection around maker-centered learning and the made dimensions of our world?

From this starting point the project has evolved and is increasingly looking at how maker-centered learning can have broad-scale and long-term relevance to the education field through strategies for documentation, assessment and making thinking and learning visible, this resulted in three further questions:

  1. How can learners make visible their ability to look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity?
  2. How can teachers qualitatively measure students’ performance within the realm of these three core maker capacities?
  3. How can we collaborate with students and teachers to design a suite of practical documentation and assessment tools best suited to the development of maker empowerment?

In addition to the just published results* of this study ABD offers an online course for educators looking to add Making to their repertoire.
While there are a wide set of resources, books, magazines, teach meets and faires which support Making and Maker Centred Learning translating these resources and opportunities into professional development is not easy. While changes to accreditation processes for teachers through Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) require teachers engage with set hours of professional development not all hours are created equal. There are limits to the number of hours which can be recognised as self-identified and this includes attendance at non-accredited courses, Makerfaires, teach meets and engagement with professional reading. Thus while there is a broad range of supports for teachers, there is a reduced incentive for engagement compared to what would exist with officially sanctioned courses.
Building close connections with the school community, industry and tertiary education can facilitate a richer understanding of what is possible and desirable within STEAM and Maker Centred Learning. If schools are to become centres of innovation and creativity we will need to understand what these ideas mean and how they are interpreted beyond school. Since Ken Robinson claimed that schools kill creativity efforts have been made to better understand how we might teach for creativity. A desire to understand how creativity is encouraged and facilitated has resulted in significant interest in research in this area and increasingly teachers are seeking answers to questions such as ‘What is creativity?’ and ‘How might our schools promote this?’. The answers to these questions have relevance beyond schools and there is an extensive cross pollination of ideas here between educators and industries looking to enhance the creativity of their workforce. Encouraging collaborative research between all those who have an interest in understanding and facilitating creativity, innovation and critical thinking is essential. 

The establishment of innovation centres, the adoption of design thinking and a general awareness of the value of creative collaborations is increasingly the norm in industry and this echoes the efforts made in schools as they develop MakerSpaces and strive to teach for innovation. Undoubtedly within our parent bodies lies expertise that can inform our teaching or provide access to Role-Models and Mentors to both teachers and students. Access to mentors can have direct benefits for the students in multiple ways as it expands the overall awareness of what is possible, provides access to technical knowledge and real world expertise in problem solving and potential access to resources and facilities typically not found in schools. Fears that insufficient numbers of students are pursuing STEAM pathways throughout their schooling and that there is gender bias in this area can be addressed through the provision of positive role-models who are able to share with students the exciting career prospects available. For girls in particular it is important that they have access to positive female role models at an early age if they are to see a STEAM career as a viable option. Research shows that girls make their career choices early, before age 14 (Broadley, 2011) and possibly before they move into High School. Peters (2013) shows that girls interest in STEM careers as they exit school was best predicted by interest as they entered Secondary School. This means that schools need to ensure that girls are receiving affirmative messages about the potential of STEM pathways while they are in Primary school.

There are opportunities here for formal collaborations and for industry to develop programmes connected to their ideals of civic responsibility and community connectedness. Mastercard’s ‘Girls4Tech’ programme is one model of this and one that offers staff an opportunity to enthusiastically share what they do back into the community. Other opportunities are made possible through the CSIRO’s ‘Scientists, Mathematicians and Engineers in Schools’ programme which connects schools with industry experts and provides resources and training to facilitate this. Greater success will occur in this area as industry and schools work in close collaboration to develop programmes which leverage the pedagogical, curriculum and assessment expertise of educators along with the entrepreneurial understandings and business acumen that industry can offer. These collaborations will be to the benefit of all involved as educators have much to offer industry in regards to specialist knowledge of learning, thinking and personal growth which can directly inform programmes within industry. Further to this, as educators increasingly develop research based understandings of the creative processes of problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration and develop practical methods to enhance the capacity of individuals and groups to do so, the value of their expertise to industry is enhanced. 

*'Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds' By Edward P. Clapp, Jessica Ross, Jennifer Oxman Ryan, & Shari Tishman

By Nigel Coutts