Posts Tagged 'constructionism'

Is Making Learning? Considerations as education embraces the Maker Movement

Grinding New Lenses summer program at Depaul University.

Of late, folks in my corner of the educational world have been jazzed about the intersections of maker culture and education. I’m super excited too – and even pleasantly surprised. A couple of years ago the bigger trend in my world was about games and learning, and while that’s certainly not gone away, the prominence of the more open-ended, tinker-oriented maker work has had a serious surge lately.

Audrey Watters over at HackEducation called the Maker Movement one of the top ed-tech trends of 2012. The burgeoning ed-tech news aggregator EdSurge has managed a good deal of reporting on Maker and DIY learning amidst its usual grind of MOOC’s and Learning Management Systems. Mozilla has fully embraced the “making is learning” stance in positioning its Webmaker initiative, which I’ve written about before (and, full disclosure, contribute to on occasion). And my own lab here at Indiana University just last week publicly launched the Make-to-Learn initiative, a research focused collaboration including some fantastic organizations including MIT’s LifeLong Kindergarten Group, the National Writing Project, Instructables and the MacArthur Foundation, among others.

Clearly, making and learning is hot. And as with all things trendy, it’s easy for the core message to get lost amidst the hype. That’s why I want to (briefly) address a question any edu-hype-skeptic should be asking right now: Is making, in fact, learning? 

The short answer: yes, but it’s complicated. The longer answer is that the best maker-driven learning is never just about the making. It’s about all the things that happen around the making. That initial spark of curiosity, the investigation and early tinkering, the planning and research that follow, the inspirations and appropriations from other projects, the prototypes, the failures, the feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, the iterations upon iterations towards a better make. All of these acts are done in and contingent on well configured social contexts, in communities of practice and affinity spaces. This all goes back to core ideas of Constructionist learning theory and the foundational work of Seymor Papert. And it’s why I prefer talking about the Maker Movement as having strong lessons for learning, as opposed to just making, which can be construed as more solitary. Making in and of itself can sometimes involve the sorts of steps I described here, but not always. That’s why the answer is complicated. I’m willing to say that someone is always learning something when they’re making, but they learn best when it entails the sort of process, community and well configured structures of participation I describe above.

When I went to the Maker Faire last September, I wrote about how a revamped pinewood derby was set up in such a way that it embodied principles found in well designed learning environments. I talked about things like multi-generational engagement, clear contexts for using what’s being created, multiple avenues to success yet transparent and clearly defined standards. All of these things are about the interactions that are possible within a larger culture of making. Obviously, it’s the act of making that ties all of these interactions together, but the story around how the learning happens is always more complicated than the simplified idea that “making is learning”.

My sense is that so many of the folks taking up the making and learning mantle are nodding to all the things I’m saying here. These insights are obvious to anyone who thinks for more than a minute about what it means to be making in a way that might support robust learning via real world contexts. And the initiatives I’ve mentioned reflect this understanding. Mozilla is dedicated to creating a robust mentor community around Webmaker. The almost 25 thousand folks taking the MIT Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC will be getting a healthy dose of Papert as they learn about maker-oriented learning environments. And reading Audrey Watters’ recent post on the case for a campus Makerspace tells me that she gets what this is all about too. I just want to make sure we keep the complexity, nuance, and real power of this pedagogical approach in mind as we start to build a movement around it. It would be such a shame if we watered down the real power of maker-driven learning.

“Reform” vs “Change”: Papert Reflects on the Education System, Technology and Culture

I just came across this wonderful little excerpt on The Daily Papert that I want to share. In it, constructionist learning theorist Seymour Papert reflects on his reading of the book Tinkering Towards Utopia, which describes the ways that the educational system has been amazingly resilient in the face of attempts at centralized, planned reform for over a century.

“My first reaction to Tinkering Towards Utopia was adversarial. I am convinced that education will undergo the kind of megachange that came in the wake of technological and scientific developments in areas such as medicine. Yet as Koschmann pointed out in the introduction to this section, although Tyack and Cuban present their work as analysis of the past, “the implication is plain that the prospects for any technology, … leading to radical change in our educational institutions appear quite bleak” (Koschmann & Kolodner, this issue, p. 399). One of us, it seemed at first sight, has to be wrong.

Only at first sight. Working on this review brought me the intellectual bonus of a better understanding of my own position by making explicit a simple distinction that has long lurked unformulated in the shadows of my intuitions: “Reform” and “change” are not synonymous. Tyack and Cuban clinched my belief that the prospects really are indeed bleak for deep change coming from deliberate attempts to impose a specific new form on education. However, some changes, arguably the most important ones in social cultural spheres, come about by evolution rather than by deliberate design — by what I am inspired by Dan Dennett (1994) to call “Darwinian design.” (2) For example, the concept of learning disability entered School in a manner more akin to the way that memes invade cultures than to the conduct of an education reform movement; institutionalization from above followed the cultural movement.

Examples closer to my focus here are to be found in the unintended effects on the classroom of the presence of computers in homes. The title of an article by Cuban (1992), “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins,” refers to School’s defense mechanisms against reform being brought into the classroom by computers. School exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication — not only about computers but also about ways to learn and methods of research (Papert, 1996a).

With the evolution-reform distinction in mind, I found myself reading Tinkering Towards Utopia more sympathetically. I could now appreciate the elucidation of mechanisms by which the system systematically frustrates reform without feeling obliged to defend my own intellectual commitments. In fact, I could learn from it — the shift from a stance of reform to a stance of evolution does not exclude active intervention, but the role of the change agent becomes less like the architect or builder and more like the plant- or animal breeder whose interventions take the form of influencing processes that have their own dynamic. Tinkering Towards Utopia is a gold mine of insights into the dynamic of School’s defense mechanisms.

Nevertheless, a sense of residual discomfort lasted until I managed to formulate yet another respect in which Tinkering Towards Utopia says less than I first thought: The mechanisms described in it are concomitants rather than causes of the stability of School. Making this distinction will lead me to suggest that Tyack and Cuban are blinded to a deeper layer of explanation by a theoretical stance that looks deeply into the sociological processes at play in education while treating as a black box the actual content of what is being taught and (supposedly) learned.”

Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427.

This is a wonderful little reflection for many of us that share Papert’s sentiments around the potentials of technology; to empower young people, to help shift towards pedagogical approaches that position young people as creators and knowledgable actors, to make learning built on tinkering and experimentation as opposed to skill and drill. Often I find myself worrying about how to best effect change in a complicated system – Papert’s words here remind me that my own hopes are buttressed by larger cultural shifts around how technology is currently being used. People, young and old, are engaging in a democratization of cultural, social and political life through media in ways that would scarcely be recognized even a couple of decades ago . In other words, culture is at our backs here. Instead of having to think of ourselves as change-makers in the form of “architects” or “builders”, as Papert says, we can contribute to  these larger cultural forces that are already unfolding, nudging them in fruitful directions. A good reminder for those of us that sometimes feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

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