On Equity Issues in the Maker Movement, and Implications for Making and Learning

Kids at Maker Faire 2012

If you’re interested in the intersection of the maker movement, education and equity, take a half an hour and watch the video Thinking about Making. In it, Leah Buechley, the brilliant mind behind the LilyPad Arduino, compellingly points out the ways that the maker movement has failed to broaden participation and representation in its ranks beyond those who are wealthy, white and male. These issues are ones that need to be heeded, she argues, because the maker movement is at this point not just about tinkering and DIY culture, but about education and thus inextricably linked to issues of opportunity and access. She points out that when priorities are simply about hobbies and hobbyists, it’s potentially fine (though not preferable) to have a limited scope in terms of who’s in the conversation. But when there’s talk about education, and substantive moves to start putting money, human capital and political will behind the maker movement as part of educational reform, she rightly points out that leaving out issues of equity is unacceptable.

I’ve blogged here before about the complicated, and potentially productive, relationship between making and learning. Buechley’s talk has inspired me to talk about where I see things now, especially in terms of issues she raises around race, gender and class. Specifically, I want to talk about how while the maker movement hasn’t internally changed its tune when it comes to broadening participation, we can still take inspiration from solid work being done by equity oriented educators that’s happening at this intersection of making and learning.

Eyeo 2014 – Leah Buechley

Important context here is precisely how I came to the ‘formal’ maker movement, and how this affects the way I think about issues of equity in relation to making. Like many within the educational world interested in making, I was never part of the cultural ‘ranks’ of the maker movement beyond having been obsessed with Legos as a kid. Rather, I was of the progressive education world, specifically coming from a youth development perspective. At Global Kids, I worked with non-dominant communities focusing on empowerment, youth voice and new media literacy development in the context of youth digital media production. When I encountered the maker movement, I was just finishing my work at Global Kids and about to enter a doctoral program in the learning sciences. In the context of my academic work, I began to think more deeply about a variety of cultural changes involving new media, including the maker movement, from the perspective of learning theory. I, like other educators and scholars, was considering the ways that the maker movement might offer some inspiration for the re-imagining the design of learning environments. In contrast to didactic, ‘dumping knowledge in heads’ models of pedagogy that dominate education, the maker movement seemed to value creativity, experimentation, productive failure and applied usages of knowledge within authentic communities. These features, so sorely lacking in traditional ways of thinking about education, made the maker movement an attractive metaphor for the design of learning. Maker environments and practices also happened to line up quite well with Constructionist and sociocultural theories of learning that I began to value then, that I continue to value now, and that are valued by a range of researchers and practitioners dedicated to more equitable and powerful visions of learning.

In a somewhat ironic twist, it’s possible to consider me, and many others that hold similar commitments, as ‘colonizers’ of the maker movement for the purposes of equity. I was an outsider to a culture, looking to appropriate, for my own educational community’s agenda around creating more agentive and empowered approaches to learning, the social practices and tools found within it. I’m fairly unapologetic about this – I think education needs all the help it can get, and if we can be inspired by things found in creative subcultures, I’m all for it.

Buechley points out that the formal spaces of the Maker movement, places like Make Magazine and Maker Faires, have not become spaces with broad participation where equity is fully on the table. That’s a shame, and an ongoing problem. But one thing that is positive is that I’m seeing many of my colleagues within the education community successfully bridging practices and tools from the maker movement into their work in ways that are helping to move the needle on issues of equity. As a way to continue this conversation she started, I thought it might be useful to share some examples of what I’m seeing that look like in practice.

In the context of Hive Research Lab, I have the opportunity to study many organizations within the Hive NYC Learning Network that are doing exactly this sort of work to bridge maker practice and equity-oriented education. Take MOUSE Corps, a program where non-dominant youth engage in participatory design to prototype assistive technologies with and for communities with disabilities. Or Dreamyard, a long-standing community arts organization in the South Bronx that’s incorporated soldering, 3d printing, and physical computing within its Dream It Yourself program. gadgITERATION, a project by the Parsons School of Design, has high schoolers teaching middle schoolers, all from underserved communities, the basics of electronics. At the New York Hall of Science, which hosts the annual NYC Maker Faire, youth and educators in the Collect, Construct, Change program worked to create an open source hardware and software tool that can be used in local citizen science projects that look at environmental issues in low income neighborhoods. Perhaps my favorite example is the Brooklyn College Art Lab, part of the Brooklyn College Community Partnership. This past summer BCCP engaged in an inter-generational, community-based co-design of their drop-in center to create a maker lab within it, working with youth and experts from other organizations around the city in a process that held true to the organization’s values of not just being in but of the surrounding community.

There are some lessons that I think we can glean from these examples, lessons that can be heeded by others interested in making and learning who want to make sure we keep equity at the heart of the conversation. The first lesson is to bridge making practices into valued cultures of non-dominant youth. Dreamyard, as an example, has teens creating musical instruments, and brings fashion crafting into its programming. The second is to link making practices with taking action on social justice issues. Both NySci and MOUSE do this when they, respectively, engage in making for the purposes of shedding light on environmental conditions in a neighborhood or creating technologies that make life easier for those with disabilities. And a final lesson is to design maker education initiatives with, not just for, local communities. Brooklyn College Community Partnership is a wholly grassroots organization, and in figuring out what the maker movement might mean for their educational programs, they made sure that a full range of stakeholders, especially youth, were at the table. In many ways these lessons are not new – theories of culturally relevant pedagogy, funds of knowledge, co-design and participatory design would all suggest creating learning environments in similar ways. We just need to remember to continually apply, and advance, such ideas as we explore this intersection of making and learning.

There are, of course, many more examples that we can look to of people and organizations bridging maker practices into equity oriented education work in inspiring ways. Not least of which, and a good final example to mention, is Buechley’s own work on the LilyPad Arduino, a technology platform that has successfully created greater opportunities for women of all ages to engage in creative computing through electronic textiles. The maker movement itself, as Buechley points out, has been slow moving to incorporate values of equity into its cultural spaces. As it continues to gain steam and legitimacy within educational circles, we need to continue to voice that this is not an acceptable status quo, especially as more resources are directed towards this intersection. And we can look to examples that are rooted in the work of innovative, equity-oriented educators to see what good practice looks like so that, as Buechley says, the new boss doesn’t look the same as the old boss.

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.

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