a site for serious play


Maker Learning and indoor playgrounds

Last week I attended the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) conference in Richmond, Virginia in my capacity as coordinator of the IBSC Action Research Program. Every year a group of teachers from around the world are accepted into the research program and meet at the IBSC’s annual conference to share their ideas about an action research project they will undertake in their schools over the next 12 months. The research topic for the current 2013-2014 research team revolves around initiatives that foster character development in boys. Between now and the presentation of their projects at next year’s conference in Nashville, team members will continue to be supported as members of an online research community.

As well as working with the current research team, the research topic for the 2014-2015 team was announced in Richmond, and this brings me to the subject of this post. It’s not an easy task to predict what research topic will be relevant and enticing to educators in twelve month’s time.  That said, one can get a pretty good sense from the Twitterverse of learning initiatives that promise to be “hot” in the near future. And so it was that early this year I began to notice an increasing reference to the Maker Movement and Maker Learning. Since I wasn’t overly familiar with these concepts, I set out to find out more. The more I read, the more excited I became as the potential of Maker Learning to reshape teaching and learning in our schools became obvious. And so it was that I proposed Maker Learning be the IBSC action research topic for 2014-2015. The following Introduction to Maker Learning is what I  wrote for the IBSC Trustees in the hope that they too would see the value of Maker Learning as a research topic.


Learn to Solder, Orlando Mini-Maker Faire, May 2012 by Mitch Altman (CC Flickr)

Introduction to Maker Learning

Despite compelling research indicating the value of constructionist learning and teaching, instructionist models of education that focus on standardised testing and assessment continue to prevail in our classrooms. Constructionist learning, or learning by “making,” is something children still largely engage in external to both the classroom and formal lessons: the playground is where a lot of the creativity, playing and making is happening.  For many educators, the artificial separation in schools of making and learning sits uncomfortably with the need to facilitate in students those skills identified as important for effective learning in the twenty-first century: curiosity, intellectual courage, imagination, exploration, commitment, critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, resilience, and collaboration. These teachers should be encouraged, however, by the movement afoot to establish making in the classroom as a fundamental building block of twenty-first century learning; a movement which comes in the guise of the Maker Movement and its associated process of Maker Learning or Maker Education.

The contemporary Maker Movement puts a label on something that humans have always done, and will always do: make things to solve problems that are personally meaningful.  Most of us, if not all, were makers as children: think back to the cardboard box that became a garage, a puppet theatre or doll’s house; to the Lego blocks that became a starfighter or pirate ship. And many of us continue to make into adulthood as we dabble in all nature of hobbies and DIY projects. But what distinguishes the contemporary Maker Movement from previous notions of making (and many current examples of inquiry or project-based learning) is some 21st Century know-how in the form of a technology focus that extends and reshapes traditional making,  and allows new forms of making to be pursued (Anderson, 2012). Amazing products, for example, are being made in the fields of 3D printing and fabrication (check out Thingiverse ),  electronics, physical computing, wearable computing and E-textiles, LEGO engineering, electronic/digital music, and robotics. As well, technology has enabled what was once considered a fairly private pursuit to become a shared one as makers collaboratively design, create and share products online.

Maker Learning initiatives are appearing in  ever-increasing numbers in schools around the globe. In the United States, Maker Learning is the basis for the Obama administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative designed to stimulate learning in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  Maker Learning, however, need not be confined to the STEM disciplines; there are countless opportunities in the Arts to engage in contemporary making. and many educators, therefore, prefer the STEAM acronym. Further, as Chang (n.d.) notes, the potential of Maker Learning to be interdisciplinary lies in opportunities for students to “blog about their progress and experiences, write research papers about the design process and scientific method, present their creations and discoveries at school conferences or public events like Maker Faire, and even incorporate multimedia and create photo-essays or video documentaries.”

With its strong links to educational theory, Maker Learning holds promise to be more than an educational one-night stand. In their recent book (and a must-read), Invent to learn: Making, tinkering and engineering in the classroom, Martinez and Stager (2013) highlight the connection between making and the constructivist learning theories of Dewey, Vygotsky, Montessori and Piaget, wherein a child’s learning is achieved through internal construction of meaning, not external instruction. In the 1970s, Seymour Papert, the “Godfather” of the Maker Movement, took the constructivist view of learning and extended it into a Theory of Constructionism. Central to this theory is the notion that learning is most effective when part of the learning experience involves construction of a meaningful product. In practical terms, making is learning that is personally meaningful, experiential and shareable (Martinez & Stager). The role of the teacher in this learning process, notes Papert, “is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge” (in Martinez & Stager, p. 57).

Whilst “making” has an obvious concern for product, its value for our classrooms lies also in the learning that happens around the making.  Martinez and Stager (2013) note, “fortunately for educators, this ‘maker movement’ overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing” (p. 2). Santo (2013) describes such learning as a process involving:

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.

Santo’s description ties in nicely with Sir Ken Robinson’s (2013) advocacy for a return to the nurturing of creativity in our classrooms, and also with Daniel Pink’s (2013) call for schools to allow students to engage in “uncommissioned works” where constraints of time, process and assessment are removed to provide autonomy for genuine learning.

The potential value for all schools in adopting a Maker Learning model is obvious; it’s a model relevant to twenty-first century learning and teaching. The value of such a model for boys’ schools in particular is even more obvious, with the practical hands-on and technology focus of Maker Learner providing  a natural fit with the learning styles of many boys ( Cox, 2011; Reichert & Hawley, 2010).

*Note: The Trustees approved Maker learning as the topic for the IBSC Action Research Program in 2014-2015.


Anderson, C. (2012). Makers: The new industrial revolution. Crown Business: New York.

Chang, S. (n.d.). Ed and the Maker Movement: Old technology is new again.  http://edtechhandbook.com/landscape/edu-maker-movement/.

Cox, A. (2011). Locating significance in the lives of boys. International Boys’ Schools Coalition. http://www.theibsc.org/page.cfm?p=1536

Martinez, S. & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: making, tinkering and engineering in the classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press: Torrence, CA.

Pink, D. (2013). The importance of purpose. Edutech Conference. 3-4 June, 2013, Brisbane, Australia.

Reichert, M. & Hawley, R. (2010). Reaching boys, Teaching boys: Strategies that work, and why. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Robinson, K. (2013). Creativity in schools. Edutech Conference. 3-4 June, 2013, Brisbane, Australia.

Santo, R. (2013). Is Making Learning? Considerations as education embraces the Maker Movement.  http://empathetics.org/2013/02/12/is-making-learning-considerations-as-education-embraces-the-maker-movement/


Dougherty, D. (2011). We are all makers. http://www.ted.com/talks/dale_dougherty_we_are_makers.html

Gershenfeld, G. (2005). FAB: The coming revolution on your desktop–from personal computers to personal fabrication. Basic Books: New York.

Gerstein, J. (2013). STEAM and Maker Education: Inclusive, engaging and self-differentiating. http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/tag/maker-education/

MAKE Magazine. http://makezine.com/

Samtani, H. (2013). Meet the Makers: Can a DIY movement revolutionize how we learn? School Library Journal.


van Gelder, S. (2013). makerspaces: Creative hotbeds of experimentation. http://blogs.learnquebec.ca/wordpress-mu/blog/2013/03/makerspaces/

Watters, A, (2012). Top Ed-Tech trends of 2012: The Maker Movement. http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/hack-higher-education/top-ed-tech-trends-2012-maker-movement

Wheeler, S. (2013). Maker Culture as a learning model. http://teachinghumans.com/maker-culture-as-a-learning-model/



On the shoulders of giants…


Shouders of Giants by David Goehring (CC Flickr)

Last week I attended the EduTech conference in Brisbane–a huge affair with over 3000 delegates! Keynote speakers included some of the “giants” in contemporary educational thinking such as Daniel Pink, Ken Robinson, Stephen Heppell, Alan November, Gary Stager, Ewan McIntosh and our own Stephen Harris. Whilst there, my guilt about not having completed my VICPLN “homework” abated somewhat as I realised what a great opportunity I’d been given to “stand on the shoulders of giants” (Isaac Newton) and reflect on what it means to be a 21C teacher and learner. Here’s my brief take on what the giants had to say:

Daniel Pink:
Pink drew on Science to offer some thoughts about motivation. The three key motivators for enduring performance, said Pink, are:

    • Autonomy: We engage in an activity when we’re required to get there under our own steam, and we engage when we’re required to do non-commissioned work (i.e. work that is not constrained)
    • Mastery and Feedback: Making progress depends on feedback and feed forward
    • Purpose: People need purpose to do something better

And the biggest takeaway: The notion of “FedX days” (aka “Ship-it” days or “innovation Days”) where teachers and students are given time to do whatever they want–to do “non-commissioned” work. But whatever work is produced, must be shared with others.

Just came across this fantastic video tweeted by @medkh9 to illustrate the difference in creativity between commissioned and non-commissioned work in a 3rd grade classroom. The video’s creator , Elad Segev, invites viewers to try the same project and send him the results.

Ewan McIntosh:
The gist of McIntosh’s presentation is encapsulated in this video he showed:

And McIntosh’s advice for learners?

  • Be curious
  • Listen to yourself
  • Humble is cool
  • Good energy is infectious
  • Find a way

And the implicit advice for teachers?

  • Don’t take away students’ opportunities for creativity and curiosity
  • Provide periods of time for “design thinking”–periods of deep immersion in an idea
  • Give learning back to students
  • Let students find the problem (by asking ‘Why am I doing this?”) and the solution
  • Link learning to Claxton’s  pillars of learning: challenge, collaboration, responsibility, real things, choice, curiosity.

Teach students it’s okay to:

F – first
A – attempt
I – in
L – learning


Here’s a presentation by Ewan McIntosh delivered in January this year at the International Conference on Thinking. It’s long, but it’s the next best thing if you didn’t make EduTech.

Stephen Harris:
For schools to change, vision, strategy and resources must align. Shape the learning culture at every level.

  • Collaborate
  • Take risks
  • Question everything
  • Do, then ask (Icelandic mantra)
  • Grow a team who understand paradigm shift
  • Create the vision together

Harris’ full presentation can be downloaded from his blog.


Gary Stager: Stager is an education revolutionary leading the charge of the Maker Movement into classrooms around the world. Riding on the educational theories of Piaget, Dewey, Vygotsky and Papert, Maker Learning is “learning by doing.” It’s not a new concept–children have been “making” for eons, but what sets the “new” maker learning apart is the incorporation of digital technologies which enable the reanimation of traditional forms of “making.”  Check out Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show to see what an 8 year-old maker is doing.

Image: Teachers as Makers Academy New York (ISKME cc Flickr)

Maker learning in the classroom blurs the boundaries between subjects, and the boundaries between academic and vocational activities. The best projects, noted Stager, “push up against the persistence of reality… they create memories, and that’s the core of our business.” When designing projects for students, aim for:

  • brevity (your question should fit on a post-it note)
  • ambiguity (give students a choice in how they address the problem)
  • freedom from assessment (remember, prescription kills creativity)

Stephen Heppell

His main points:

  • Return the trust to the students
  • Giving students identical projects is like giving them identical haircuts
  • introduce kids to technology EARLY
  • Make learning spaces playful
  • And for teachers: “If we don’t believe it [the power of technology], who the hell will!”


Alan November:

A great classroom is one where you can remove the teacher and the learning continues

November advocates that technology hasn’t been the change agent we hoped for; that we haven’t learnt how to kick-start the “expensive stuff” and  the dominant use of digital technologies continues to be as a $1000 pencil! So how do we use technology to make learning more effective? November says:

  • Change the purpose of work to make it more meaningful
  • Let students pose the questions
  • Apply knowledge in a context
  • Flip the classroom – let students do the talking, the challenging

Ken Robinson

Sir Ken

A very impressive presentation for someone who had to deliver it at 2am local time!

The purposes of education:

  • Economic
  • Cultural
  • Social engagement
  • Personal

The principles of improving education:

  • Create a climate of possibility in which people flourish
  • Recognise diversity
  • Nurture creativity
  • Recognise that life is organic and non-linear

Finding your element (the title os SKR’s new book):

  • Do something that you are good at
  • Do it with passion and your energy will be lifted

A final Edutech thought:

This conference was not about technology. It was about learning! For more resources on the conference, check #edutech on Twitter.

Characteristics of the 21C Learner
So where have these giants taken me in terms of identifying five (let’s make that six)  characteristics of a 21C learner? And what role can digital technologies play in each of these? Here’s my list:

Creative: This has to be at the top of the list, and serves as an umbrella characteristic for the other six characteristics noted here. Traditional understandings of creativity consider it a “special” quality possessed by eminent individuals, especially those in the arts. More recent understandings of the term, however, adopt a wider stance and view creativity as something possessed by all individuals and capable of being expressed in all areas of human endeavour. For many, Ken Robinson touched a sensitive nerve when he declared that traditional educational settings stifle creativity in schools. The creative process, he notes, is so often constrained in a world of high-stakes assessment, outcome-driven curricula, and rigid school structures and schedules.

It’s broadly acknowledged that the use of digital technologies can foster creativity by enabling users to think and act in ways that have been previously inaccessible or non-existent. Digital technologies provide new tools, media and environments that enable individuals and groups to build and share knowledge in ways that support exploration, play, risk- taking, collaboration and reflection. And then of course, there’s the sheer ability of digital tools to engage and motivate learners. But, as Elad Segev’s video above suggests, access to all the technology in the world wont’t foster creativity if the the parameters of a project place too many constraints on the learner.

Flexible: Learning is iterative and circular. It really is all about the journey and not the destination. The 21C learner needs to be prepared to wander down dark alleys, rest awhile to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going, maybe go back to the start and try a different path, and basically enjoy the sights and sounds at every twist and turn. Digital technologies provide a wide range of “travel options” for learners. They can take learners further and faster; they can help learners meet fellow “travellers” and offer myriad ways to share  and create travel stories.

Curious: Simply put, you can’t learn if you’re not curious; curious about “How can I use this information?” “Why am I learning this?” Rote learning is not learning; it’s regurgitation. Listening isn’t learning until you convert it to something personal–and that won’t happen until you’re curious. So how can ICT help the curious learner? Well, it certainly makes for a much deeper rabbit hole, and a rabbit hole that one can explore anytime, either alone or in the company of others. And no matter where a learner is (within reason) their personal rabbit hole can be right there in their pocket.

Passionate: As the decisions on what to learn, how to learn and the ways in which learning can be demonstrated shift onto the learner, self-drive–or passion–becomes a prerequisite for learning. Whilst curiosity might light the  learning fire, passion will fan the flames and keep the learning going . So where do digital technologies fit into this? Like anything, “variety is the spice of life” and the enormous range of ways in which a learner can discover, create and share using digital technologies can keep the passion alive by engaging and motivating learners.

Collaborative: My recent EduTech experience was a great reminder that learning together can be so much more powerful (and fun) than learning alone. There’s no way that I could have left the the conference with a record of all the gems of wisdom I wanted to revisit at my leisure. But thanks to digital technologies I now have that record. The Twitterstream, Twitter aggregators such as Storify, and delegates’ blog posts have helped me create my conference quilt that I shall snuggle into over the next few weeks.

Intellectually courageous: Although this comes at the end of my list, I believe this characteristic is perhaps the quintessential one. Creative ideas are often the product of intellectual risk-taking; of continuing down the path without knowing what lies around the corner, or in fact, without even caring what’s there. It’s a characteristic that lies at the heart of Michael Schrage’s “serious play”- the notion that underpins my own learning and which inspired the name for this blog. The digital landscape provides a perfect playground for the intellectually courageous learner. There are endless opportunities to try new things in new ways. As well, the collaborative nature of digital technologies enable learners to take risks in supportive environments where feedback and feedforward are offered.

And what did I learn whilst writing this blog post?

  • I couldn’t have done it without the support of those in the Twitterverse who kept the #edutech backchannel buzzing and who provided me with a wonderful summary of the conference.
  • To embed a video in a WordPress blog just paste the link and then unlink it. WordPress will do the rest!
  • To stop unwanted text appearing next to images, change the image alignment to “none.”
  • My next-to-no knowledge of coding is improving on a “need-to-know” basis. It’s something I’m going to keep working on!