What Constitutes ‘MAKING’?

One of the questions I am asked most frequently by educators, in terms of makerspaces, is for lesson plans, project ideas or templates that I have that they can use in their makerspace. (In fact, my publisher wanted me to write a book of those, but I turned that down.) The answer I give to educators is two-fold.  First off, I cannot possibly suggest anything for anyone's makerspace until they properly plan and uncover themes that work best for their space.   

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*More on proper planning here, here, in my book and my course. The second part of my answer, and perhaps even more important than the first, addresses the question that is the title of this blog post:  

What Constitutes Making?

In regards to the Maker Movement, there are those who feel that everything counts as 'making', but many educators wonder about what kinds of activities or projects are most appropriate for a school makerspace.  I too have wondered these things time and time again.  In a recent piece on the Maker Ed blog, they wrote about the FabLearn 2016 conference, and how that conference kicked off with a hypothetical scenario: 

It’s the year 2026, the Maker Movement has failed, why?

The spirit of the Maker Movement is one that is inclusive and not meant to be polarizing in any way, which is a wonderful thing.  I do have major concerns though that this spirit is what is going to have dire consequences on K-12 makerspaces and could be what contributes to making the above hypothetical scenario, a reality. Including everything that is made under the umbrella of 'making, is what has contributed to many school makerspaces being swallowed up by the 'STEM Monster', and to many school makerspaces turning into teacher-driven spaces, and therefore, just another classroom.  

I do believe there is room in school makerspaces for all types of making, but I am starting to see many school makerspaces that are limited to students just playing board games, or just completing arts and crafts or STEM projects, in which students always follow step-by-step directions or use a kit.  These same makerspaces also are often the same spaces in which project ideas are thought of and created by just teachers and oftentimes tend to include things like teacher-driven STEM challenges.  These are often the same spaces that require students or classes to participate in certain activities or challenges or even grade them on what they do.  These are often the same spaces that dictate what making/design process a student should be using.

In my opinion, many school makerspaces are makerspaces by name only and would more appropriately be called STEM labs or a craft club.  With that being said, there could be room for all of these things in a school makerspace.  When I ask myself the question, What Constitutes Making, I always fall back on my definition of a makerspace to guide my thinking and decision making.  

A makerspace is a metaphor for a unique learning environment that encourages tinkering, play, and open-ended exploration for all.  

There are many who have their own definition of what a makerspace is, and the fact that making is deeply personal to those involved in this Movement is, in fact, part of what makes this Movement so unique and special.  For me though, what constitutes making is that students have the opportunity for open-ended exploration.   This does not mean that board games, STEM kits, arts and crafts or teacher-driven challenges couldn't be present in our makerspace…they could.  For the most part though, they aren't a part of our space. Our makerspace is almost entirely student-driven and I work hard at 'creating the conditions to inspire' them to WANT to make, as opposed to forcing them into making or even what they should make.  

For some reason, doing teacher-driven, teacher-selected 'challenges' has become directly associated with makerspaces, much like STEM has. In my makerspace, I do believe that it is our 'challenges' that pull certain students in, so I do see the motivating factors that a challenge represents.  The only 'challenges' we have in our makerspace though are challenges that foster the open-ended exploration that myself, and my students, hold so sacred.  The challenges we have in our makerspace include:

  • Make Something That Does Something (the brilliant slogan of littleBits)
  • Make Me Something…Anything (inspired by educator, Barton Keeler)
  • What Else Can This Be?

In addition, I often use a creative tool called SCAMPER to encourage my students to stretch their thinking and making skills.  I often use this model to challenge my students to generate new ideas or think about how to improve on existing ones.  The SCAMPER tool is a mnemonic devices that means:

  • Substitute:  Replace a part of something or of a process.  What can be used instead?
  • Combine: Blend or bring together two or more unrelated materials in a new way. How can you combine materials to make something more useful or more interesting?
  • Adapt:  Borrow, emulate, adapt, or amend an existing idea or thing.  
  • Modify: How can you switch up the shape, size, color, or texture of something?  How can you expand, augment, or intensify?
  • Put to another use: Can you use something for something else, or for more than one thing?  Can you use it in a new way?
  • Eliminate: Streamline, Simplify, or minimize.  What can you remove or improve upon to enhance a creation?
  • Rearrange or (Reverse): Can parts of something be interchanged, inverted, or transposed?  Can the sequence be switched up? Could you make a plan beginning with the desired outcome and design the steps leading up to it in reverse order?  Can you reverse engineer something?

I have hesitated to write this blog post for a long time because the topic is one that many people have strong feelings about one way or another.  I have decided to write this post based on the fact that it addresses one of the most common issues I get asked questions about by educators all across the country.  All I can do is offer my opinion and perspective on the topic and leave it up to individuals to decide how they feel, which I fully respect.  Perhaps my post will either confirm or cause you to rethink what you feel constitutes making. Either way, our students are sure to benefit, because collectively, we all continue to play a part in pushing this Movement forward.