A cornerstone of my library makerspace is that it is a unique learning environment that is focused almost solely on informal learning. What does this mean exactly? It means that my students are not told that they have to visit the makerspace, nor are they told what they have to do when they get there, and almost always, they are not assessed on the skills or knowledge they gain in this space. This approach has ensured that we have a learning environment that is self-directed, highly personalized, student-driven, and one that require little to no direct teacher facilitation. This does not mean however that I am not involved. With careful planning, I ensure that my makerspace practically runs itself and from behind the scenes, I carefully craft learning experiences that our students can benefit greatly from.
Almost every day I speak with librarians across the country who are interested in creating their own makerspace and looking for guidance. Many are surprised to hear that my makerspace is an informal learning space and although they see the successes my students have had, they often tell me that their school leaders would never allow a space like that in their school. They say that their makerspace must be directly tied to the Common Core, students must be assigned formal class time in the space, and that they must be formally assessed on what they do there.
At times my makerspace feels to me a bit like walking a tight-rope without a net. Because students aren’t told they have to visit the space, I never know from one day to the next who will visit and how many. But this also has been incredibly rewarding. Each day is filled with surprises and revelatory moments that make me certain that I have created for our students a unique learning environment that they want, need and deserve.
Without a doubt, I have students who would enjoying ‘making’ even if the space was more formalized. But I also know that without a doubt, there is a huge segment of the school population that I would lose, if they were told they had to use the space and that they would be assessed on what they learned there. One of the most rewarding things to me is seeing kids voluntarily in our makerspace who normally would not otherwise engage in making-related activities. Oftentimes when this happens, social and academic barriers are crossed.
I do feel like no two makerspaces are ever alike and just because this model works for us, it doesn’t mean this would necessarily work for your school. However, I think the success of our makerspace makes a strong case for recognizing that informal learning spaces have a place in a school community. Ultimately, when it comes to the makerspaces themselves, school leaders should be open to the idea of making for the sake of making. A makerspace can have activities associated to the Common Core and even can be assessed; however, making doesn’t always have to be (indeed, I would argue, MUST not always be) tied to traditional assessment.
Many teachers and school leaders alike often fear how students can be appropriately assessed in maker environments. This fear has been established as a result of a reliance on transitional methods of assessment as the only valid means to measure learning. Rather than focusing on just formal assessment, consideration should be given towards focusing on acknowledging the granular skills students gain in this space and providing a way for them to get credit for, celebrate, and validate that learning. School leaders can do a world of good for their schools by being open to a more non-conventional approach to makerspaces.
In the words of Frank Coffield, "Informal learning should no longer be regarded as an inferior form of learning whose main purpose is to act as the precursor of formal learning; it needs to be seen as fundamental, necessary and valuable in its own right….."
Although informal, our makerspace has had a real impact on so many of our students. I have seen students choose their college majors or career choices based on the experiences they have had in our space. I am proud to say that one of our students entered the marines to focus on combat engineering, based on his experiences with our 3d printer. One of our greatest success stories this year is a group of students who were otherwise disengaged in their traditional schooling, but who have taken to the makerspace in such valuable ways. They recently created a website that showcases their creations and as a part of their site, created a challenge for kids around the world. Despite not liking writing as a rule, these students are so eager to share their story, they just launched a blog on their site.
Their post begins:
My name is Chris, and i am a freshman at a New Jersey High School. I always had an interest in computers, but that increased even more thanks to my library makerspace. When I started school this year, I found out that the makerspace had a Take-Apart Tech Station where students could visit and take apart computers. Through this, I learned the parts of a computer. I enjoyed the experience so much that my friends and I then decided to challenge ourselves and began to think what we really could do with computers. We decided to not only take a computer apart, but to then put it back together. We also decided to make a new computer case to put our computer in.
The rest of the post can be read on their site here. Please visit the site, leave comments, and consider having your students participate in their challenge.