Making Their Way: Creating a Generation of "Thinkerers"

A cornucopia of fabrication and tech labs public and private, are sprouting throughout the country. Maker Faires are bringing makers of all ages together to share their work and their learning
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"Rise above oneself and grasp the world." -Archimedes (engraved on the Fields Medal)

Making is making a comeback. A cornucopia of fabrication and tech labs public and private are sprouting throughout the country. Maker Faires -- sprawling outdoor extravaganzas that combine the atmosphere of a medieval fair with old low-tech and new high-tech garages -- are bringing makers of all ages together to share their work and their learning. These new expressions of "thinkering" bring the wizened tinkerer and the tech-savvy youth together in playful competitions that range from the serious and sublime to the deliberately frivolous and outrageous. Fab labs provide makers with easy access to powerful and expensive technology tools in a community of like-minded minds.

Making provides opportunities for young people to use their hands and their minds together. Untold numbers of youth are messing around with all manner of tools to create, in tangible form, what's on their minds. Equally important, the maker movement nurtures communities of practice that bring adults and young people together around common interests. Thus, to visit the Maker Faire or a community-based fab lab is to see an aspect of our young people that we seldom witness in schools.

Sadly, however, to observe these young "thinkerers" is to be at least temporarily deluded into believing that this is what many of our young people are all about. Not so. Unfortunately, most young people do not experience making in their schools or in their lives. Literally and figuratively, most of our young people are not at the Faire. Research reveals that the vast majority of them are not into making at all and instead are frittering away their time in a variety of wasteful and unproductive learning activities.

Making is a celebration of an alternative and powerful way of knowing and of thinking things through. Consequently, making is typically antithetical to what traditional schools are all about. That is why the communities of practice that come together at Maker Faires and fabrication labs usually--some would say thankfully--flourish outside of schools.

A few educators, however, are circling these making places to determine where and how they fit in schools, if at all. Educational historian Larry Cremin once wryly noted, that educators respond to a new area of learning by creating a course in it. Recall how schools responded to technology by creating a course "down the hall at fifth period" without ever thinking about changing every course because technology existed. Similarly, educators run the risk of demeaning hand and mind work by creating separate courses for making rather than bringing making into all aspects of the school curriculum and thereby thoroughly reconstituting it.

It was this dissonance between actuality and potentiality that prompted Big Picture Learning to conduct at the end of July a symposium focused on young people "making their way in the world." Big Picture assembled a broad cross-section of individuals experienced with making and hand-mind learning--artists, craftspeople, neurologists, engineers, students and educators. We met in Dearborn, Michigan at The Henry Ford museum and used as our inspiration the Maker Faire that ran at The Henry Ford during the BPL (Big Picture Learning) symposium. That inveterate tinkerer Henry Ford was our muse and the Ford Motor Company Fund was our benefactor.

By using the Maker Faire as our source of inspiration, we observed, investigated, played, and analyzed how the aspects of making, inventing, and creating combine and fit in innovative ways into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), career and technical education (CTE), and the arts. By looking across generations of makers at the vast assembly of fabricators, we gathered information on the practice, motivation, skill and determination of the Faire contributors.

Big Picture's purpose was to determine how making can be an integral part of how young people figure out who they are in the world and to show schools how to capitalize on the fact that people of all ages are natural fabricators and makers. People, as one symposium participant observed, "use their hands to figure things out," not just to solve a problem related to what they are making, but to figure themselves out as well. Making provides us all a means of validating who we are, what we know and what we can do.

We centered our symposium conversations on several young people from our Big Picture Learning schools who had stories to tell about how making opened them up as learners and as individuals. We created images and examined data to develop additional insights. We harnessed this interplay between stories, images and data to gain perspective on the design of programs that might establish making as an important part of the school curriculum.

We reviewed disturbing data on how young people spend their time. We learned, for example, that they use the Internet about 12 hours a week, more time than they spend watching television (about 10 hours per week), talking on a cell phone (13 hours per week), and doing homework (9 hours per week).

The research reveals that the U.S. is becoming a nation of "non-tinkerers." In a poll of 1,000 U.S. adults, nearly six in 10 (58%) said they never have made or built a toy. More than a quarter (27%) have not made or built even one item from a list of eight common projects ranging from a dollhouse or piece of furniture to a fence or flower box.

As Frank Wilson, symposium participant, neurologist, and author of "The Hand" reminded us, the hand has "a mind of its own," as well as being at one with our minds. To engage the hand is to engage the mind. Thus, schools must provide for all students a hand-mind approach to the essential "academics." The hand-to-mind pathway is a way to engage all students and deepen their learning, to understand what quality looks like, and through practice and tinkering to apply discipline-based skills. Working the mind without the hands, and without a practice community of adults and young people, produces abstract learners who have difficulty applying what they know to the world around them. Making with hands and minds stimulates young people to develop their imaginative, creative, entrepreneurial, and scientific chops.

Schools can reap the rewards of making if they can resist the "curse of the course;" loosen rigid time structures to promote exploration and smart failures; and, in the evening and on weekends, open their labs, sheds and garages to the community and to makers of all ages and levels of expertise. They will need as well to bring the traditional academic disciplines -- including the increasingly essential arts and design -- into those fab labs and to the making itself. By employing people, objects, places and situations (POPS) to support making, schools will prepare a whole generation of young people to succeed in the challenging careers out there now -- and the ones that will be.

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