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MSPnet Blog: “Makerspaces as education and novelty, and a farewell note”

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posted February 4, 2019 – by Brian Drayton

A few weeks ago, the MSP News featured some articles and videos on “making” and “makerspaces.” I followed up on the links, and learned about all the interesting work going on (and the fun being had), and began to wonder about “making” as an activity, versus “making” as a fad.  For me, this means “making” as a human activity (and possibly educative) and “making” as ed-biz (and not ncessarily educative as long as profitable).  One of the problems with this tension (educating vs selling) is that marketing and propaganda are quicker, more nimble, and more voluble than research.  The only process that can at all compare in speed (though not in scope) is professional gossip — anecdote and evaluative chat within networks of friends and colleagues.   (Hence the value of something like MSPnet, not to mention teacher-lounge conversations, and all the other ways people network about their craft.)

“Making” has intrinsic power to engage and evoke intellectual and social/emotional activity: When someone says “Let’s give kids a place and some time to create, build, imagine and design things,”  it just makes sense that it should be good.  Our species, after all, has sometimes been called (informally) Homo faber, Earthling the maker, the crafts-person (See here for a philosopher’s take on this).

The power of things, objects to evoke curiosity, ingenuity, purpose, and delight has been noted and deployed by educators since forever.  As Sherry Turkle wrote about Seymour Papert:

He bridged the thinking/feeling divide by writing about the way his love for the gears on a toy car ignited his love of mathematics as a child. From the beginning of my time at MIT, I have asked students to write about an object they loved that became central to their thinking.   A love for science can start with love for a microscope, a modem, a mud pie, a pair of dice, a fishing rod. Plastic eggs in a twirled Easter basket reveal the power of centripetal force; experiments with baking illuminate the geology of planets. Everybody has their own version of the gears.

So what does it mean that “making” is somehow an innovative discovery?  For example, one of the videos from the 2016 Stem for All Video Showcase tells us that “There is growing interest in Making as a new approach to STEM learning.”    New?  Such a statement invites reflective critique.

Perhaps there is something in the Spirit of the Times that makes such a thing more appealing or compelling than it was 20 years ago?   An interesting article about maker spaces and libraries by Rebekah Willett (here) points out that

A culture of making as a political response to mass production and industrialization  can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s

This is reminiscent of the way that the Nature Study movement arose about a century ago, in response to the accelerating urbanization and nature-impoverishment of modern America. (Joni Mitchell:  “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”)

Or is the Maker movement getting new impetus from the powerful Ed Tech marketing enterprise?  Although many observers and advocates make it clear that “makerspaces” need not involve digital tools, somehow computers, robots, 3-D printers, smart technologies etc. almost inevitably creep into the story. illustrates:

A makerspace is a collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.  These spaces are open to kids, adults, and entrepreneurs and have a variety of maker equipment including 3D printers, laser cutters, cnc machines, soldering irons and even sewing machines.  A makerspace however doesn’t need to include all of these machines or even any of them to be considered a makerspace.  If you have cardboard, legos and art supplies you’re in business.

When “technology” (that is, software and hardware) gets involved in an educational space, the marketplace finds a way in, with its tendency to sell promise out of proportion to evidence, and its rhetoric of innovation (See here Audrey Watters’s classic essay, “The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.”).

It seems to me that in these days when the education “market” has been targeted for economic exploitation, we need to make sure that our questions are not only of the sort “Is this cool?”  “Do kids respond?”  “Is there potential for STEM learning or social learning or… ?”

We should also be asking about hidden (perhaps unintentional) messages being conveyed. There have been, for example,  some interesting critiques (here and here, for example) of  the “making movement” relating to power-relations and social justice, gender stereotypes, and the privileging of objects over people.

I always like to ask about learner agency:  Who’s in charge?  Who’s asking the questions?  Whose purposes are being followed?  What kinds of sense are being made, and by whom?  Where is the freedom, and is there room for everyone at the table who wants to be there?

I have long thought that STEM teachers need to be “amphibious” — to know and love their field, and to know and love learners and learning.  But when we are also being asked to use, adopt, implement, or purchase stuff that someone else tells us is New and Great, teachers also need to be philosophers, asking “Who benefits?  Whose capacity is broadened or deepened here? Do the claims of New and Great arise from enthusiasm and hope on the learner’s behalf, or delight in the materials themselves, or is it hope that by Reaching Scale a marketing goal will be achieved?”

Popular doesn’t mean wrong, and Commercially Exciting doesn’t mean uneducative —but if we educators  don’t ask and discuss the deep questions, the hard questions, then education can too easily become merely a branch of economics or public policy.

A Farewell Note

As recently announced in the MSP News, MSPnet is in transition.  As part of this move, this blog will be discontinued.

It has been a great gift to me to have the challenge of writing for you about science education — and related topics — for the past few years.
It’s been so educative, and fun, that I don’t plan to stop.

The first drafts of my posts on the MSPnet blog have been written in a WordPress blog,
Bloghaunter.”  After a little break for proposal writing, I will carry on writing there starting mid-February.  I’ll probably broaden the range of themes, and speak a little more personally.   If you are interested, you are welcome to follow me there (and post comments)— the URL is

Note that the blog will no longer be associated with MSPnet.

Wishing you all the best for 2019 and beyond,
— brian drayton

NOTE:  All opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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