December 23, 2013

“Making is a stance toward learning”: Sylvia Libow Martinez

Category: Educational Practice
2 young kids focusing closely on iphone

Messing with Makey-Makey, tinkering with Arduino, building robots or creating wearable art are not primarily about teaching electronic skills, problem-solving, or technological literacy – although those can be benefits of the maker revolution in education. Messing, tinkering, building projects that actually interest learners is about developing skills of autonomous learning, cultivating an appreciation for and fluency in using learning communities and experienced guides, and practice at thinking big.

“Making is a stance toward learning that puts the learner at the center of the educational process,” is how Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager put it in their book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Relatively inexpensive but powerful tools and materials – Arduino costs around $20, a Makey-Makey kit is $50 – make tinkering attractive in a way that brings constructionist theories to life. When I asked Martinez to connect constructionist learning theory with the tinkering she and Stager advocate, she explained that: “Seymour Papert demonstrated how computer-based tools can create experiences that amplify learning by leveraging learners’ innate interests and asserted that the learning students construct in their heads can be enhanced by what they make with their hands, especially if those objects are sharable and learners care about them.”

“When you go to these amazing maker faires,” Martinez told me, “the parents tell me: ‘I know my kids are learning when they are programming, but they come home with these traditional worksheets, and it’s just killing them.’ When caring parents say ‘school is killing our kids,’ we have a problem that we aren’t going to fix with more tests and more worksheets.” Martinez believes we have to acknowledge that kids can learn about everything more effectively and enthusiastically by guided tinkering and that we should not be content to take them to great after-school and museum programs. “We need to bring that kind of learning into the classroom because that’s where the kids are. I don’t want to give up on schools.” Martinez, in my brief video interview, and at greater length in her book, is full of practical advice for educators. She and Stager get concrete and detailed about how to approach tinkering in the classroom: Just do it. Don’t feel that you have to understand everything before you teach it, and before you teach it, let your students mess around for a while – learning should be an iterative process for you and the students. Don’t frontload the learning by explaining too much. Put the materials out, see what kids do, talk with them about it.

Making and building projects that personally interest students and an iterative design process don’t mean that teachers’ guidance becomes less necessary. A good corollary to “education is an igniting, not a pouring,” is “without banks, a stream would be a lake.” Teachers are there more to show students how to learn than to instruct them, step by step, what to do – they can get that from YouTube or Instructables. By combining learner autonomy, powerful materials like Arduino or Raspberry Pi, and guidance, teachers can give students permission to explore and help them gain fluency in the art of learning in the real world. Listen to my conversation with Martinez. Read her and Stager’s book. Put less than $100 of materials out on the table in your classroom. Let your students dream, try, fumble, retry, learn.

Banner image credit: tinkerbrad