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Popular 'Maker Movement' Incompatible With Common Core, Authors Contend

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The "maker movement" is making waves, garnering the recent attention of everyone from President Obama to Chinese entrepreneurs.

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Maker education, which focuses on giving children hands-on opportunities to build, tinker, and experiment, is also a big deal here this week at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, where sessions on everything from "Designing your makerspace" to "Interactive electronics without programming" to "Merging mobile, makers, and science education" are taking place.

To better understand how the maker movement fits in with other big trends in education and ed-tech, I sat down at the conference with Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, authors of the recently published book "Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom."

The duo, both of whom are long-time proponents of constructivist and technology-based education, say they're excited about the potential of maker education to reconnect students to the "incredibly euphoric experience that's associated with making something work" and to reinvigorate teachers who "feel something is missing" in their practice. 

But they're also skeptical that the movement can coexist alongside the new Common Core State Standards and survive the education sector's impulse towards consumerism.  

"For a long time, I've viewed my work as building a bridge between the ed-tech and [constructivist] education communities," said Stager, who founded the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators. "Now, there's this third community. There are all of these shared interests, but [the communities] aren't necessarily speaking to one another. This is our moment. This is the last chance for progressive education."

An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

How did you come to write this book?

Sylvia Martinez: Gary and I have been in education a long time. He's been teaching teachers how to teach programming for 30 years. I've been working for Generation Yes, a nonprofit that combines service learning and technology literacy for kids...

A couple years ago, we started following the maker movement with interest. It has all the evidence of being an incredibly powerful learning community. You see people collaborating and learning and sharing out of deeply held personal passions. At the same time, there's this synergy of amazing tools and fabrication technologies like 3-D printers that are becoming increasingly affordable. We started going to Maker Faires and talking to parents, who overwhelmingly said, "look at my kid, here they are programming and building robots, but every night we cry over worksheets.  School is killing my kids. There is something wrong. " 

What kind of reactions to the maker movement do you hear from classroom teachers?

Martinez: I've talked to some teachers who have never heard any of this stuff. But a lot of teachers know that project-based, independent, hands-on experiences work for kids. We look to combine [that knowledge] with new tools and technology and connect it to the maker movement ... It's helping teachers understand they can put students in control without there being chaos. It can be empowering for students and for teachers, too.

Gary Stager: There is a hunger to make schools better places for teachers and children, and these materials, which are playful and creative and expressive, uplift and inspire folks.

What do you see as the educational opportunities associated with maker education?

Martinez: It inspires teachers to think differently about giving kids more agency over their own learning. We're not doing it because there are good computer science jobs out there. We're doing it because computer programming gives kids agency over this incredibly powerful machine. 

Stager: Much of what were advocating has been done before. In the book, we situate the maker movement in historical context. In the 1980's, teachers taught programming to hundreds of thousands of kids....

The real power of 3-D printer is not what gets spit out at the end, especially if it's just crap you can buy at a 99-cent store. The real power is that it gives kids access to the Z-axis for first time in history.

Do you see the rise of maker education and the advent of the Common Core State Standards as connected?

Stager: There are some overlapping interests between the Common Core and the maker movement, but [they are ultimately] incompatible. The standards are rooted in this idea of a centralized body of knowledge that all kids must comply with, which is in stark contradiction to the notion that learning is more fluid, more intimate, more personal. That doesn't mean that you couldn't tick off boxes in the Common Core by having kids have meaningful making experiences. But the notion that some anonymous committee of grownups has made a list of stuff that all kids need to know because that's what jobs are going to [require] in the future is preposterous. The maker movement prepares kids to solve the problems that [adults] never anticipated.

Martinez: I think the Obama administration is in favor of both the Common Core and in favor of some things that don't fit in the Common Core.  Maybe they don't see the inconsistency. 

What are the barriers you see to schools effectively integrating maker education?

Stager: They say change in schools is geologically slow, but not when it comes to buying stuff.  Look at the exhibit hall here [at ISTE.]

Martinez: We're trying to make sure [that maker education] is not just shopping [for new technology.]  Some people hear the shopping message before they hear the educational change message.


Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekSCavanagh for the live updates from ISTE 2014. 

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