Maker Spaces or Virtual Lockers Won't Solve the Achievement Gap
The Maker Movement is a great addition to the advances entering schools today. But like each and every singular change, it will not change outcomes unless it becomes catalytic for a major shift in how schools operate. No one "thing" will ever be the answer as long as we try to push exciting new learning into our ancient school design. We are not talking about the buildings themselves. We are talking about the design and use of time, the curricula and assessments, pedagogy and, yes, also, our mind-sets, bargaining agreements, and expectations.
Century's Old Construct
Who can seriously expect that the inclusion of Maker Spaces and new technologies into a century's old construct will make the difference? In fact, we argue, it will contribute to a widening achievement gap since only some students will have the time and invitation into those spaces. How will those students scheduled for academic intervention, for special services, or simply for extra time to learn and perform be scheduled into these opportunities? How will students who do not have access to technology at home, who are not confident risk-takers, who need extra encouragement, who are often absent, who fall behind...how will those students be given access to these opportunities? Yet, ironically, the immediate feedback, the social nature of the learning, and the visible results of their work may be just what they need to become more motivated learners.
Our continuing look into schools that have considered and entered shifting into a design that makes room for opportunities like these reveals constraining limitations as well as breakthroughs. However, what remains clear is that unless school and district leadership take a system-wide view of each change to re-design the possibilities within the system as a whole, with the intent of including all students, a widening achievement gap will result. Why is that so?
Educators have learned a great deal about teaching and learning in the past 25 years. The world in which our students are living and growing is far different from the world that existed when the current school design was formed. Delivering information, practicing with the information received, and performing the learning on a paper-based assessment is an old model. Now we acknowledge that much of what is known is could change. So what we need to teach are the basics of problem solving, fact checking, synthesie, innovation, collaboration, and communication. The skills needed for these to be developed are far more robust and comprehensive than those for receiving, practicing, and performing on paper. These skills require instructional time in a different way than our current measure of minutes and credits allow. And these skills require a new model for curriculum delivery.
A recent Time Magazine article (April 18, 2016 pp. 47-51) about "The NEW College Application" added to our thinking. Author Eliza Gray reports that the current system has resulted in applications that reveal students as perfect and similar, with loads of AP classes and high test scores. She reports that one result is the overlooking of disadvantaged applicants. The article goes on to say that schools are now looking to find students who are "authentic" rather than "ideal". To that end, a coalition of universities and private colleges (Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success) is set to "launch a set of free online tools designed to help lower-income students plan for college earlier and narrow the gap with their more privileged peers" (p. 48). They are planning to include a "virtual locker" that will begin in 9th grade. But, as K-12 educators, we know the road to college begins before kindergarten, and that from the time students enter our buildings, they move closer to or further away from college as their destination.
Families make a difference too. Their values, reading, study habits and resources, all contribute to the success of 5 year olds and every year thereafter. And now, the family's relationship with technology will make a difference as well. The gap between the have's and the have-nots exists and will grow.
These are all good ideas, technology, maker spaces, virtual lockers for college applications, STEM, interdisciplinary and problem/project based learning but our design must become more flexible in order for them to succeed. Each time an idea is touted from away, written about, and encouraged educators have an opportunity to give voice to what truly is required in order to give life to these opportunities.
Secretary King's Call
The Secretary of Education continues to call for adding technology and Maker spaces to be included in schools. We have an opportunity to give voice to our answer, "We welcome these new learning opportunities but acknowledge the need for a different design for schools in order to guarantee equal access and opportunity for all students to excel. Help us remove the barriers to the shift from 20th to 21st century school design and we are with you."
Our Leadership's Voice Can Make the Difference
If those with platforms and large audiences publically encourage the use of these new technologies and we do not answer with informed responses, achievement gaps in the K-12 setting and in the applicants for colleges will grow. We need to create a system that makes room for all of this and that allows for an intelligent letting go of what we no longer need. Standards can be reset, and the routes to meeting those standards can be decided on a local level. But we must stop trying to add another great innovation into our old structure. Steps in that direction require a response when officials make statements encouraging them. Yes, maker spaces and other technologies offer students unparalleled opportunities with experiences that otherwise could not occur. But we must be wise and vocal about what is needed in order for them to reach the lives of ALL students.
Ed Week articles on the Maker Movement:
Illustration by Marek Uliaz courtesy of 123rf