What exactly is a K-12 Makerspace?

Looking at schools and organizations that offer Makerspaces to students shows a wide range of spaces, tools, instruction and resources. While these spaces reflect the different priorities and culture of their institutions, they all have at their heart an educational philosophy of student-directed action, creativity and learning through exploration. Lately, we have been asking ourselves and also hearing questions like:

  • When does a school know it has, or wants, a Makerspace?

  • We have a great woodworking shop.  Does that count as a makerspace?

  • Our students learn to program Lego NXTs.  Is that a makerlab?

  • Should our school invest in a makerspace? Or is that just another new shiny thing that will pass?

[Photo “Librarium Opening with Family Activities” by Flickr user Tusla City Count Library

[Photo Librarium Opening with Family Activities by Flickr user Tusla City Count Library

 

Answering these questions is very much a part of the journey we are on together in our fellowship.  We are finding, not surprisingly, that discussion around these questions is more productive with some agreed upon terminology. To that end, we’ve organized this post around current buzzwords in an effort to reestablish the meaning and power behind those words.

A K-12 Makerspace: The confluence of two philosophies - Constructivism and Maker Culture - within the spatial and temporal location of a classroom schedule.

Constructivists: Theorists, like Piaget, who argue that the role of the teacher is to facilitate the experiences that enable the construction of knowledge.  Papert took this idea further in developing a theory of Constructionist Learning, wherein the experiences involve the making of tangible objects in the real world.  

Maker Culture: A participatory cultural movement, sharing a set of values that emphasize  informal, exploratory, iterative, collaborative, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by playfulness, fun and self-fulfillment. Dale Dougherty, one of the significant figures in the development of the Maker movement, has said “I want to see a culture where people have access to materials and tools that make them feel like they’re in control of their world.”

While the Maker Culture is evolving among adults, many museums and other out-of-school educators are seeking to utilize aspects of this culture to excite and engage children. So too are K-12 teachers, like ourselves, who have teach an organized curriculum within a Monday-Friday schedule.

 

So back to the original question “When do you know you have, or want, a K-12 Makerspace?”

The first question to ask is are you constructivist?  Do you and your colleagues reply “yes” with excitement and without hesitation?  Do you have a fondness for theorists like Bruner, Dewey, Piaget, Jonassen, Vygotsky, or Papert?  Do you often use phrases like “Experiential Education” or “Project Based Learning” or “Critical Pedagogy.”

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions you may want a Makerspace.

 

The next question to ask is to what extent do you support the maker culture in the classroom?  Do you empower students to creatively engage with the world in self-directed and self-fulfilling ways around personally and socially meaningful problems? Do you allow playful, iterative, exploration?  Do students have opportunities for community-organized, peer-led learning? Can learning be divergent with learners starting from and ending in different places.

If you answered, or want to answer, “yes” to any of these questions, then you have, or are in the process of building, a K-12 makerspace.

 

If, on the other hand, you cannot commit at this point to such a conceptual framework to guide some of your curricular decisions, then you probably want to get clarity on the role of the maker culture in the classroom before you ask yourself whether you should build a makerspace.

 

Maker tools: tools acquired and organized in a way that allows learners to creatively engage with constructivist experiences.  

Which tools you acquire, and how you organize them, is a response to the unique circumstances of your school, as well as the evolution of your collective thinking.  We hope to feature some examples in future posts.

 

To summarize then, a K-12 Makerspace is that conceptual space within a school’s collective thinking (possibly expressed within a classroom, building, curriculum, or schedule) where the values of the maker culture are supported and where constructivist experiences are intentionally facilitated.


As you can well imagine, a philosophical and financial commitment to a K-12 makerspace is only the first step. Interpreting and adapting the structures of informal out-of-school learning within the theoretical pedagogical foundations of formal education at a particular age-level is far from trivial.  What is the role of the teacher? What do learning objectives look like? What does assessment look like?  These are questions we discuss a lot, and which we hope to address in future posts.  

 

Do our definitions of a makerspace resonate with your own?  How would you expand or constrain them? Please share in "Comments."