What Happens When School Leaders Say Yes to Maker Learning
Late one afternoon, a fifth-grade teacher visited my office and plopped down in the chair in front of me. She explained that she had been thinking about trying to infuse some maker learning into her classroom but wasn’t sure where to start. “I have some students who are really creative. I just know they would design something amazing. I also have a few students who are pretty active. They really benefit from doing hands-on activities in class, but I don’t know how to incorporate making into my plans,” she shared.
This was a forward-thinking teacher who knew that making could benefit her students; she just needed some reassurance and a little direction. As an administrator, telling her that it’s okay to try something different was important. I also needed to make sure that a few things were evident in our conversation and convey the following to her:
- I value maker learning.
- I will support you, even if you fail.
- I appreciate your willingness to try something new.
The Challenge of Taking the First Step
The reality for many teachers and school leaders is that, although they recognize that learning in a makerspace can create new opportunities for students, they aren’t sure how to take the first step. As educators, when we went to college to study elementary education, library science, Spanish or music, our studies probably didn’t include anything on the maker movement, promoting creativity in the classroom or developing a makerspace in our schools. Now, as education is shifting, we aren’t necessarily prepared to embed maker activities into our classrooms or libraries. Although more and more resources are becoming available and we are building capacity for maker learning, it’s still new territory for many educators.
Because they are held accountable for the learning in the classroom, this new territory can create an uneasy feeling for teachers and librarians. Stepping outside the norm represents a challenge and even a risk for them. We need to communicate often that innovative practices are valued in our schools and that attempts to use new and different strategies to serve our students will be supported.
Some of the best teachers I know are the ones who think outside the box. They stretch their own thinking to consider the exciting possibilities each day. In turn, they also stretch the thinking of their students as they introduce new tools and materials in their makerspaces. They encourage students to engage in problem seeking and problem solving. These teachers provide authentic learning experiences that emphasize thinking as opposed to recall. They are teachers who think creatively and encourage their students to do the same.
What Happens When We Give Permission to Try Maker Learning?
When we as administrators encourage teachers to try new, innovative practices like making, we accomplish the following:
- Strengthen our relationships with our staff
- Help our staff to feel comfortable taking risks
- Show our staff that their instructional decisions will be supported
- Ensure positive outcomes for both students and educators
When teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions, they, in turn, take steps to empower their students to make decisions in the classroom. And when students and teachers begin to engage in making, you’ll see numerous positive benefits:
It unlocks the creative potential of students and teachers. The flexibility to use new materials and engage in open-ended making provides teachers with the ability to create innovative lessons, and students with the ability to use their imaginations.
Teachers and students can learn through their strengths. When we give permission to try something in the makerspace, each individual can build on strengths while also sharpening skills in other areas. Students can become experts in circuits, sewing or robotics — creative thinkers can design, and strategic thinkers can build. They can lead with their strengths and bring those abilities to new projects or collaborations. Teachers can also focus on their strengths in the makerspace, bringing their skills and maker talents to the classroom.
Teachers and students will appreciate and learn from failure. Maker learning includes tinkering and designing, which often leads to building and prototyping. When learners engage in the engineering design process, they work through multiple iterations of their design. They often fail fast, realizing that their intended plan didn’t work. Maker learning helps students and teachers not to see failure as a barrier to learning, but to appreciate it as a part of the learning process. Failure will be instructive, helping students and teachers learn and grow from their mistakes.
You will see total engagement from both students and teachers in creative, problem-solving work. You are not likely to see disengaged students when you enter a library makerspace or a classroom where making is happening. An almost immediate benefit of hands-on learning in the makerspace is the high engagement of the students. When students choose a maker project, they are invested in its success. The same is true for teachers. When they design maker lessons, they are fully engaged in the process of learning alongside their students.
The Time Is Now to Give Permission
During my conversation with the fifth-grade teacher, I shared a few ideas that I thought she’d be interested in: a new virtual reality app, an engineering tool and a great children’s book that supports making. We talked about different materials and even planned an upcoming visit to her classroom so that I could be an extra support for her and her students. But the most important part of our conversation wasn’t about the materials or curriculum connections — it was about giving her the permission to try.
Whether you’ve just started your school’s maker journey or you’re already integrating creating, building and making, be sure to thank your teachers for trying something new (saying thank you is a simple way to let educators know that we appreciate their efforts and want them to succeed). Support their steps into maker learning with resources, encouragement and permission — you’re bound to be amazed by the meaningful learning happening in your school!
Dr. Jacie Maslyk
A published author, Dr. Maslyk has written articles on the maker movement, STEAM education, instructional technology, leadership, and literacy. In 2015, she received the Frank S. Manchester Award for excellence in journalism. She is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom, as well as a chapter in the upcoming EduMatch Publishing book on makerspaces. Dr. Maslyk is currently writing a book on unlocking creativity in the classroom.