Understanding the makerspace movement

What the heck is a ‘makerspace’?

Late last year I became intrigued by the idea of putting a makerspace into my elementary school library. I’d been hearing about the maker movement over the last few years, but  last June during some professional development I attended an informal talk on the subject and at the end of the day I went home with a nagging desire to somehow get involved with this whole ‘makerspace’ thing.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time researching makerspaces – I wanted to know exactly what a makerspace was (or was supposed to be). The results of my research were both tantalizing and infuriating – it seemed like there was no concrete definition out there that I could point to and say “This is what a makerspace is!”

Clearly a makerspace is about making stuff. That part seems obvious. But what else is a makerspace about? I continued my research I started looking for similarities and common features between makerspace programs. What I found was an incredible array of diversity….

The findings:

It seems that some makerspaces happen in churches and community centers, while others makerspaces are private establishments or happen in colleges, universities, public libraries and even in high schools.

Some makerspaces use textiles while others use circuits. Some are arts and crafts oriented while others have an emphasis on technology. Some promote computer programming while others engage in sewing and soldering…

This seemingly wide open nature and lack of clear focus left me feeling a little like this:

student created statue made in a makerspace
(Incidentally, this statue was made in a makerspace by students at Casa Grande High School)

It was only when I stepped away from my computer screen and lay down on the couch to ponder things that I realized I was thinking about makerspaces in the wrong way.

Common characteristics of a makerspace:

A markerspace isn’t about the specific tools, activities, layout or physical location. A makerspace is about providing a place where people:

  • imagine
  • choose
  • plan
  • create
  • collaborate
  • risk take
  • learn new skills
  • problem solve
  • revise
  • present

… and experience the intense feeling of personal satisfaction that is derived from being the creator of something that is truly awesome.

After all, there is something deeply satisfying in the act of making. That’s why so many of us have hobbies. It’s why so many of us like to tinker. And the thing with hobbies is that you have a meaningful say in what you make and how you make it. That’s why hobbies are so enjoyable!

I like to joke at parent teacher interviews that school is in large part made up of an army of conscripts, not volunteers… and it’s true! Very few students have a choice in whether or not they come to school each day. And when they do step into our classrooms, too often from the students’ perspective, they have no stake in what they are learning, how they learn it, or why they should be learning it in the first place!

And yet, over my 12 years of teaching I can recall each of the lessons and units that I’ve taught where I had incredible buy in from students, where we experienced deep learning and even years later former students will stop me and say: “Hey Mr. C, do you remember when we… That was incredible!” And the truth is, the students are right. Those were great lessons – they were incredible moments. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that almost all of those memorable lessons had some key things in common.

Common traits in awesome learning

These lessons:

  • were highly engaging
  • had a purpose that was meaningful to the students
  • often centered on real world/authentic tasks
  • allowed for a large degree of student choice
  • were hands on
  • involved independent exploration and problem solving
  • didn’t feel overly teacher controlled – students had a lot of say in how things unfolded
  • were audacious – we dared to dream big!
  • had a sense of wonder

… and more often than not these lessons were just plain fun!

So what should we take from this?

For me, the essence of a makerspace is about creating an opportunity for kids to create and explore around topics that are meaningful to them. It’s a chance for kids to be creative, to probe deeply, to collaborate, problems solve and share. It’s a place to celebrate the wonder of learning and experience the deep satisfaction from setting bold personal goals, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and producing something truly awesome!



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