Making the Makers Sell

I recently had a conversation with a project collaborator of mine and we got to talking about why I think the Maker Movement isn’t connecting teachers and makers as best it could. Earlier that month, the Portland Mini Maker Faire had gone on, I’d connected with two old friends in North Carolina who were starting a maker-model business, and read the ever-prescient “Invent to Learn” by Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager – so I’d had quite a bit of “maker stuff” going on in my mind. However, I was also starting to observe that companies and nonprofits seeking to infuse the maker mindset into schools weren’t succeeding at the rate one might think they should be.

Reading Allison Arieff’s Medium post focused on the maker movement (Yes We Can, But Should We – read it here) made me start to think about this question, and I started to ask around in the Portland area. Here’s my hypothesis in a nutshell: the maker movement isn’t connecting with teachers because the movement is making incorrect assumptions about teachers.

Now, let me break some of those assumptions down by first looking at the facts:

  1. Teachers in today’s schools are underpaid and overworked across the board. Additionally, unions and antiquated policies protect teachers who aren’t very good but have tenure – or teachers who aren’t very willing to learn new techniques and ideas.
  2. Schools are underfunded and coerced to spend extra money on testing and test prep – and even athletics. (Not that I’m saying athletics are bad, but at the expense of learning they can be).
  3. Field trips and in-school extracurricular experiences are being cut back due to funding, over-“safety-vizing” and lack of support.
  4. Kids are showing signs of different challenges than they were 10 years ago (more A.D.D. and A.D.H.D., Autism, Aspberger’s, extra allergies) and these challenges can complicate plans.

The four facts outlined above are just a few that make up the current school ecosystem. However, I think they’re important in this discussion, so I kept it to just a few. Those facts, and others, weigh heavily on the kinds of teaching, activities, and learning that goes on in schools today. Additionally, they weigh heavily on the assumptions being made about teachers today. I think the maker movement is rushing too fast to stuff maker culture into schools, and here’s what I’ve observed:

  1. there’s an assumption that teachers know how to operate the many tools of the maker movement (3D printers, laser cutters, etc.)
  2. it’s assumed that teachers will enthusiastically “get it” and want to incorporate making into their curricula
  3. it’s assumed that school administrators will automatically understand the value making brings to their students and schools, and that they should fund it unequivocally

Let’s break those assumptions down even further:

Teachers today do not necessarily have the knowledge that practitioners of the maker movement have around operating the complex tools of the movement. There was no class (generally) in their MAT program teaching them how to use a 3D printer. There is no paid-for professional development for them to leave school and learn about the maker movement. There are few in-school example of how to operate a classroom that’s led by maker principles. Take those facts in hand, and consider that a teacher who doesn’t know how to use a certain tool may feel uncomfortable about teaching their students how to use and learn from that very tool – wouldn’t you? To solve this problem, the maker movement should think about ways to package experiences and tools with scaffolding for teachers – kits or lesson plans or grant-funded learning modules for the teachers. This will empower teachers to use making more “profitably” for learning in schools.

With the high-competition and focus on testing in schools today, the value of making isn’t necessarily obvious. If you ran into a random teacher and asked him or her to explain why bringing a 3D printer into a science class would help students, they may stumble a bit. That’s because the value is intrinsic, but not obvious. For now, we can say that the one “item” of value of bringing a 3D printer into a science class is that students may be able to make a replica of the cells they are studying, thus bringing to life a model that they can touch, feel, and observe more intensely than in a textbook. Thus, they are more likely to understand the parts of the cell and the function of each part – thus showing better application skills and later better test scores. This example illustrates the process we should go through to explain the value of the maker movement: We need to break each piece down and create a timeline of sorts to get from “making” to “end point value.”

Knowing the end point value is almost entirely what interests school administration. School administrators think about 3rd grade reading levels and the connection with future jail time. They think about high school graduation rates and college acceptance. They think about how the money the district gives them can best be spent to ensure that the most students get decent training and get pushed on to the next grade. Not to dehumanize administrators, but they have a job that requires them to think about the higher level problems of education. That said, selling the maker movement to an administrator isn’t easy. How do justify spending $10,000 to outfit a room (perhaps one that used to house shop classes, long since taken away) for a “maker lab”? A+B does not always equal C; the value an administrator is looking for is different than that which a teacher is looking for. The maker movement needs to find ways to sell the value not only to teachers, but also to administrators: use the very same formula we made above, but change the ingredients. For example, the value of bringing a 3D printer into the classroom can be shortened like this: more learning, higher test scores, better rates of moving onto the next grade, better graduation rates, better college acceptance rates. Appeal to the administrator’s love of long term goals.

In short, the maker movement doesn’t know how to sell. The maker movement isn’t paying attention to the facts of the school ecosystem and the challenges it faces – and it’s making assumptions that don’t support growth. If those of us who believe in the power of making to enhance learning and life don’t learn how to sell that to those entrusted with our children’s schooling, the movement will stumble. We must learn how to appeal to each level of the system and offer solutions that work for each player in the game.

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Posted by Kristen Gallagher

Kristen Gallagher

Photograph by Hailey King

Kristen Gallagher is the founder and CEO of Edify, a learning strategy partner that develops learning strategies and employee onboarding programs for high-growth technical organizations. Kristen has architected and delivered onboarding programs for companies bringing on just one person a quarter to 100+ people a quarter, in just one office and 13+ global offices. Her range of expertise in the science of adult learning, business strategy, knowledge management, and organizational development means that Kristen architects programs that are designed to evolve and scale with rapid changes.

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