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On The Lesson Plan: Make Stuff. Fail. Learn While You're At It

A young maker controls a robot on the sidewalk at the 2014 World Maker Faire in Queens, NY.
LA Johnson/NPR
A young maker controls a robot on the sidewalk at the 2014 World Maker Faire in Queens, NY.

We've always been a hands-on, DIY kind of nation. Ben Franklin didn't just invent the lightning rod. His creations include bifocals, swim fins, the catheter, innovative stoves and more.

Franklin, who was largely self-taught, may have been a genius, but he wasn't really an outlier when it comes to American making and tinkering.

The personal computing revolution and ethos of disruptive innovation of Silicon Valley grew, in part, out of the tinkerings of the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded in a garage in Menlo Park, Calif., in the mid-1970s.


Members — including guys named Jobs and Wozniak — started making and inventing things they couldn't buy.

So it's no surprise that the Maker Movement today is thriving in communities and some schools across America. Making is available to ordinary people who aren't tied to big companies, big defense labs or research universities.

The maker philosophy echoes old ideas espoused by Dewey, Montessori, and even ancient Greek philosophers, as we pointed out recently.

I sat down with Dale Dougherty, one of the founding fathers of the Maker Movement, to talk about his new book Free to Make: How The Maker Movement Is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds. Dougherty is founder of Make: magazine and the Maker Faire. Here's our conversation.

These maker spaces are often outside of classrooms, but are they serving an important educational function in your view?


Yeah I think the Maker Movement is rediscovering learning by doing, which is John Dewey's phrase from 100 years ago. We are rediscovering Montessori and a lot of the practices that they pioneered that have been forgotten or at least put aside. A maker space is a place which can be in a school, but it doesn't look like a classroom. It can be in a library. It can be out in the community. It has tools and materials. It's a place where you get to make things based on your interest and based on what you're learning to do.

Why do you think ideas about learning by doing have struggled to become mainstream educationally? You're talking about old concepts with Dewey and Montessori. Plato and Aristotle. And in the American context, Emerson, on the value of experience and self-reliance.

Well, I think it's not necessarily an efficient way to learn. We get, in a sense, trial by error. Learn from experience is something that takes time and patience. It's very individualized. If your goal is to have standardized approaches to learning, where everybody learns the same thing at the same time in the same way, then learning by doing doesn't really fit that mold anymore. It's not the world of textbooks. It's not the world of testing.

We've doubled down as a country on all of that. I don't think we've found it to be effective learning. Learn by doing may not be efficient, but it is effective. I think we have to readdress that balance again.

Project-based learning has grown in popularity with teachers and administrators. You make an important distinction in the book that project-based learning isn't making. Talk about that.

We do talk about projects in making. There's a really good connection. What I'm trying to argue for is whether the project is in a sense defined and developed by the student or whether it's assigned by a teacher. We'll all get the kids to build a small boat. We are all going to learn about X, Y, and Z. That tends to be one form of project-based learning.

I really believe the core idea of making is to have an idea within your head — or you just borrow it from someone — and begin to develop it and iterate it and improve it. Then, realize that idea somehow. That thing that you make is valuable to you and you can share it with others. I'm interested in how these things are expressions of that person, their ideas, and their interactions with the world.

In some ways, a lot of forms of making in school trivialize making. The thing that you make has no value to you. Once you are done demonstrating whatever concept was in the textbook, you throw away the pipe cleaners, the straws, the cardboard tubes.

You're making the case that the making should be student-directed and student-led?

Yes. Otherwise it's boring. It doesn't have the motivation of the student. I'm not saying that students should not learn concepts or not learn skills. They do. But to really harness their motivation is to build upon their interest. It's to let them be in control and to drive the car, in a sense.

How might teachers better help get students to drive the car?

I think you're trying to create a supportive, creative environment for students to do this work. A very social environment, where they are learning from each other. When they have a problem, it isn't the teacher necessarily coming in to solve it. They are responsible for working through that problem. It might be they have to talk to other students in the class to help get an answer.

The teacher more as coach-observer?

Right. Sometimes, to people, it sounds like this is a diminished role for teachers. I think it's a heightened role. You're creating this environment, like a maker space. You have 20 kids doing different things. You are watching them and really it's the human behaviors you're looking at. Are they engaged? Are they developing and iterating over their project? Are they stumbling? Do they need something that they don't have? Can you help them be aware of where they are?

My belief is that the goal of making is not to get every kid to be hands-on, but it enables us to be good learners. It's not the knowledge that is valuable, it's the practice of learning new things and understanding how things work. These are processes. The process that you are developing so that you are able, over time, to tackle more interesting problems, more challenging problems. Problems that require many people instead of one person. Many skills instead of one.

If you keep it free form and student-led, do you believe it can still be tied to curriculum and an educational plan?

Yes. I think a maker space is more like a library in that there are multiple subjects and multiple things that you can learn. ... What seems to be missing in school is how do these subjects integrate? How do they fit together in any meaningful way? Rather than saying, 'This is science, over here is history,' I see schools taking this idea of projects and looking at: How do they support children in a higher level learning?

I feel like this is a shift away from subject matter-based curriculum to more experiential curriculum or learning. It's pretty early in these days, but I think it's shifting around not what kids learn but how they learn.

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