Can we afford to ignore Maker Education?

A core value of Maker-style education is learning by doing. In a Western or developed country, the average student will spend approximately eleven thousand hours in school. Less than 10% of that time is dedicated to teaching students how to think like a scientist or engineer.

I was given the opportunity to choose what I wanted to work on for my graduate project in my final year of university. I was able to experience the freedom I had craved since childhood - the freedom to experiment and create things that didn't work. What would life be like if the joy of making, as well as the sense of accomplishment and fulfilment it provides, were at the heart of our schooling years?

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“If we teach today’s children as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of their future”
— John Dewey

Consider what we know about Maker Education, what I have discussed in this book, and how it has affected teacher, student and parents lives. Is Maker-style Education really an alternative to conventional education, or at least a source of inspiration and know-how for reshaping conventional education?

Learning by making is a core value of Maker-style education. Does learning by making really work? Is this kind of learning too expensive since it requires all these tools and materials? Is it too risky to abandon a system that we are all used to, despite its weaknesses, and morph it into something new hoping that it will deliver the rewards many years or decades later?

According to OECD data from 2011, the average student in a school system of a western or developed country like Australia will spend around eleven thousand hours in school (1). This number is shared between elementary and lower secondary education. The OECD average is around eight thousand hours. The part of this time spent on science and mathematics is around 25%. In most parts of the world, almost none of this time is spent in learning-by-doing activities. The emphasis is in academic-style learning, rote learning in other words, that involves passive absorbing of facts by the learner. There is no information on how much of that time is spent on teaching students how to think as a scientist or engineer across all subjects, a core outcome of Maker Education, but an optimistic estimate would place that figure to less than 10%.

The schooling experience that most of us have is that despite all the time we spent at school, we were not prepared for life in a meaningful way. My own experience from school was that of a place where boredom triumphed. I did learn how to read and write, developed some basic social skills and created strong friendships. But how much of that was due to school and how much was due to background social dynamics and family is debatable. What is not debatable was that for me, the overall experience was overwhelmingly negative. In my school, none of my strongest curiosities were satisfied. I spent my hours trying to focus on what my teachers were saying just in case a random test was thrown in. I studied hard to please my parents and because it was the socially acceptable thing to do. I developed extreme patience, a very useful skill indeed, because I had to wait for school to finish, go home, do all my homework for the next day, until I could find a one-or-two-hour block in which I could devote myself to what I truly wanted to do: make model planes and ships, open up old and discarded machines to see what’s inside, read books on astronomy and science, and play with my Apple IIe. None of these were considered useful skills or important enough to allocate a core part of my day to them: they were all a child’s play.

Things became a lot worse in higher secondary school where 100% of the emphasis was on studying exactly the materials I needed in order to gain entry into a school of engineering. Engineering, electronics, machines was my passion, but while I was studying for these exams, a total of two or three years, I had to forget all about my passion. I had to dig into my prescribed books, memorise exercises, repeat the same study countless times until everything was perfect. Entering university was a great achievement, but it didn’t feel like that to me. Everyone else seemed happy. Teachers, parents, friends were all congratulating me for my hard work and success in these exams. I felt that in order to achieve something that should have made me happy, I had to loose something that actually did make me happy.

But I still had hope. Surely, now that I was in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, I would be able to rekindle my old childhood passion. Just like in those days, years ago, I expected to be able to start making things again. But that just didn’t happen. My experience at University, like that for so many of us, was that it was a continuation of school. I was also surprised to find that many of my colleagues did not share a passion for engineering, for electronics, or for making. They spent years of their lives studying to gain entry to the School of Engineering, because of the excellent job prospects that such degree brought along. Engineers are always in demand. Then again, maybe I am wrong; maybe they did have a passion for making and engineering, but it was taken out of them in school.

During my university years at the School of Engineering, the opportunities for tinkering were rare. The first few years, when minds are fresh and excited, were consumed in learning various academic subjects. I took every lab I could just to experience the feeling of doing something practical again, the feeling of making something. However the vast majority of my time was spent in the library or working on assignments at home. Learning was a series of lectures, study and exam cycles. Very conventional.

The years of drought in university culminated in my final semester, where for perhaps the first time in years I had been given a choice: what would I like to work on for my graduate project! I was finally able to get a taste of the freedom that I had craved for since childhood, to spend hours, days and weeks exploring a technology of my choice, making things that don't work, learning from them, showing others my work. The fact that eventually I presented this work to my professors and received a grade does not matter. These last six months in my career as an undergraduate engineering student were the best because I was finally making something that excited me.

Isn’t this the experience, in varying degrees, that most of us had of their schooling days (2)? Albert Einstein famously said that “creativity is simply intelligence having fun”. Are you having fun? Are your children having fun? Are your students having fun? Are the learners under your care and jurisdiction having fun? Are they creative? Or has their creativity been killed by their school, as Sir Ken Robinson has suggested?

The eleven thousand hours, once you add other school-related, forced activities, easily become fifteen thousand. Add higher secondary and then university education, and we are looking at almost thirty thousand hours spent in traditional education for the average person in a western developed country.

And we have to ask ourselves: What are the dividends that we as people and collectively as a society have received for all this work by students, teachers, parents and everyone involved? How much of that time should really be devoted to learning basic literacy, like language and arithmetic, and how much should be devoted to developing children as individuals so that they have the best chance of growing into active, confident and creative individuals, capable of contributing their minds and skills to creating a better world?

Years after my graduation from the School of Engineering it occurred to me that perhaps I should have dropped out as soon as I realise that my learner where not being met. Or perhaps I could have searched for alternatives. But I can only say that now, with the benefit of hind sight, and decades worth of experience as an educator and life long learner. Without this knowledge, making decisions like that contain too much risk for most young people to even consider. Like so many other young people, I did not have the mindset, the maturity or the self-confidence to do so. Perhaps more important, I had the social pressure to get through it, get my degree and move on with life. I know now that I should have looked for a way to better align my drive for learning and making, of learning through making and how I spend my time, day to day.

I can imagine this conversation: “How can you even contemplate dropping out, how can you do this to your parents? To your teachers? All their sacrifice, all the things they have done for you will be for nothing”.

But then, what about the children? Is our system, our mindset, our way of education asking our children to sacrifice their passions, or their search for their passions, in exchange for compliance with a system designed in the 18th century with mass production factories and urbanisation in mind?

Children are naturally wired to be learners; they learn through play, through doing. When the system created to help them learn takes away the most important pathways of learning, play, experimentation, curiosity and their ability to pursuit them, we are removing a large part of their capacity to learn and be creative. Is there any wonder then why children that are having learning difficulties at school feel disconnected, disappointed, unfulfilled? Is there any wonder why so many children get in trouble and stay in trouble for long periods of their lives, maybe forever, with the severe consequences to themselves, their families and friends, and society?

Can you imagine how our lives could be better, and our societies, and world be a better place if the bulk of our schooling was influenced by the principles of Maker-style education? How can we, as educators, parents, and policy makers, respond better to the knowns and unknowns of life in the 21st century?

What would life be like if the joy of making and the sense of achievement and fulfilment that it brings was at the core of our schooling years?


Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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