The new role of the school

There is almost no way to achieve any level of success in any field without the ability to solve problems, and computational thinking provides a methodology for developing such skills.

Initiatives such as Mathematics by Inquiry and the Coding Across The Curriculum program emphasise practical learning methodologies aimed at assisting young learners in developing fundamental making, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

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.

“In school, you're taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you're given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
— Tom Bodett

What is the role of the conventional school in this Maker Revolution as I have outlined it in this book?

It is critical. The bulk of our children attend conventional schools, and this will not change any time soon. And I don’t think that should change. Our societies will find it hard to function at all without schools. In particular the public schooling system is one of the core responsibilities of modern, organised states.

The conventional schooling system has to be our focus for bringing about a transformation. This is the transformation that I call “Education Revolution”. A transformation that takes a system designed in the 18th century and modernises it for the 21st century. The system after which this transformation should be modelled is Maker Education.

A study done by Deloitte, found that (1):

  • Over 70 Kickstarter-funded makers, who collectively received 23 million dollars in pledges from over 138,000 individuals, were present at the 2014 Bay Area Maker Faire
  • Shapeways announced over 13,500 online storefronts selling 3D designs in 2013
  • ETSY reported $1.35B in total merchandise sales in 2013 from over a million active shops
  • Rethink Robotics launched a safe, capable, intelligent and affordable industrial robot – Baxter – for $25,000
  • Foxconn deployed 20,000 robots as part of its plan to have over a million robots in its factories over the next few years

The growth in the size of the markets for companies like Kickstarter, ETSY and Shapeways derive directly from individual maker activity. There is nothing fundamental stopping any school student, or any individual at all, from directly participating in this economic activity right now. You need an idea, a talent in communicating it, and you are ready to join global markets that have never existed before.

Rethink’s new industrial robots means that sooner than what many think is the case, makers will be able to create an automated production line in your home or garage. At this level of automation, individuals and small companies can be competitive in terms of cost of doing business against businesses operating at much larger scales, at least for many niche products.

The way by which student performance is evaluated is also changing. The traditional exam and transcript system is being supplemented or even replaced by portfolios. MIT now evaluates students’ portfolios as part of their evaluation and admission process (2). If you want to study engineering at MIT, you better start making! In Australia, Curtin University has also started to consider student portfolios with evidence of academic achievements, qualifications and ability for select courses instead of formal exams (3). It seems that this is just the beginning of a sustained trend to rethink how students may gain access to higher education. A coalition of 80 prestigious Universities and Colleges was set to do just that (4).

The recognition that Making is a fundamental component for the prosperity of a society is becoming more common. President Barack Obama, through his 2012 Maker Initiative, exemplified the importance of the Maker Movement, community and philosophy as a cornerstone for social growth and prosperity in the 21st century (5).

Schools play a fundamental role in all of this since that is where the majority of the Maker Education and making activity has to take place. Schools are already adjusting to this call with a lot of energy. The call for change has been received with enthusiasm. Teachers and policy makers show that they understand the importance of change through their actions. Where other areas of public discourse, like tax reform, climate change policies and the health system, seem to be caught up in endless debate for even agreeing about the problem, in Education there seems to be a constructive consensus.

In Australia, the Federal Department of Education and Training has restored a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in an effort to better prepare students for an uncertain economy and society of the future (6). Initiatives such as Mathematics by Inquiry and the Coding Across The Curriculum programme emphasise practical learning methodologies that are geared towards helping young learners acquire fundamental making and critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The impetus for this is supported by the statistics. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the demand for STEM related jobs is increasing at about 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in recent years (7). The initiatives of the Australian federal government are having a significant effect how policies are translated to educational initiatives in schools. In South Australia, for example, the STEM Works program was designed to provide 139 schools with modern facilities (8). Approximately 75,000 students that study in those schools now have access to these new facilities.

Students in Trinity Anglican College are now becoming familiar with modern robotics concepts by building and programming their own robots. They deal with technical problems on their own, create designs, keep notes, and prepare for taking part in RoboCup competitions (9). At Ravenswood School for Girls in Sydney, students learn programming by building their own robots and assigning various tasks to them, from following a black line on the floor to detecting obstacles and adjusting their course (10). At the Armidale School, children are using Scratch (11) and Snap (12) to learn computational thinking . In a complex world, computational thinking provides a useful approach to problem solving that draws on concepts from computer science . There is virtually no way to achieve any level of success in any field without a capability to problem solving, and computational thinking provides a methodology for training for such skills (13).

According to the Department of Education and Child Development of South Australia, 75% of jobs in the next 10 years will need STEM skills. I believe that this is true for virtually every modern society that is forward looking and progressive. If schools can’t equip learners with these skills, what is at stake is the survival of that society as an entity. Without these skills, there will be stagnation, social disorder and eventual disintegration. In this sense, schools, and the education system, is as important as the military, the police, the medical system. Without one, a country cannot exist in an independent, cohesive entity over the long term.

So, what can schools do? In the absence of top-to-bottom guidance and support, schools have to embrace the principles of Maker Education to the limit of their ability and freedom to do so. Not every school can afford Lego Mindstorms, but every school can afford cardboard and masking tape.

As Adam Savage of the Mythbusters said in his MakerFair 2012 Keynote: “It doesn’t matter what you make, as long as you make something.”

Making is not so much about the the tools and the physical deliverables, but about the developing a scientific thinking process and a growth mindset. Schools must start with a change in the way they perceive themselves. From being places where education is delivered, to being places where makers meet. Teachers become facilitators in students’ learning journeys. Students learn from each other by making, and teachers provide mentorship and infrastructure. A history lesson, a geography lesson and a mathematics lesson can be turned into opportunities for making.

Instead of talking about the Parthenon, why not design one in Tinkercad and print it on a MakerBot? Maybe then, the students will begin to appreciate some of the challenges of Phidias, and become intimately familiar with this object of historical, cultural and artistic significance. Instead of talking about the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, why not create a timeline of its most important events, that includes dates, names of people, names of places, maps, photographs of artefacts, and anything else that the students think is important and display it on one of the walls of the school? Instead of describing geometry with a chalk and a blackboard, why not use it to program a robot to move in a circle or triangle, or play with geometry using Wolfram Alpha (14)?

Making in schools is possible immediately, with just the right mindset, and a few cheap and easy-to-find materials. The return on the investment will be beyond imagination!


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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