Recently, while reading Alfie Kohn’s new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, I stumbled upon a phrase by progressive American educator John Dewey: a child’s “center of gravity,” and I felt I finally found words to describe what it feels like when a roomful of young makers are “in the zone.”
In 1900, Dewey published The School and Society, a series of speeches and chapters. In the first chapter, “Schools and Social Progress,” Dewey shared his feelings about hands-on learning (or “manual education”) with his audience of elementary parents. He wrote:
[School in the past] may be summed up by stating that the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself. On that basis there is not much to be said about the life of the child. A good deal might be said about the studying of the child, but the school is not the place where the child lives.
Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized…
The ideal home would naturally have a workshop where the child could work out his constructive instincts. It would have a miniature laboratory in which his inquiries could be directed. The life of the child would extend out of doors to the garden, surrounding fields,and forests. He would have his excursions. His walks and talks, in which the larger world out of doors would open to him. (Dewey 1900, 35-36).
I take “center of gravity” to mean a child’s agency: the ability to make one’s own choices and focus on the ideas and visions that the child has chosen for herself.
When we do maker work with children and teens, there is always a certain amount of “let me show you” that transfers from mentor to child/teen as new materials and tools enter the space. It is easy for us — especially those of us with a background in teaching or programming events for children — to fall into a routine where each week, the adults are selecting the materials and projects and acting as tutors or directors of the experience. But we make a grave mistake if we simply bounce from new activity to new activity, because that keeps the center of gravity with the adults (or with the tools themselves, or perhaps, even, making novelty the central agent).
This year, especially with the students in our elementary makerspace, we’ve intentionally put out tools and materials that students can tinker with without adult intervention, like boxes of fabric, Snap Circuits, LEGO, or a “junk box” full of stuff kids can glue, stitch, assemble, and transform by themselves. We may have as many as ten options from which kids can choose in a single maker meetup, with about half of them being stuff kids can putter with independently. By doing so, we not only free up our mentors to introduce more challenging work with kids in small groups. We’re working on shifting the center of gravity — the sense of agency; the opportunity to envision one’s work and to take it from imagination to creation and transformation — over to the maker.
People, not tools, are the fulcrum of our maker work.
cross-posted to the MakerBridge blog