Education reporter Annie Murphy Paul has written for School Library Journal’s maker issue on the intertwining of making and learning. It’s worth reading to get a reality check on what past research informs us. If we are to bring making into the formal school day in an era of strict accountability, this question rises in prominence: “If it’s in school, where kids should be learning, what is tinkering getting us?” This question is also bubbling up in some high-level conversations I’ve had lately. After all, on a purely pragmatic level, what incentive is there to funding tinkering for the sake of tinkering?
There’s no doubt that students find making to be a creative and engaging activity. But as they tinker, design, and invent, are they actually learning anything?
Making is too young a phenomenon to have generated a broad research base to answer this question. The literature that does exist comes from enthusiastic champions of making, rather than disinterested investigators. But there are two well-established lines of research … that can inform how we understand making and help us ensure that making leads to learning…
I would add that there are probably other areas of past research that we can draw on: arts education, creativity thinking, and self-paced learning, among them.
[C]ognitive load theorists warn that activities that are “self-guided” or “minimally guided” … may not lead to effective learning … Novices are, by definition, not yet knowledgeable enough to make smart choices about which avenues to pursue and which to ignore. Beginners … may also develop new misunderstandings along the way. In all, self-directed maker activities may have students expending a lot of time and effort—and scarce cognitive resources—on activities that don’t help them learn.
Second, cognitive load researchers caution that learning and creating are distinct undertakings, each of which competes with the other for limited mental reserves … Absorbing and thinking about new knowledge imposes a significant cognitive burden… When students are asked to do both at once, they tend to focus on meeting the goal, leaving precious few cognitive resources for the reflection that leads to lasting learning. Student makers may produce a handsome model airplane having no idea what makes it fly. The best way to ensure learning, these researchers maintain, is to provide direct instruction: clear, straightforward explanation, offered before any making has begun …
With three years of maker mentoring under my belt, this makes sense to me, especially when working with students with low threshholds for frustration. With those students, I find myself mentally running through tasks to identify when a demonstration or a few minutes of direct instruction gets them over humps and back on firmer ground. An additional aspect of direct instruction that Paul doesn’t outline here but that bears mentioning is that some maker activities can be unsafe for young makers without direct instruction and supervision. Learning to solder on one’s own may sound like an awesome opportunity for student initiative and agency, but soldering irons operate at extreme heat, so mentor guidance helps ensure safety. In my book, that’s a fair trade-off: I’m willing to sacrifice some temporary agency for safety.
I would also add that teaching building blocks via mini-lessons helps to build the skillset and confidence for individual making. It’s OK, in my book, to demonstrate how a Squishy Circuit works (temporarily adult-driven) if, by in the long run, kids have the basic understanding that will let them go off-roading without us.
A second line of evidence is called productive failure. This research has mostly been carried out by Manu Kapur, a professor at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and has principally concerned mathematical problem-solving … Kapur gives students a difficult problem without any explanation at all. Working in teams, the students are tasked with devising as many potential solutions as possible. Typically, such students do not arrive at the textbook or “canonical” solution—but instead generate more inventive approaches. Only then does Kapur step in and offer direct instruction on the best way to solve the problem.
I believe this approach is also found in Japanese lesson study.
Kapur has found that presenting problems in this seemingly backwards order helps those students learn more deeply and flexibly than subjects who receive direct instruction … the teams that generated the greatest number of suboptimal solutions—or failed—learned the most from the exercise …
This happens for three reasons, Kapur theorizes. One: Students who do not receive teacher instruction at the outset are forced to rely on their previous knowledge … Two: Because the learners are not given the solution to the problem right away, they are forced to grapple with the deep structure of the problem—an experience that allows them to understand the solution at a more fundamental level when they do finally receive the answer. And three: Learners pay especially close attention when the instructor reveals the correct solution, because they have now thought deeply about the problem but have failed themselves to come up with the correct solution. They’re eager to find out what it might be, and this eagerness makes it more likely that they’ll remember it going forward …
[T]hese two bodies of evidence actually complement each other. Some tasks, like those concerning basic knowledge or skills, are better suited to direct instruction. It may be better to provide explicit instruction on how to operate a 3-D printer, for example, than to have students figure out the directions on their own.
Ha – there’s also a pragmatic thought that comes to mind here … some maker equipment is hardy and can be pushed to its limits again and again without harm. LEGOs, Tinkertoys, and fabric can be endlessly manipulated, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled without falling apart. But … 3D printers have a magical appeal, but some are still finicky in how they get used. Let one kid “just guess” at its function, and you could end up with a broken printer that precludes anyone else from using it.
We should tell student makers exactly how to perform straightforward tasks, so that they can devote cognitive resources to more complex operations. Meanwhile, tasks that themselves demand deeper conceptual understanding are likely to benefit from a productive-failure approach …
Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices … within a framework that supports accurate and effective learning … The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement:
Yes! So glad to see apprenticeship pop up in the maker conversation.
students learn to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as their skills and confidence grow … they have models to inspect and emulate—again, especially early on, when the mental demands of learning are high…
What do you think?