Making Some STEAM: Learning by Making, Not Testing

photo credit: thaumazin via photopin cc
photo credit: thaumazin via photopin cc

In my last blog post, I discussed the classroom as makerspace. The maker movement takes its cue directly from John Dewey’s theory of learning by doing:

The school must represent present life–life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.

While Dewey is still a common read for students of education, many of today’s classrooms are a far cry from Dewey’s vision. As the publisher of Make magazine, Dale Dougherty, points out: “Schools seem to have forgotten that students learn best when they are engaged; in fact, the biggest problem in schools is boredom. Students sit passively, expected to absorb all the content that is thrown at them without much context. The context that’s missing is the real world.” One of the driving forces behind this contextless content vacuum is the centralization and standardization of education, which developed in tandem with the Industrial Revolution. As a result, according to Steve Wheeler, today’s schools specialize in what he terms a “manufactured education:”synchronization of behavior, compartmentalization of content and skills, and centralization of power and knowledge (in the form of the teacher). This kind of education mirrors the processes inherent in the factory model and is, Wheeler contends, still viewed as “the most efficient, cost-effective way to train the workforce for the future.” One example that Sir Ken Robinson provides of how the factory model shaped our education practices is that of educating children in batches by age (or, as Robinson terms it, “date of manufacture”). Both Wheeler and Robinson argue that we should be educating children based on their abilities and not their date of birth.

Another component of education born out of the industrial age is standardization. Factory workers needed to be docile and subservient to their superiors in order to maintain both efficiency and quality standards (out-of-the-box thinkers need not have applied). To this end, the classroom was modeled upon military standards of orderliness, routine, and conformity. In “Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy,” Henry A. Giroux contends that “pedagogy is now subordinated to the narrow regime of teaching to the test coupled with an often harsh system of disciplinary control, both of which mutually reinforce each other. . . . Too many classrooms at all levels of schooling now resemble a ‘dead zone,’ where any vestige of critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination quickly migrate to sites outside of the school.” Such ways of thinking not only threaten the order and routine but are also hard to quantify and standardize. Our current assessment models mirror this need for military-like precision, with everything reduced to one correct answer (Dougherty). In this system, Dougherty points out, “the test has become a substitute for direct experience,” and, as a result, “many kids have come to see school as isolated and artificial, disconnected from the community.” In other words, the complete opposite of Dewey’s theory of what education should be.

The major problem with this focus on a factory model of education–aside from the student boredom and apathy that it engenders–is that we are no longer an industrial society. Instead, we have transitioned into what Alvin Toffler describes as the third wave of civilization; this civilization has written “a new code of behavior for us and carries us beyond standardization, synchonisation and centralization, beyond the concentration of energy, money and power.” This civilization values the imagination and innovative thinking of Steve Jobs over the docile, routinized behavior of the factory worker. But most classroom environments do not reflect these values and deny students the kind of education advocated by Paulo Freire, who “rejected regimes of educational degradation organized around the demands of market, instrumentalized knowledge and the priority of training over the pursuit of imagination, critical thinking and the teaching of freedom and social responsibility” (Giroux). But imagination, critical thinking, and the ability to lead a self-managed life are the very abilities necessary for success and active participation in the new civilization.

The current need to measure and standardize narrows our focus on what teachers and students can do in the classroom and what qualifies as “learning.” Learning must be something we can see and measure and weigh and scale and stamp with a degree of correctness. But critical thinking and imagination are not easily quantified and are therefore suspect and resisted. This is where the maker movement can be essential to bridging the gap between the need to assess and the need to reinvigorate the kinds of thinking and doing we ask of our students. As Dougherty argues, “‘Making creates evidence of learning.’ The thing you make . . . is evidence that you did something, and there is also an entire process behind making that can be talked about and shared with others.” These processes and the thinking behind them are the very things that I am now trying to focus my students on by integrating such practices as the research slam, challenge-based learning, and the kinds of in-class maker activities discussed in my last post. And the real beauty of challenging students to make something is that doing so requires more than just one discipline or one way of thinking about the world. Rather than compartmentalizing learning and abilities, making allows students to use any and every discipline that will allow them to create something that reflects their thinking and, more often than not, requires them to combine those disciplines in a critical way. It can be a challenge for students who have been inculcated in the standardized, compartmentalized factory model of learning for twelve or more years, but the challenge and struggle is, I have found, well worth the end result.

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