Scaffolding Maker Education Learning Experiences

I often read via social media about the importance of student centered, student-driven instruction. I wholeheartedly agree. My blog post is called User-Generated Education for a reason. I also believe one of the roles of an educator, in the context of maker education, is to scaffold learning experiences so the end result is students becoming self-determined learning.

Thinking about the importance of learner autonomy and independence reminded me of my early career when I did counseling work with at-risk youth in wilderness settings, taking them on 2 to 3 week wilderness trips. We did what was called Huddle-Up Circles. Huddle-ups were called by the instructors and/or the youth participants any time a concern or problem arose. Everyone stopped what they were doing to gather in a circle to discuss the problem and generate solutions. Needless to say, the instructors were the ones who most often called and facilitated the huddle-ups at beginning of our trips.  Our goal, as instructors and counselors, was to have the young people run the huddle-ups themselves. We knew we were successful when we asked to step out of the huddle-ups by the young people because they wanted to run their own huddle-ups. During these times, we would stand outside of the huddle-up circles and silently observe their processes, only stepping in upon their request. The results not only included the development of skills and strategies for their own social-emotional development, but their success with their earned independence boosted their self-esteems.

This is how I approach facilitating maker education activities. Direct instruction is provided through structured and prescribed activities with the goal of learners then being able to eventually go into self-determined directions. There has been some criticism leveraged against out-of-the-box maker education kits, programmable robots, and step-by-step maker activities. My contention is that learners often don’t know what they don’t know; and that giving them the basic skills frees them to then use their creativity and innovation to take these tools into self-determined directions.

In response, I created and proposed Stages of Maker Education:

makeredmodel1

In my robotics and coding classes, I use Ozobot, Spheros, Dash and Dot, microbits, Scratch, to name of few. I use a full spectrum of activities starting with direct instruction associated with the Copying stage, then assisting learners to move through the Advance, Modify, and Embellish stages by providing them with examples and resources, and finally, encouraging them to move into the Create stage. Sometimes I show them examples of possibilities for the Create stage. I show such examples to spark and ignite their creative juices. Because almost all of my learners have not had the freedom to create, these examples help to get them motivated and going. Here some are examples of two ends of the spectrum – Prescribed/Copy and Create – of some of these robotic and coding activities to show how learning basic skills can lead to creative activities:

My ultimate goal is to have students drive their own learning and I want to help them learn skills to be successful in their self-determined learning.

What Learners Want

I teach gifted students, grades 2 through 6, part time at two Title 1 schools. I pull them out of their regular classes for 3 hours of gifted programming each week. Sadly, but predictably, even though they are classified as gifted, they lack some basic skills in language arts and math (ones like basic grammar and math that they should have by this time in their educational timeline). This makes me question lots of things:

  • Is this because of a form of experiences-deficit during their early years? Their parents often lack the funds and time (working several jobs) to take their children to after school classes, visits to local museums and cultural events, and/or go on out-of-city and out-of-state trips.
  • Is it due to a lack of academic rigor and vigor in their classrooms? Schools with a higher number of students living in poverty tend to do more grill and drill in an effort to raise their test scores.  My personal belief is that grill and drill does not translate into academic vigor and rigor.
  • Do the teachers have lower expectations for the students given their backgrounds?
  • Do their parents have different expectations for their children in terms of academic achievement and college attendance?

I witnessed a conversation between my students yesterday that I found surprising and further had me wondering about the questions I posed above. In one of my schools, where I serve a class of 4th though 6th graders, I have three students from one of the 5th grades and another three students from the other 5th grade. One of the 5th grades has a teacher who is friendly with the students and does fun things in class with the students like showing them clips from major sports events. The other 5th grade class has a very strict teacher. She has a strict and rigorous class schedule and demands that the students work hard in her class. Personally, I like him better. He is friendly to me and often checks in with me about how the students are doing. She is not friendly with me, never checks in with me. I assumed that the students would also like him better and rave about him as a teacher. Yesterday, the kids started talking about the two teachers. One of the 6th grade boys, who had the nice guy teacher last year, had this to say, “I had Mr. Nice Guy as a teacher last year. If you want a friend, then Mr. Nice Guy is the best class but if you want a teacher, then Ms. Strict and Rigorous is the best class. I didn’t learn a single thing in my entire 5th grade year with him.” It was a short conversation as I don’t talk about teachers with the students and directed them to their computer assignments.  But it was a huge shock to me. I really expected the kids to rave about Mr. Nice Guy during this conversation.

I shouldn’t be that surprised. Students often know what it is best for them but sometimes have trouble expressing it. This 6th grader (who, by the way, is far from compliant – way too often talking to his male friends about sports during our class activities) is very articulate so he was able to clearly express his needs. What did surprise me, though, is that his need to learn is stronger than his need for fun and relationship with the teacher. So even with what some might classify as having some disadvantages, he still recognizes the importance of learning.

I went to Google to explore the topic of what students want in their classes and from their teachers. Most of the posts and articles were from educators – not from the students, themselves. So even though I think I know what students want, I may not. What I did re-realize, though, is that what I can do as an educator is keep the lines of communication open with my students, continually inviting them to give me feedback about our learning activities, facilitating conversations about what they are actually learning.