Make, make, make, make makemakemakemake

(Read it enough times and you start wanting to pronounce it as Japanese)

Invent to Learn is free for a few days this week on Kindle again, and Dr. Gary Stager has another essay out just recently.

The paper gives Dr. Stager’s snapshot view of how the maker movement is doing, and how it plays into the virtues of progressive constructivist education.  It also mashes in a healthy dose of fear, citing trends of privatization, charter schools, the increased view of “bad teachers” in the public perception, more and more energy lost on standardized testing, etc.  Stager simultaneously sees more and more parents adopting a constructivist viewpoint, pushing for their kids to have access to maker spaces and hands-on learning.

Along the way, Stager also gives a more complete picture of how his position on “maker ed” stands in relation to corporate “Maker” movements.  He makes it clear that “learn to code” programs pushed by Silicon Valley corporations have dubious value at best; that saying learning to program makes you a superpower genius while also saying it’s incredibly easy are contradictory statements; that learning to code in an hour is silly.  These were reassuringly sane things to hear.

He also mentions some of the criticism towards the maker movement, or as he wants to differentiate, the Maker(tm) movement.  He refers to the criticisms by Leah Buechley regarding Make Magazine’s lack of diversity in gender and race representation.  (He cites something from a FabLearn conference, but you can also see her state the case rather well at her presentation at Eyeo 2014.)

It’s great that Dr. Stager seems to be taking these issues to heart, but I wonder.  I don’t know what Buechley covered at FabLearn, but Stager still seems to be falling into the same trap of what is and isn’t considered “making” that Buechley discusses near the end of her Eyeo presentation.  Electronics, Arduinos, Makey Makeys and Scratch are all in the club, but what about all the other things people make? Cars? Crafts? Knitting? Painting? Poetry? Woodworking?

Buechley’s presentation reminded me of a nagging question I’ve had about maker ed ever since reading Invent to Learn last summer.  If maker ed is really about teaching kids to design and create their own hands-on solutions to practical problems (and not just about shiny new high-tech toys), then why are we pretending that maker ed is anything new?  There are woodworking, metal shops, and home ec teachers who have done this for decades.  The level of self-directed, student-designed work will vary by teacher and by grade, I’m sure, but I’ve seen high school woodworking classes where students are not only choosing their own projects but designing fantastic solutions of their own.

This comes back to my biggest concerns I was left with in reading Invent to Learn.  The authors highlight their three “game changers”, new developments that they see as enabling creative learning better than all else.  Naturally, they are: fabrication (with an emphasis on 3D printing), physical computing (robotics and Arduinos), and programming.

Now, for the record: I love all three of those things.  I play with programming on a regular basis (and used to do it professionally), and I’ve recently started a line of digitally fabricated jewellery.  But I don’t see how they are inherently more creative than any of the traditional tools of art and craft.  And while designing something digitally is a great skill, which is more empowering: to teach someone how to craft their design using hand and power tools, or giving them an expensive fabrication machine that does the work for them?

And let’s be real: digital fabrication is expensive.  Even as 3D printers have come down in price, I could still realistically stock a reasonable set of power tools for the same amount.  And 3D printing is great if what you want to make is a whole lot of small plastic doodads that you have to keep buying spools of plastic to create.  If you’d rather manufacture out of wood or metal, you’re looking at laser cutters or CNC machines that quickly go up into multiple thousands of dollars.  (The one thing I do love about the maker movement – people opening up spaces where you can rent time on these otherwise out-of-budget tools.)

By the way, click that link I left in that last paragraph and read it, please.  It’s from The Architectural Review, and it goes into the danger that 3D printing is ignoring what they call ‘materiality’.  Printing plastic while ignoring the real cost of plastic. Ignoring the environmental impact of plastics.  Praising the potential efficiency, but the author has “yet to see a full supply chain analysis on the energy and resource requirements of 3-D printing – over and above a comparison with producing a specific object using subtractive processes.”

I think it’s telling that this critique comes from the realm of architecture.  Architects are no strangers to the skills that maker-ed claims to promote – digital design, creativity, and real-world solutions.  But the maker movement hasn’t risen out of architecture, or mechanics, or crafts.  It’s been born out of Silicon Valley, a place rising high on the perceived value of creating things with no materiality whatsoever.

My father in law creates things.  He makes things that wouldn’t be included in most ‘maker’ movements: designing and welding a set of stairs, turning old solid-wood chairs into really fantastic cutting boards, restoring old cars.  Some months ago we asked if he could help come up with some risers for our china cabinet so that our roomba could fit underneath it without getting stuck.  He looked at the existing feet on the cabinet, took some measurements, came up with a plan, and turned some chunks of leftover wood into a precise solution to our problem.  The actual fabrication took probably half an hour at most.  They match the cabinet enough that you don’t even notice them, and when you do you just think they look great anyway.

How would I have done that with the tools of the maker movement?  Maybe whipped up 3D models in AutoCAD and then printed it (if I wanted ugly chunks of plastic underneath the beautiful wood china cabinet someone gave us)?  Or gone out and found time on a CNC router?  Unless I had some incredibly privileged access, that would’ve taken twice as long and increased the cost by A Lot.

When it comes time to get something really made, I feel totally out to lunch next to his skills.

And you know what?  I’ll bet most programmers would feel the same way.  Most of us have been too busy playing with digital worlds to learn how to master hands-on skills the way the less “academic” minded students did as they signed up for automotive classes.

This is what bothers me when I see things like digital fabrication or robotics billed as the “game changer”, or when I hear Leah Buechley asking why it is that nearly all of the projects in Make Magazine feature electronics, or robots, or Arduinos, or something else that Make Media will sell to you.  These tools should be situated in a larger context of construction, architecture, mechanics, textiles, etc.  Instead, we see them elevated to a high status because, as best as I can tell, they let programmers who’ve been lost in a world of material-less abstractions actually apply their skills to something physical, something real.

Making shouldn’t be anything new, but the maker movement is pretending otherwise.  Even Dr. Stager has bought into this enough to write as fact that Maker Media “has fueled the explosive rise in making”.  (What the heck does he think that word means, exactly?)

The maker movement isn’t born out of a desire to say, “I made this!”, but rather from those immersed in the digital saying, “Look, I can make actual things! See? I’m not just playing pretend, this really is making something!”

This is the real reason we’re not including knitting, mechanics, ceramics, painting, etc in our “maker” movement.  The maker movement is born out of a uniquely digital insecurity, of those who’ve spent their lives making things that don’t physically exist and suddenly found a way out.

I almost want to end there for maximum impact, but I want to re-situate this back in my own context and also make it clear that this should be a call to action.

First: like I said, I am actively living out of this space, and I’m finding it liberating.  I’m making frickin’ wooden jewellery with a level of detail that would take me far too long to do by hand, with designs that are generated entirely by code I wrote.  There is nothing wrong with finding value in bringing digital work to physical form.  The problem is when we forget that what seems revolutionary to us – “I just conjured a design out of thin air!!!!!” – is an incremental step to those who have been working with physical materials all along.  (There are woodworking classrooms in my school district that have had CNC machines well before anyone here talked about makerspaces.)

Second, by ignoring or co-opting the work of those teaching shops / home ec / etc, we are completely shooting outselves in the foot.  Those who have gone before us in the work of teaching how to create things are the ones with expertise we need – expertise in working with materials and in leading students through designing and creating their own work.  Many of these programs are already nearly gone.  We should be finding a way to build support for those who’ve come first.  As it stands now, the maker ed movement seems just fine with letting sewing classes fade into nothingness while busily stocking up on Lilypad Arduinos.  (If you don’t think that’s a sign of insanity, consider my hands thrown up in the air from exasperation.)

I also need to add that a necessary follow-up read to this post is Deb Chachra’s writing on why our culture’s valuation of “making” vs non-stuff-making work should be questioned at the core.  Give it a read and apply that back to education, then ask yourselves why Stager and Martinez would suggest that makerspaces could be built using up space from the school library.

Edit: I was remembering the phrase “Designed in California” today.  Suspicious this is bigger than just programmers. Silicon Valley dissected the word “Made” into “Designed / Assembled” to try and retain pride in their work.  How does this insecurity of the immaterial affect product designers and their surrounding industry when their design is separated from the making by an entire ocean?

4 thoughts on “Make, make, make, make makemakemakemake”

  1. Right where you said you almost stopped is where I had to stop, for a while anyways. I realized that it hit me square in the chest. I do a lot of programming and some arduino stuff with my students (physics teacher) and I’m starting to get excited about what to do with the 3D printer in my colleague’s lab. However, a lot of the excitement I feel is so well captured by your statement about digital insecurity! Thanks for making me try to broaden my thinking (eg, leverage my relationships with the local scene shop masters and the studio arts folks). My question: If you’re working with students to do some “maker” project, would it be worth it to have them explore multiple ways to achieve the end product, even if you’re only providing one avenue (say, a 3D printer)?

    1. Good question. I don’t have a good answer other than “It sounds worth considering.” Sometimes more information adds depth, other times it overwhelms. But if you’re keeping it in mind, I’d guess it’ll come up at the right time.

  2. Insightful post, Josh. I’ve tried to embrace the maker movement in my own classroom and, like you I suspect, I tend to question throughout the process. My challenge has been authenticity. Making for the sake of making is optimal, but I have a curriculum to adhere to with a big, fat state test at the end of the year I must accountable for. Thus, attempting to weave making opportunities into my fifth grade curriculum has been difficult. It takes incredible amounts of front loading to create an authentic opportunity where students can ‘make/create’ to solve a problem. Making and project based learning are always intertwined in my mind. I’m not even sure what to label our classroom activities (making, PBL)…and I don’t really care.

    I don’t know much, but I know this–kids learn from doing. My goal is to provide them authentic opportunities (within the confines of our curriculum) to learn through doing. What will they learn in my classroom? The curriculum I’m charged to teach. I simply don’t have time to teach robotics when it is absent from my curriculum. Another restricting factor–my class struggles, academically. Instructional time is gold–I can’t afford to waste it.

    In year one of my maker movement enthusiasm, I applied for many grants and bought a 3D printer, MakeyMakeys, Lego Robotics kits…we coded, experimented in reverse engineering, built paper roller coasters, created our own Operation games, etc. It was a good year.

    This is year two in this endeavor for me, and I find only the freedom of “Genius Hour” and our after school FabLab offer my students free reign in true making. As a teacher, I am questioning the validity of some of those year one activities. Sure, they tied in to the curriculum, but were they truly extending the opportunity to go deeper into the material? Yes to some, no to others. I admit, some projects were just simply fun. I teach elementary, so maybe that’s OK? I’d prefer to perfect those projects so they are not only fun but fit the bill for my learning goals….I want authenticity.

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