Director’s Brief: Implementing a School Library Makerspace
Educational makerspaces are springing up in institutions around the country, including museums, public libraries, and schools. These spaces offer hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities where imaginations are unleashed to bring the unexpected and undiscovered to the fore. They are defined by the following principles, inviting curiosity, inspiring wonder, encouraging playfulness, and celebrating unique solutions, and are part of a broader social and educational movement that celebrates the act of creation, collaboration, and immersive experience.
The Maker movement emphasizes cultivating knowledge producers and a playful environment that ignites people’s innate creativity. As school libraries move towards an embrace of the “learning commons” model, makerspaces are also becoming an integral component of the participatory, open nature of these environments. Speaking of the Maker movement, Make magazine’s founding editor and publisher Dale Dougherty contends that “Like libraries, we’re at the intersection of information and experience. And ultimately, making is about learning — and creating evidence of that learning” (Quoted in Catalano, 2013). In this brief, I highlight the key features of educational makerspaces, how and why implementing one will add value to our school environment and our students’ learning opportunities, and discuss some of the technical aspects of its implementation.
So, what is a makerspace and why should we build one in our school?
Our school recognizes and revels in the diversity of paths young people navigate in the process of their intellectual, personal, social, and artistic development. Our flexible and innovative curriculum, with provisions for independent studies and interdisciplinary seminars, reflects this core value. The educational makerspace augments these classroom-based efforts through offering students a discrete space to direct their own efforts, and reinforces the overall emphasis our curriculum places on individualized study, creative collaboration, immersion in the arts, and project-based learning. The space’s distinction from a traditional teacher-led classroom does not mean that active teaching and learning are not taking place. On the other hand, these things are happening all of the time, just in new and exciting ways that take advantage of students’ natural curiosity and allow that imagination the time and space to flourish and blossom into creativity.
In a provocative and powerful lecture entitled “Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in the digital age,” the influential researcher John Seely Brown implores us to create spaces and opportunities where kids can play with knowledge, with finding information for themselves, and with creating new knowledge (2008). Along with co-author Douglas Thomas, in his treatise on cultivating a new “culture of learning,” Brown summarizes this direction when he argues that “where imaginations play, learning happens.” This process- rather than product-based approach to teaching and learning demands new multi-purpose spaces that are structured according to this pedagogical model. Makerspaces allow kids the latitude and time to go beyond the rigid confines of established knowledge and to learn through their direct experience that all that can be known is not already known. They celebrate and allow for the process of discovery that leads to creation, innovation, and personal growth.
Brown argues that makerspace environments are places of constant learning and teaching, of dialogic exchange, but, just as importantly, they are also peer-based learning communities. In this setting, students learn from each other at the same time as they act as teachers; they “create, reflect, and share.” As students experience challenges with a particular activity, tool, or technology, they look to peers for suggestions. Together, they seek solutions and engage in collaborative learning and teaching. In its ideal incarnation, the space reflects and encourages a balance between a respect for students’ individuality and the value of the learning community as a collective endeavor. Students develop resilience, build creative confidence, and employ critical thinking and problem solving skills as they encounter and respond to challenges. If we are serious about promoting the values of autonomy, self-motivation, and adaptability, we need to create spaces where students can learn these skills and “flex these muscles.”
We have always been a school that reaches out to and embraces the broader community of which we are a part. The Makerspace will enhance and deepen these efforts in a variety of ways. We are fortunate enough to have an active and exceptionally talented arts community at our doorstep. In the past, the school has invited local artists to give guest lectures about their craft, and these events have always been well-attended. The Makerspace will give these professionals a space to actually demonstrate their art-making and, if inclined, to help our students experiment with or become proficient in a specific art or craft as well. Students will still be encouraged to find their own ways of play and experimentation, but these mentors will assist with hands-on applications of the different tools and technologies available in the Makerspace, augmenting the base of expertise from which students might draw inspiration and guidance.
The utility and implementation of makerspaces: some key research
This extended network of educational opportunity, in conjunction with the centrality of student-driven activity in the space, comports with new pedagogical strategies aimed at increasing student involvement and investment in the learning process and its outcomes. One of these models is called “connected learning.” This philosophy emphasizes several of the key characteristics of educational makerspaces, specifically: learning that is production-centered, driven by a shared purpose, informal in nature, and negotiated amongst peers and is reflected by the infographic below. This research comports with other reports that herald a blend of formal and informal learning opportunities as key trends in the educational arena (see the Horizon Report, 2015).
More and more evidence of the specific qualities and benefits of promoting “maker” education is emerging all of the time. My research has uncovered a vast collection of inspiring examples, best practices, and funding opportunities. The New Media Consortium’s 2015 Horizon Report highlights the implementation of makerspaces as a key educational trend, reflecting an interest in innovative teaching practices and redesigned spaces for learning. The Harvard Graduate School of Education is engaged in a multi-year study of the concrete effects that maker-centered learning experiences can have on students’ learning environment and outcomes. The group recently released its preliminary findings in a White Paper published in January 2015. They interviewed dozens of maker-centered educators about their observation and assessment of qualitative changes in the learning environment of young people. Their findings bear out all that has been proposed as the foundational principles and guiding animus behind makerspaces’ implementation: encouraging the pursuit of student passions and autonomy, learning to “problem solve, to iterate, to take risks, to see failure as opportunity, and to make the most out of unexpected outcomes” (Agency by Design, et al., 2015). On a broader level, these educators have witnessed the empowerment of students such that they feel capable of becoming agents of change in their own lives and the lives of their communities.
What does a Makerspace look like?
As a learning and information hub, our school library must keep pace with current developments and best practices in the field. Makerspaces are not just the latest educational trend, as popular as they may be. They offer valuable opportunities for curricular augmentation, particularly in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math + Art/Design) disciplines, independent student work, and broader community involvement. Lauren Britton explains that “Maker spaces support learning in an informal, play-focused environment that can cultivate an interest in science, technology, and design…Creating playful information-based spaces allows the learner to explore and engage with content on the learner’s terms instead of on the instructor’s terms.” (2012). To put it bluntly, these are spaces that get people excited about learning, and about sharing what they are learning with others.
Our school initiative will “start small” in the realm of equipment, adopting a measured approach to determining which tools fit best with our space and with the needs and desires of our unique community. I want to emphasize the space itself here, rather than the technologies within it. It’s not that the technologies and equipment that we make available to students is not important; having engaging materials that excite students and ignite their curiosity is crucial if the space is to be one that invites active participation and innovation. But it is the spirit of the environment that will dictate its relevance and its success.
The space is for students first and foremost, so maintaining its structure as a place of play, experimentation, and freedom is paramount. We must work on removing barriers to independent learning and tinkering; i.e. the “expectations” and “shoulds” and “musts” that tend to crowd out innovation and reward immediate success over perseverance and flexibility. The space will reflect a careful balance between harnessing the power of collaboration and valuing the importance of individual approaches and pathways to learning. In the same vein, the selection of equipment and materials must blend equally digital and physical immersion. Swinging too far in the direction of technological equipment that draws upon and promotes digital and virtual literacies neglects the importance of projects that are more arts and crafts-based. Many of our students enjoy the “analog” dimensions of artistic production, such as darkroom photography and other visual arts. These students should find as much to “play with” in the space as their peers who are busy designing video games and pursuing robotics.
There are numerous examples of successfully implemented educational makerspaces around the country, many of them on the East Coast. One of these, in North Bergen, New Jersey, offers a concrete model to follow, from the planning phases through to design and implementation. The image below approximates the pace and direction of her efforts.
The librarian in charge of executing the overall plan spent time assessing the school’s curriculum and program offerings to determine the specific ways in which the space, and the tools and equipment housed within it, could augment current efforts. In her implementation, the librarian took a “hands-off” approach to directing student learning in the space, and thus witnessed its transformation into a genuine space of student investment and autonomy. She adds enthusiastically that the space has also fostered collaboration amongst social groups who do not usually interact outside of the makerspace, an outgrowth of the informal nature and openness of the learning environment she has fostered within.
Inspiring case studies and models for implementation abound. During the planning phases, I will search out the forerunners and conduct several site visits and interviews to identify best practices and key trends. At the same time, I will maintain a sense of the uniqueness of our school and the community of students we serve, and work directly with our teachers, parents, administrators, and, of course, the students to determine the parameters and activities to be offered as part of this initiative. I am very excited to work together with our inspiring and insightful community to expand the creative capacities and learning opportunities of our students.
Agency by Design, Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. (2015). Maker-centered learning and the development of self: preliminary findings of the Agency by Design Project [White Paper]. Retrieved from http://www.agencybydesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Maker-Centered-Learning-and-the-Development-of-Self_AbD_Jan-2015.pdf
Britton, L. (October 1, 2012). Library Journal. The makings of makerspaces, part 1: space for creation, not just consumption. Retrieved from http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/10/public-services/the-makings-of-maker-spaces-part-1-space-for-creation-not-just-consumption/
Brown, J.S. Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production. Youtube video. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u-MczVpkUA
Catalano, F. Want to start a makerspace at school? tips to get started. February 12, 2013.
KQED Mind/Shift. Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/02/want-to-start-a-makerspace-at-school-tips-to-get-started/
NMC Horizon Report > 2015 Higher Education Edition. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.nmc.org/publication/nmc-horizon-report-2015-higher-education-edition/
Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S. A new culture of learning: cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: Createspace Independent Publishing, 2011.
What is connected learning. Retrieved from http://connectedlearning.tv/
© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS