Learning while making and other stories

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This past week Sylvia Libow Martinez visited the eci831 class to share ideas about the Maker Movement and hands-on learning in the classroom. I have followed the work of Sylvia for a number of years through twitter and her blog. I’ve participated in a few chats and been interested in how the Maker Movement has been growing throughout the US over the past few years even participating in a Design Thinking MOOC last year to learn about how using Design Thinking in schools can help to improve student learning and engage them in solving real-world problems within a learning setting.

I read Sylvia’s book Invent to Learn, which she co-wrote with Gary Stager PhD, soon after it came out. I think I even got a complimentary copy when they first published it and have learned a lot from the book and the work they have done. Although the information in the class was very interesting and there were some new sites and new companies I hadn’t heard about, it wasn’t “new”. I’ve been involved in a number of different projects at the school level which have had a focus on increasing PAA for students and differentiating classrooms to include more “hands-on” spaces for students where they can use various different materials while they puzzle and work through different ideas and concepts. Although I’ve not had a “maker room” in the school, there have been various classes and activities – from a robotics club to a model car club to a group that created different things from wood and steel in one of the shops during noon – that have allowed students to engage in hands-on learning. Different classes – including a design class and an animation class I have taught – used different materials in projects for learning.

In School Hands-on

Schools have always had the opportunity for hands-on learning in a number of different ways. Most PE classes are “Hands-on” as students learn to do by doing. They may not build anything but they learn to throw, jump, climb, roll, run, etc through the activities. In many schools in which I worked, there was a component of PAA that allowed students to create and build, cook and make. Most primary classroom have used clay, plasticine and other materials for creating and making. As an administrator, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and being toured around various “scapes” that students have built. It’s just that we tend to separate out these moments from the “academic” learning that takes place in schools. Working mostly in rural schools, many of our students had first-hand knowledge of making in some way and some of this transferred to school.

As a teacher who was experimenting with different learning approaches, I incorporated a few different opportunities in my own grade 7 classes from making bridges out of toothpicks to building furniture from newspaper to creating different classroom environments out of cardboard and paper which went along with novel/topics we were studying. Having students study circuits in science was a way to examine friction and electricity and blow up a lightbulb or two! I’ve watched students build all kinds of contraptions in various classes including building with lego to demonstrate different social developments and explain how civilizations developed in particular locations.

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Although I didn’t think of the lego pieces for fractions, I have worked with them for a number of different projects!

New Materials – same obligations

There are a number of new inexpensive materials that students can use to build and explore and there are new ways to record and explore the learning that is taking place during these times. This post by Jeremy Black explores and links to the different materials that Sylvia discussed in her presentation and

 I kept thinking of how amazing this would be to share with my son when he got older, and YES, of course my students.

Tara Smith discusses some changes she is seeing through reflecting about the presentation. Janine’s post about her experience with a hip-hop project shows there are many ways to engage students in activities and her work demonstrates that there are many ways that teachers can look to make things happen. As Janine says,

I like to think that I, along with many different and very valuable colleagues, “created conditions for invention” (Papert)  that lead to improved student learning.

Angus McIntosh discusses how he’s seeing things through a different lens and in a new way. And LIKES it!

The old mind would have thought, “sounds great, won’t work in English”. Now I am thinking about things like having students learn to write and format e-books for the different platforms.

Like Jeremy, there are many different things that I would like to share with my own children – the four youngest who are boys. In fact, my boys have demonstrated different interests in tinkering and building that has been interesting to watch. Although each one is interested in building and tinkering, they are interested in different ways – sometimes similar but most often different. That’s something I’m always reminded about when I begin to think about “wouldn’t this be great for students” is that not all students are interested in the same things.

I know sometimes I am accused of being the “Debbie Downer” when discussions come up about different ways of “doing” school and I’ve been accused of being a complete “know-it-all”.


I had a group of students one year while teaching grade 7 that were different. They had different abilities and there was a wide range of interests and talents, wider that most of the classes I’ve taught. So, at Christmas, just before going on break, one of my students came to me and asked if he could sing the class a song. I agreed. American Idol was played out at the front of my class as this student, with no music, sang a song he wrote that week to the class, a song that had a verse for every student and myself. It was amazing. His friend then presented a drawing – cartoonish – of the class, each student depicted in incredible accuracy. They were “makers”.  Just a side note – neither of them liked the toothpick bridge, the newspaper furniture or some of the other building/making we did which, as a tinkerer, I thought were great!  But I learned to look for different ways to have them “create and make”.


What I’ve always tried to remember is that building, tinkering, making is a great way to learn but, as a teacher, I had a responsibility that I accepted when I became a teacher to ensure that curricular outcomes were completed and to ensure that the activities that took place in the classroom were linked to these. That was my responsibility which meant that whatever we were doing, I had to ensure that it was linked to a curriculum. I have decided not to do an activity because there wasn’t a strong enough connection to outcomes despite how awesomely fun it would be or how much students would like it. Sometimes it’s difficult because I know that so much is learned from constructing knowledge and students learning in ways that engages them in hands-on activities in a social environment and all my studying and my own learning about constructivism and social constructivism is rooted in my own learning as I grew up. But, I’ve also been reminded of that day in my grade 7 class and that my own enthusiasm sometimes overlooks things. I needed, not to focus on what I wanted to do but, more and more, leave that to the students. Let them direct the “making and tinkering” and not allow the “wow factor” to drive things.


I’ve been interested in Constructivism since I first read the work of Lev Vygotsky 13 years ago as I was working on my MEd. Much of what I read about constructivism resonated with me for a variety of reasons. Growing up on the farm, my dad was an inventor of sorts. There would be many times he and I would spend a weekend working on a project for something on the farm whether it was a way to heat water for the cattle in the winter or a way to pump water using solar-power, there were many things that I learned while tinkering away in the shop or yard. If you came into our house, you would might be struck by the way the door to the basement, which was in the floor, operated or find it interesting that there was music or tv playing in a variety of rooms in the house. We had surround-sound before it was invented! Rebuilding motors, electronics and other contraptions was something that just was part of the way things worked on the farm. Not that it was all “great” inventions and I did learn that electricity can be very “shocking” through rather ill-created experiments. There was a great deal of learning that took place during these times. This was something that “felt” right in the classroom but wasn’t always possible for a variety of reasons but that doesn’t mean that making and inventing didn’t happen. Focusing on outcomes and giving students choice really redirected how I look at implementation of things.

I’m not trying to get this or that to become a movement in schools because there is a need for so many different things – helping students and parents to get a group to support a breakfast club and snacks was one of the greatest things I was part of as an educator as was delivering baskets for families in need with students at Christmas – I still get chocked up thinking of the parents who just stood wiping their eyes and saying thank you to a group of students who were doing the same. Those lessons and moments are ones that those students still talk about.

It isn’t Easy

This is something I’ve thought about and discussed at length. As Janine and Andrew and Jeremy have expressed, there are ways that teachers can make changes and bring about change. As someone will into 15+ years of Constructivism and “making”, I am always reminded not to be dazzled by the “Wow Factor” but to see past and look to the relationships that were developed with students through their “maker moments”. I’m always encouraged by those like Janine, Angus and Jeremy since, as Margaret Mead said:

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I am a husband, father, son.... I am currently working on my PhD in Education - Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is teacher professional development and social media integration. I have a beautiful, supportive wife who has been my partner for 28 years. We have 8 wonderful children who are amazing individuals. Together, we are exploring the world around us, sharing our stories, and enjoying the journey!