Monday, December 13, 2010

Making Their Way: Creating a Generation of "Thinkerers"

ORBIT 3 Kinetic Sculpture by Carl Pisaturo at ...Exhibit at Maker Faire Image via Wikipedia"Rise above oneself and grasp the world." -Archimedes (engraved on the Fields Medal)

Making is making a comeback. A cornucopia of fabrication and tech labs public and private are sprouting throughout the country. Maker Faires -- sprawling outdoor extravaganzas that combine the atmosphere of a medieval fair with old low-tech and new high-tech garages -- are bringing makers of all ages together to share their work and their learning. These new expressions of "thinkering" bring the wizened tinkerer and the tech-savvy youth together in playful competitions that range from the serious and sublime to the deliberately frivolous and outrageous. Fab labs provide makers with easy access to powerful and expensive technology tools in a community of like-minded minds.
Making provides opportunities for young people to use their hands and their minds together. Untold numbers of youth are messing around with all manner of tools to create, in tangible form, what's on their minds. Equally important, the maker movement nurtures communities of practice that bring adults and young people together around common interests. Thus, to visit the Maker Faire or a community-based fab lab is to see an aspect of our young people that we seldom witness in schools. 

So, why should we care?

Making is a celebration of an alternative and powerful way of knowing and of thinking things through. Consequently, making is typically antithetical to what traditional schools are all about. That is why the communities of practice that come together at Maker Faires and fabrication labs usually--some would say thankfully--flourish outside of schools. 

A few educators, however, are circling these making places to determine where and how they fit in schools, if at all. Educational historian Larry Cremin once wryly noted, that educators respond to a new area of learning by creating a course in it. Recall how schools responded to technology by creating a course "down the hall at fifth period" without ever thinking about changing every course because technology existed. Similarly, educators run the risk of demeaning hand and mind work by creating separate courses for making rather than bringing making into all aspects of the school curriculum and thereby thoroughly reconstituting it. 

As Frank Wilson, symposium participant, neurologist, and author of "The Hand" reminded us, the hand has "a mind of its own," as well as being at one with our minds. To engage the hand is to engage the mind. Thus, schools must provide for all students a hand-mind approach to the essential "academics." The hand-to-mind pathway is a way to engage all students and deepen their learning, to understand what quality looks like, and through practice and tinkering to apply discipline-based skills. Working the mind without the hands, and without a practice community of adults and young people, produces abstract learners who have difficulty applying what they know to the world around them. Making with hands and minds stimulates young people to develop their imaginative, creative, entrepreneurial, and scientific chops.

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