What do children learn by making? An interview with Edward Clapp

Edward Clapp is an author of Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds. This book, and the research behind it, are an initiative of the Agency by Design project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero.

Photo by Angela Mittiga.

One of the challenges in talking about “making” is how big our definition can grow. A table is made, so is a sculpture, so is a system of government. What are the boundaries of making?

We try to be as inclusive as possible when thinking about what counts as making. We like to think we can find making in many places. We hesitate to put a fence around it, but if we we’re going to enclose what we are talking about when we talk about making, we are going to make sure that barrier is as porous as possible.

The systems aspect is one of the most exciting pieces of our framework. All objects are systems, with subsystems, situated within supersystems. If you are going to be a successful maker you have to have a really good understanding of systems.

We want young people to think of themselves as agents of change within systems. Younger children might think about the system of lining up for the bus in the morning, or the lunch line at school. Older children might expand to look at how a system of racism has been designed, and how they might redesign that system.

I keep a bicycle bell on my desk. When you take a bicycle bell apart you see a complex system. This system is composed of subsystems, and when you put the bicycle bell on a bicycle, the bell becomes part of a larger system made up of more subsystems, and then when you use that bicycle to commute to work each day, you situate the bicycle and the bell within a broader transportation system. I hope that by looking at a bicycle bell and seeing a system, one can also look at a social movement like Black Lives Matter and see a system, and see oneself as an agent of change within that system. What we find exciting about maker-centered learning is that when you bring in systems thinking into it, it becomes more impactful. You can apply thinking routines to both systems mentioned above: thinking about the parts of each system, the purposes of those parts, and the ways in which these systems are complex. Once you’ve explored the complexity of these systems in this way, one may then find opportunity to affect change.

Do you find yourself fighting the idea of “making” as a technological endeavor?

Absolutely. I would say that this is a problem related to understanding making as tied to any one technology – writing, for example, or carpentry. There are many ways of making, and maker-centered learning should incorporate tools from different backgrounds, and expand what is at your fingertips. Restricting it in one way is never beneficial.

Making is about being sensitive to the designed dimensions of the world, which are malleable. We want to help children be sensitive to design and see themselves as agents of change.

A third grade student asks a friend for help as she explores the properties and stretching capacity of a new material. Photo by Melissa Rivard.

According to this definition, one could “make” in the social studies or physics classroom. Is your definition of “making” really a project-based approach that works in any curriculum area?

I am working on a new project called “Making Across the Curriculum.” It starts with the premise that the concept of a makerspace is poorly named, because it suggests that making is isolated to a certain environment. Making is something that should happen across content areas and span grade levels, and there are opportunities for maker-centered learning in any curricular area.

We focus on three core capacities related to making: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. If we think of maker-centered learning from the perspective of these capacities, we can see that making is applicable in any content area.

What are great examples of problems or questions to be posed or solved in an educational maker space?

We see a lot of design challenges. But design challenges aren’t the only pedagogical tool. Something that we do is what we call a design hunt: looking at ones environment and identifying design. Helping people become sensitive to the made dimensions of their world has been good for getting the design and maker juices flowing.

At a very young age, just tinkering with materials is a big thing, too. We have seen educators alternate between what we call “messing around” and “figuring it out.” Young people mess around with tools and materials in a tinkering way, without an objective, and then work with an objective in mind and try to figure it out. The objective can be anything – design a better garbage truck or make a ball roll down a track and into a bucket, for example.

Sometimes we give teachers a design challenge and materials to work with in small groups. Then we say switch, and the groups move to work on someone else’s design. We give them the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine: What are the parts of this design? What are its purposes? What are its complexities? And then we give them the Imagine If… thinking routine: In what ways could this design be made to be more effective, efficient, ethical, beautiful, or more fill-in-the-blank?

The whole idea of becoming sensitive to design and noticing the designed aspects of the world can help young people surface issues they are interested in addressing or problems they are interested in solving. Problem solving starts with nurturing a sensitivity to design.

In your book, you talk about how one of the teachers you worked with talked about how the most important materials are cardboard and a glue gun, needed to prototype.

It’s not just with young children that we heard that cardboard and glue guns are the most important tools in a maker-centered classroom. It’s the more low tech tools and materials that are most helpful in most any maker-centered classroom. They are more affordable, less precious, so you’re more inclined to experiment or prototype with them. You can work more quickly with them. We find this across grade levels. In one college we visited they have a lot of hand tools and really thick housing insulation, which they use to prototype because it’s inexpensive, and can be manipulated it in all sorts of ways.

A whimsical design from repurposed materials. Photo by Melissa Rivard.

In your book, and throughout the work of Project Zero, there is an emphasis on the development of dispositions, as opposed to skills or knowledge. Can you talk about this framework?

Let’s take a 21st century skill like critical thinking, which is thought of as being a skill or capacity in some way. But just because you have that skill doesn’t mean you will be motivated to use it, or know when to use it. Capacity (the ability or skill required to do something), Inclination (the motivation to do something—or enact one’s capacity), and sensitivity (alertness as to when to use a particular skill or capacity) together form what we call a disposition.

It’s this sensitivity piece that is the bottleneck to generative thinking. One explanation for this problem is that young people are so programmed in their school day: During first period you think about math; second period you think about social studies. They are too seldom permitted the space to choose what type of thinking to employ on their own.

Thinking routines are exercises repeated over and over again so that generative thinking becomes a habit of mind. We define maker empowerment as a sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking. Our thinking routines support the development of maker empowerment, which we have described as a habit of mind, a way of being in the world, a disposition.

What are your thoughts on making and maker spaces in children’s museums?

The advice I would give is to focus on the core maker capacities: how do we help young people look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunities through working with materials, or perhaps exhibits in the museum?

 

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