In the maker era we live in today, there’s a renewed emphasis on exploration, tinkering, testing, and learning by doing. And with the breakthroughs in technology, from virtual prototyping to 3D printers, it’s hard not to be wowed by the possibilities. After all, novelty does fuel imagination. But to what end? Two decades ago, I attended a tech conference where a headlining speaker shared new software that allowed him to take an image of his face and distort it in all kinds of hilarious ways. He had the audience in stitches, and as he explained the controls and shared how he was manipulating his visage, the laughs changed to “Ooooohs!” and “Aaaaahs!” I remember getting up and moving to another session after about ten minutes of this. My thought? It’s attention grabbing, but what’s the practical application for that kind of functionality? It was a clear cut case of “just because we can.”
There’s a lot of this going around in education. I’ve had many a spirited debate with educators who are so taken with gadgets and apps that they actually become indignant when I question the pedagogy and the practicality behind their uses in the classroom. Happily, the maker movement brings my point to the forefront without the need for further discussion.
Sure, students can experience “just because we can” as they learn how to use the tools available to them. But when it’s time to get down to business, makers have a purpose. They answer the why, not just the how. Why is it the best solution? Why does it meet the criteria we set for ourselves? Why is it genuinely useful? When students take on the maker mind-set, they get to ask, imagine, plan, make, test, and improve their work. And the end result is authentic learning that can be applied to real-world problems.
STEM takes teachers and students beyond the bells and whistles of new technology. In fact, as Jackie Gerstein points out in a recent episode of the Whole Child Podcast, maker spaces don’t require the latest technologies. Traditional tools and scrap materials can fuel the creativity in young minds just as effectively as digital applications. It’s not about the tools and materials. It’s about the process.
So, the next time someone shows you the latest example of a “just-because-we-can” device or function, appreciate it for what it is. Smile. Laugh. Applaud. Oooh. Aaah. It’s all good. But once you get past the novelty, bring the discussion back to the real world. The maker world. The STEM world. Because that’s where imagination meets reality, and where students can genuinely learn.
Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. He is currently a strategic advisor for constituent services for ASCD and previously served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on ASCD EDge®, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.