What Is Maker? Lessons I Learned From LEGO Education at BETT

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what is maker

What is maker? The term “maker movement” firmly entrenched itself in my parenting and educator lexicon over the last week. While at BETT 2018 with the LEGO Education crew, who invited me as their guest, I felt excited but also curious. The idea of the maker movement felt both natural and logical to me, but it also felt a bit out of my wheelhouse.

What is the Maker Movement?

The Maker Movement started in technology. As startups and entrepreneurs adopted a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) attitude towards manufacturing, a new ecosystem erupted leading to economic opportunities. By creating open source software, these businesses collaborated to expand and revolutionize technology such as printers and robotics. This movement allowed small businesses to start in homes or garages and then grow into larger spaces to become profitable.

Great, so what does this have to do with education, right? To prepare the children of today for the workplace of tomorrow, parents and educators need to start instilling this collaboratively creative mindset from a young age. In other words, incorporating the maker mentality in children will allow them to adapt so they can be future leaders.

How do we create a maker mindset?

One thing I learned this week is that all kids are born with maker mindsets. We don’t need to create that mentality in children; we just need to foster it.

Think about little kids on a playground. How often have kids taken sticks and turned them into swords? That’s the maker mentality. Think about how little kids on a playground walk up to one another and suddenly create a new game out of the sandbox, sand toys, and rocks. That’s the maker mindset at work.

Little kids are born with maker mindsets. All people are born with inherent creative and collaborative skills. The question parents and educators need to ask themselves is, “what happens that makes them abandon this over time?”

How is the maker mindset different from the growth mindset?

This question better responds to the problems inherent in modern education. From the moment our kids enter schools, they become cogs in the education machinery. Looking at articles about the education’s impact on kids, we see that the current model defines children by achievement and metrics. Even Dweck’s “growth mindset,” much touted by educators, focuses on “achievement.”

Shrinking from challenges and being willing to take supported risks, as discussed by Dweck, do matter. Arguing that there’s a difference between fostering a maker mindset and a growth mindset doesn’t discount the value of being willing to fail. In fact, the new LEGO Education maker products intend to allow supported failure.

The Build a Duck exercise demonstrates how different people approach a simple task. Each duck may be different, and some people may feel their duck isn’t “the best.” Learning how to take a chance and rebuild better the next time supports the growth mindset.

More importantly, though, the maker mindset focuses on discussion and collaboration to combine with individual expression. This self-expression often gets lost as educators, parents, and administrators rush to help children achieve—get the best grades and scores—in a competitive environment.

Why is the maker mindset more important than the growth mindset?

This past week, LEGO Education taught me the power of creativity and curiosity. Sitting in the LEGO Education maker space pop-up at BETT, I watched children meander into the area because they saw toys and glitter. They were allowed to create with LEGO bricks but also to personalize the creations with stickers and googly eyes. (Come on, you know no one can resist googly eyes!)

Watching children interact creatively rather than mechanically awed me, as it usually does. However, more importantly, in a vast convention space focused on education technology, this small area gave kids a space to be creative and learn organically.

For a long time, I’ve said you can tell a lot about a child by how they use LEGO sets. Some kids like to build according to the directions, similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. Some kids prefer to build their own creations. Some, like my kid, prefer to play with the completed sets and create new minifigure characters so they can tell stories. The maker movement and the LEGO Education sets involved help foster this individualized learning and expression.

What is the LEGO Maker program?

Last week, LEGO Education announced their Maker Lesson Plans. Full disclosure moment here: they paid for me to attend their event in London. However, as a parent and educator, I’d have covered this anyway.

The LEGO Maker Lesson Plans give adults the tools necessary for kickstarting their maker programs. As discussed back when the LEGO Education released their Preschool STEAM Park, all the lessons are core curriculum aligned. LEGO Education worked with teachers and education experts to develop programs based on pedagogical theory.

Going to the “Make a Dancing Robot” lesson, for example, the page lists the following educational objectives:

EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS
NGSS
Science and Engineering Practices
3-5-ETS1.1, 3-5-ETS1-2, 3-5-ETS1-3

Disciplinary Core Ideas
ETS1.A, (3-5-ETS1-1)
ETS1.B, (3-5-ETS1-2), (3-5-ETS1-3)
ETS1.C, (3-5-ETS1-3)

Common Core State Standards
ELA/Literacy
RI.5.1, RI.5.7, W.5.8

Mathematics
MP.2, MP.4

With this resource, teachers can see how to incorporate the LEGO Education lessons meaningfully so that their students can find the overlaps between Math and ELA/Literacy.

As a college instructor, I view this overlap between math and language arts as more important than any achievement metric. Teaching college first-years, with a focus on engineers, I hear so often that students feel they are either good writers or good at math/science. My engineering students often approach writing as a necessary evil, a core requirement hurdle acting as a barrier to their science-based future.

Unfortunately, the education system has created this dichotomous mentality. As far back as Sherri Turkle’s 1984 publication The Second Self, students in science and math career trajectories acknowledge feeling separated from the arts and language. However, looking to artists like Calder, whose mobiles incorporate both sides of the divide, we can see the value to society of combining these skills.

The LEGO Maker Lessons help teachers and home-schooling parents to bring together math/science and ELA/Literacy in new ways.

Moreover, these lessons also include links to a student self-assessment sheet. Part of the maker mentality that helps reinforce the growth mindset is bringing students into the discussion. So many students arrive in my courses relying on only my feedback. They want me to tell them their strengths and weaknesses. As adults know, preparing for the real world means being able to assess our weaknesses before a boss or supervisor does. People need to be able to self-assess so they can evolve. Only adapting when others tell you that you are failing leads to a never-ending cycle of intellectual weakness and frustration.

The alignment to core standards helps educators, but the self-assessments help students. The LEGO Education Maker Lessons do integrate not only valuable classroom lessons but also critical personal lessons. In fact, as an educator in a different space, understanding how LEGO Education has created these lessons purposefully reinforces some of the self-assessment work I’m making my students do in my classes.

The Value of the Maker Movement

Reflecting on this last week with a core group of LEGO Education makers, I realize that this movement acts as a formalization of all the values I’ve held in my heart for years. As a parent, teacher, knitter, musician, and writer, I’ve felt the failure that comes from making mistakes when trying to solve a problem. Anyone who’s ever tried to knit a lace pattern or tried to reach a student or tried to write an article or tried to raise a child knows that we inevitably make mistakes as adults. We inevitably tap into our creativity. We inevitably take everyday items and use them for new purposes. Let’s be honest, lying to my kid that a chocolate peanut butter Luna Bar is a candy bar? That’s a maker moment right there. Using thread to hold up pants when you have no belt? Maker moment.

We have maker moments every day. LEGO Education is just making it easier for our children to engage in it meaningfully rather than accidentally.