Tuesday, March 28, 2017

You are What You Do: Maker Empowerment of Voice

SXSWedu is usually a techy, STEAMy conference.  This year, by the powers of ten, we zoomed back away from TPACK, from Shulman’s what and how, to look at the larger system of learning, and to grapple with the framing why’s - what I have inarticulately described before as the narrative of learning, Pink’s “purpose”.  One presentation, which led to a podcast which led to a school visit, was by the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.  In their journey from becoming a STEAM school, they have gravitated toward a Maker driven philosophy.  Here I’ll unpack conversations, observations, and notes from extended readings to think through the Maker shift, specifically how student voice is awakened by empowerment, sensitivity, and community.


You are What You Do

“... if as a sixth grader you learn how to use power tools, you are going to remember that for the rest of your academic career…”
Anah Wiersema, Vice Principal Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

Dewey wrote about knowledge as a verb, an action upon one’s environment.  When that action is compounded with tool, the proprioceptive feedback creates a larger self body image, like a superpower.  The traditional identity of student - basically a learn-er, study-er, test-taker, teacher-pleaser transforms into maker, programmer, knit bomber, or turntablist.  This change in intrapersonal identify extends at a grander scale as one’s interpersonal relationship with a passive, consumer oriented world breaks, overturning the illusion that choice is predetermined.  And not to sound too Matrixy, but I think where Anah’s comment logically leads is to creating Makers that view the world as malleable, not just through products and goods, but in social-political-economic systems.

Who gets access to this kind of learning environment, to construct this identity?  This ethical problem of equity of access, and identity construction, is part of the Ann Richards School’s mission looking at the gender, socio-economic, racial challenges of balancing the access to STEM careers.

To put this idea of identify empowerment into perspective, at the Ann Richards School...

“...over 60% of the school’s population are the first in their families to attend college. In the school’s first two years of graduates, 100% have enrolled in college, and are funded by over $8 million in scholarships.” 
Eric Heineman, College Advisor, Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

If You Build It...

...make sure there is space for students to find problems.  Academic Dean, Kris Waugh, speaks of wanting to create problem finders.  Our traditional concept of school means age groups divided into classes where teachers dictate or facilitate activities.  Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh explains how teachers have always engaged in the messiness of learning, the divergent thinking through the infinite paths a learning trajectory can take.  The teacher has immersed and defined the problem, and students solve it, deprived of the opportunity to develop sensitivities to finding problems on their own, and in the process make the critical aesthetic, affective, ethical connections to their own learning trajectories.  Going back to my inarticulate idea of narrative framing, James Ohler does a better job saying,

"...story is a highly efficient information container. It is far more than that. In an age of information overload we have reached into antiquity and pulled up the story to help us integrate all that information that is coming at us. We have competing kinds of info containers, lists which we don't tend to remember, and story which is integrated and we tend to remember it. We need to bring story into education as a means of learning, and also as a means of personal branding. Students need to learn how to tell their own story at an early age, and understand that they can be in control of their own story. If they are not, other people may control it..."   
Jason Ohler

In a Maker scenario, Papert explains this means learning problems solved through the process of physically constructing what began as an idea in the mind.  The narrative begins with finding and defining that idea, and engaging in an iterative process that may involve space for tinkering.

Art class is often the closest lab-like learning atmosphere akin to heavier maker spaces, and perhaps is one of the best Maker portals schools have. Art slides on a continuum between craft and conceptual problem solving.  Years ago I observed weekly extended Art blocks for second graders by Betty Salive who had applied Reggio Emilia approaches where graphic representation is one of the 100 Languages of Children.  At first glance her sessions were a classroom management nightmare, but as I started paying attention to where there was structure in the class - mini-lessons bridging participatory theater with color choice, campfire gatherings to critique work, joke time for honing oral presentation, and most importantly the products filing into their portfolios - I understood the chaotic intent.  

With her permission I started interviewing students outside the class, recording their reflections on a selected piece of work, then dictated their ideas printed in large fonts to display alongside their pieces for museum exhibition.  They were delving into their most critical problems, and then solving the problem through graphic construction. Their artistic voices were activated through ability, will, and sensitivities to multiple paths across mediums, but also through their access to each other's feedback and thoughts, the adjacent possible in a making lab, and the audience that would view their work.

This is how I see the Maker challenge, creating space within the academic school experience where students grapple, finding and defining the problems around learning, and engage in an iterative process toward their product or solution. For those familiar with writer's workshop labs, this is similar to how Lucy Calkins (research oriented Lessons From a Child, not NCLB adapted Units of Study) moved away from teacher generated writing prompts to students creating their own prompts.  This requires schools to step back from the obsessive pursuit of measuring mono-psychometrics to the idea that individual skills will be honed in the development of tendencies and dispositions, and to a messier learning design with multiple learning objectives at play simultaneously.

Zooming Out (or Nuclear Annihilation and ZPD)

“...Projects transcend the self.”  
Kris Waugh, It’s Not About What You Make, SXSWedu 2017

It took the threat of nuclear annihilation for Paul Baran to develop a decentralized data transfer system, hot-potato routing, where information passes through distributed nodes.  We learn through our tools, and it seems no accident that through our digital interconnectivity and information transfer through packets that we zoom back from individual minds connecting new information to prior knowledge and extend the frame to look at learning as a network, toward a learning design accounting for dispersed teaching and learning.  The real technology at work is as ancient as hunter and gatherer group hunts where the individual against the Mastadon was not an option.  Brittany Harker Martin describes “socially empowered learning” in which the maker disposition develops through an awareness of knowledge within the immediate community and through the network beyond.  The carpenter, muralist, entrepreneur networks through a guild-like web where knowledge moves through dispersed nodes.  

In many ways this is drawing from strengths of pre-industrialized cultures. Edward Hall's proxemics differentiates polychronic and monochronic cultures, shedding light on the difficulties schools face in an industrial time-segmented production cycle where individual measurement is not indicative of what students can accomplish when leveraging the tools in their environment, their Zone of Proximal Development extended through the social network.

Maker DNA

When I became a teacher they taught me to arrange the desks in groups of four facing each other, so I worked from my prior knowledge as a cook-waiter-bartender in New Orleans and thought, “Yeah, four-tops, people need to talk through what they are doing, be it eating or fractions.”  No one ever explained why we needed four-tops, but maybe intuitively I knew that these watering holes were critical for the social construction of knowledge, and I did have the wherewithal in this ESL class of immigrants with vastly diverse language abilities, to group the ones who got it with the ones who were on their way.  But none of the social dynamics within the class were part of the criteria of what judged me as a teacher - keeping paperwork turned in on time, a weekly clipboard check of my wall posters and timing of my predetermined lessons to make sure I was within five minutes of set transitions, and scores on standardized test benchmarks administered five times a year.  Viva Texas. (post Ann Richards, Bush era)

What I didn’t know was that allowing for the social construction to take place I was empowering my students with a critical element in Maker DNA.

“...It is important to note that maker educators do not view peer learning simply as a nicety, something to be tacked onto instruction as an afterthought. It is part of the DNA of maker settings, where it is often necessary—either because students genuinely know things that their teachers do not or because the efficient distribution of skill-instruction requires it, such as when a large class of students needs to learn how to use a drill press and the fastest way to disseminate the information is for students to teach other students.” 
Maker-Centered Learning

I’ve seen this social construction at work throughout teaching in collective inquiry sessions, in symposiums of Junior Great Books, in Socratic Circles, in tech integration, in crowdsourced editing/revising projects, in applying the methods and mindsets of design thinking, in organizing critical events and innovation projects, and in facilitating media lab sprints.  Echoing Kris Waugh, learning IS a project that transcends the self and our role as learning engineers, designers, artisans, atelieristas is to create the environment for this empowerment.


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