Lessons Learned as a Maker Educator

Ambush learning, planned spontaneity, and lots of “what if.”

September 7, 2016

D-Saunders

The days are getting shorter and the nights are becoming cooler up here in New England. And you know what that means: Back to School is nigh! Lazy mornings are quickly giving way to the familiar rush of anticipation mixed with bewilderment at the clocked speed of fading summer days (no, really – where did July go?). As I begin to review plans and imagine new learning opportunities for the year ahead, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on some of the important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years as a maker educator.

Lesson #1: Speak Less, Celebrate Always
Let’s be honest: it’s often really difficult for us teachers to stop talking. We want so earnestly to help students understand concepts and make connections that we sometimes find ourselves consuming far too much class time with our own thoughts or ideas. When introducing a new tool or concept, we feel it’s important to explain, in detail, what it is and how it should be used. I’ve learned that this often the worst way to start a new project. Rather than beginning a new lesson with a long-winded explanation of it all, I’ve learned, instead, to get students engaged in hands-on exploration from the outset. Lay out materials and encourage them to explore. Periodically stop and ask what they’ve observed. What questions do they have? Take notes on it all and place them around the room. Stop in at each group and ask “what if” questions to help extend their thinking. Utilize what Ayah Bdeir once called “Ambush Learning”: wait for the perfect moment and then pounce! Throughout it all, encourage and celebrate their learning. Once they are familiar with the materials and filled with inspiration, they are ready to tackle any project you may have for them!

Lesson #2: Plan Spontaneity
Lesson plans and learning objectives are unquestionably important. Thoughtful crafting of learning experiences is at the heart of what educators do every single day. With limited space, time, and materials, it is often easy to fall into the trap of what is known as “Cookie Cutter Crafting.”. That is, every student makes the same project with the same materials. And while this project may be an effective way to teach how circuits work, or how to code flashing LEDs with Arduino, there is very little room for whimsy or personal creative expression. I’ve learned over the years that it’s essential to block out time for students to take what they’ve learned and apply it in work that is their own authentic exploration of the material. Without this type of planned spontaneity, we have simply created an assembly line of instruction-following worker bees, and this is not at all in line with our learning goals.

Lesson #3: Get Ready to Be Amazed
It’s tough to be amazed when everyone in the class is churning out the same project. Conversely, I’ve found it impossible to not be constantly amazed by the work students do when given choice and the opportunity to create something new! One of the most rewarding experiences for me is to see the moment when the synapses fire and a student suddenly sees something that hadn’t been there before. Like wildfire, that new understanding quickly spreads throughout the group, inevitably resulting in the next iteration as another student builds upon that insight and finds something even newer. On and on this goes, my job simply to stoke the fire with a well-timed question or two. The ideas, insights, and questions that they discover will, without fail, amaze you. Because kids are amazing. And when you empower them to explore and learn in personally meaningful ways, they can’t help but leave you shaking your head in awe.

Build Something Awesome from Greenwich Country Day School on Vimeo.

David Saunders

littleBits Community Team