The positioning of makerspaces in relation to government educational policy and curriculum
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
My latest reading examines the place of makerspaces for learning in the school curriculum as an analysis of contemporary educational policy around technology and computing education, at a time when makerspace education has been touted as “having the potential to empower young people to become agents of change in their communities” (Sheffield et al, 2017).
As we witness a rise in numbers of school-based makerspaces around the world, more research is needed to examine the value of them to facilitate learning in a constructionist way as a critical pedagogy for the twenty-first century. It is timely as schools remodel dedicated computer suites, adapting to the increased use of mobile devices and curriculum reform since the first educational computers were installed in the last century, that makerspaces take on an emerging presence in various forms and sometimes under the notion of “future-focused” or “disruptive” education (Gilbert, 2017). She argues that school makerspaces are unlikely to be “educative” in the Deweyan sense, but just as John Dewey’s work on experiential learning was shaped by an industrial culture during a period of rapid industrialisation, can current education policy help to facilitate the introduction of makerspaces into the formal curriculum as the concept of a Fourth Industrial Revolution is integrated into educational policy?
Maker culture is embedded in a wider socio-political movement, and the original makerspaces were explicitly intended to be quite unlike schools (Davis, 2014; Dougherty, 2016). They are ‘communities of practice’ that allow people to share resources, knowledge and work on a wide range of making projects (Fleming, 2015). In the first instance makerspaces were formed by grassroots-level groups of adults who came together in community spaces to work individually or collectively and share tools (Schrock, 2014) and were places for experimentation and innovation rather than with learning as the main focus (Kurti, S, Kurti, D & Fleming, 2014). The rise of the maker movement from hobbyist community to a place for entrepreneurship has occurred as access to tools and training historically situated within industrial settings have increased, including 3-D printing, laser cutters and computer aided design tools, which afford greater accessibility to the general public to develop projects and commercial solutions.
Contextualising education policy, practice and industrialisation
Ever since the beginning of industrialisation, technological advancements have led to paradigm shifts which have been called ‘industrial revolutions’. In recent years, the maker movement has emerged in public discourse as the new industrial revolution (Anderson, 2012) and while much has changed in the world since the first and second industrial revolutions, it could be argued that education has not. The nineteenth century technological revolution led to a paradigm shift with a factory model of education when children were ‘‘drilled until skilled’’ (Fosnot, 1989, p. 5) and teachers prepared docile and agreeable workers to make the transition from “the back door of the school to the front door of the factory”. Today this industrial-era metaphor of ‘factory education’ is still relevant with the twenty-first century educational agenda and tensions arising from social, cultural, technological, and pedagogical complexities and dilemmas. (Tan et al, 2017).
The fourth industrial revolution is a phrase conceived by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), describing a world where individuals move between digital domains and offline reality to enable and manage their lives (Xu, David and Kim, 2018), and it is within this realm that the place of makerspaces in education has developed traction as an approach to foster student's creative thinking, critical thinking and problem-solving skills to develop twentieth century skills through STEM disciplines (Abdurrahman, 2019). A white paper from the WEF in 2017 set out how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will “shape the future of education, gender and work” and how it will require “accelerating workforce reskilling”, recognising how education policy, employment and entrepreneurship need to be interconnected in the modern world to achieve sustainable economic development. Similarly, the UK government’s ‘Industrial Strategy' White Paper from 2017 positions digital education and skills as a policy within one of the five foundations of economic policy.
Although Leland and Kasten (2002) argue that the factory model of education is no longer appropriate to equip young people with the modern skills required to enter the twenty first century workplace, similarities must be drawn from the influences of industry leaders on governments and modern educational policy as priorities emerge and the language of ‘bridging the skills gap of workers’ becomes commonplace (Ras et al, 2017). We need to be cautious when positioning makerspaces into formal education settings as an opportunity to plug a technological knowledge and skills gap for industry, and recognise tensions arising from the transfer of informal constructionism pedagogy into the school curriculum. In point of fact, we must not lose sight of the educational significance of makerspaces as a community of practice with learning goals and a “place where people come together to create and collaborate, to share resources, knowledge and stuff” (Britton, 2012). Educational makerspaces “harness the same intellectual playground concept for the purpose of inspiring deeper learning through deeper questioning” (Kurti, Kurti and Fleming, 2014) and more peer reviewed research should be pursued to recognise their significance beyond student engagement to support STEM learning (Peppler et al., 2016).
Makerspaces as the next iteration of educational computing
Stryker (2015) cited makerspaces as the next iteration for educational technology in K-12 schools in the USA as computing options have become more flexible and the necessity for computer labs reduced. Taking digital making and its emphasis on physical computing, this is an interesting viewpoint that can be related back into the UK education system after decades of government investment into educational computing.
Without doubt government policy since the Conservative government of 1979 has always placed educational technology as an ambitious opportunity to transform education, although we seem to have been on that brink for some decades now (Laurillard, 2008). With Kenneth Baker as Education Minister in 1981, the Department for Trade and Industry provided fifty per cent funding for the ‘Micros for Schools’ programme which saw the arrival of the first computer in schools alongside educational benefits framed as “deferred economic gratification” (Selwyn, 2002). Ideologically the government of that time held education to account and made it more centralised as it was implicated as the reason for economic demise, carrying the burden of Britain’s place in international technology standings (McNeil, 1991), rather than investing in learning technologies for educational gain. Influencers at this time included the home computing industry which benefited from the educational value of computing for economic gain and stakeholders in industry pressing for young people to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow (Baker, 1993). There are parallels here leading up to the disapplication of the ICT curriculum in 2014 by the Conservative government, when external influencers from industry were acknowledged as pushing for more computer science in the programmes of study in order to produce a skilled workforce for a digital economy (Cave and Rowell, 2014). We know the significance of makerspaces to equip adults with the skills associated with Industry 4.0 and now is the time to gather wider research into the place of school-based initiatives with an emphasis on ‘computational thinking’ in the wider curriculum, as the ‘philosophy that underpins computing’ set out by the Computing at School organisation in 2014.
Computing at School is the grass-roots organisation that first supported the campaign for more computer science in the modern curriculum and is funded by Microsoft, Google and the British Computing Society. Interestingly, their influence was amplified as Nesta published the ‘Next Gen’ report (Livingstone and Hope 2011) commissioned by Ed Vaizey, the Conservative Party Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries and ‘Shut Down or Restart’ (Royal Society, 2012) was directly commissioned by Microsoft, Google and university computer science departments (Williamson, 2016). Both of these publications took on policy significance from grassroots lobbying and this is significant when considering the sponsorship and growing advocacy of maker education and pedagogies from the private sector and organisations such as Nesta and Nominet Trust who operate in the domain as ‘connective nodes’. Nesta’s ‘Make Things Do Stuff’ initiative draws on the grassroots culture of maker education to mobilise young people with the “skills, creativity and desire to participate and work in an increasingly digital world”, and can be leveraged as a timely opportunity to champion the educational and economic value of a constructionist approach to learning in makerspaces.
Political shifts and education reforms with learning technologies over the last thirty years place the UK’s schools in a position to finally realise the potential to transform learning opportunities. The New Labour years between 1997 and 2010 saw an investment of over £5 billion from state funding towards educational technology infrastructure and environments to transform teaching in the digital era (Selwyn, 2008), and only since that investment have schools been able to consider their vision for digital learning and have confidence in the infrastructure. However, technology refresh and educational reform in these times of austerity have added to current tensions and barriers to transformation as school leaders grapple with the latest policies and initiatives, including the Ofsted framework for inspection, which are measures of their success. Improving teacher confidence, knowledge and skills to deliver the computing curriculum which launched five years ago is still a priority for government policy in 2019, with funding for a National Centre for Computing Education and related professional development for every teacher of Computing announced in the Industrial Strategy. Recent examples of integrating a makerspace into a school’s curriculum, infrastructure and fabrication of the building have occured when the subject specialist and senior leadership link recognise the pedagogical benefits and flexibility of a space to facilitate project-based learning with physical computing across a number of subjects, and is an area where further research could quantify impact, opportunities and challenges.
The nordic tradition of teaching craft expression and technology as a compulsory subject in secondary education is of interest to the potential development of makerspaces in UK schools at a time when Ofsted are heralding a broad and balanced curriculum for all students. Shifts from a narrowed two year curriculum during years seven and eight, back to a full three years to deliver a key stage three model, could see the return of all students studying technology and arts subjects across the first three years of secondary education. This additional curriculum time could allow for constructionist ‘learning by making’ programmes of study and the positioning of learning environments akin to technology workshops in schools from bygone years. The key findings from the Finnish study (Jaatinen and Lindfors, 2019) was that collaborative teams can support teachers’ and pupils’ innovative learning activities when the work is supported by shared spaces, practices and new tools. The paper concludes by relating preconditions for implementing makerspaces in the context of formal comprehensive education to learning outcomes and pedagogical innovation processes, and these possible challenges from financial constraints of team teaching should be noted as a barrier to adoption in the UK.
Digital fabrication and making are increasingly being used in formal and informal learning settings in UK schools which could be described as makerspaces, and education advocates argue that ‘maker culture’ can revolutionise learning and teaching and ‘disrupt’ or transform the curriculum (Gilbert, 2017). However, it should be noted that current initiatives are mainly at the grassroots level with confident teachers taking learning back into schools from informal and external community makerspaces such as hackspaces, higher education and library resource bases. With the level of interest and influence from connected organisations to education policy, this could be the time to consider a larger-scale testbed for makerspaces in schools, such as the national Makerskola initiative in Sweden.
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