Be sure to scroll down in this post to see the many photos of children’s work, and their descriptions of what it made them think of.
These days, many educators are preoccupied with helping their students develop creativity. We can harness children’s innate creative reflex in Kindergarten, and set them on a path of making, tinkering and creating. If you wonder where to start infusing the Maker spirit in a Kindergarten class – a creativity table may be just the thing for you!
A creativity table is an open-ended activity center. Children usually prefer play that stimulates their curiosity and gives free rein to their imagination and creativity. One of the best ways to enhance their natural curiosity is to introduce a wide variety of materials we call ‘loose parts’ into their play setting. Your creativity table should offer your students plenty of loose parts to choose from.
Loose parts possess infinite play possibilities. They offer multiple rather than single outcomes; no specific set of directions accompanies them; no single result is inevitable; they are open-ended.
Materials become invitations that don’t focus immediately on the creation of products but instead support the children’s building relationships with those materials. Louder for the people at the back: materials are invitations. They do not lead the child to any particular course of action. The materials, and the creativity table ethos, allow children to build their own connection to what is offered. Materials are usually artfully presented, organised and sorted, preferably in transparent containers.
Transparent containers filled with loose parts
The children are given time to explore, to touch, to feel the textures and to let the materials lead their creativity with no particular outcome, product or set steps in mind. The invitation to create is open-ended and not time-restrained.
Their beautiful creations are ephemeral. This may be difficult for some children who are used to produce work that is always considered final and displayed. They learn to enjoy making them and then letting them go, though they can live on in the pictures that they take of them.
In one teacher’s words:
“[The first time] I put it out there, I thought ‘Let’s see what happens’. I’ll just change it. Have them create some kind of images with shapes. They have had experience before [with art work that is ephemeral]. It’s really hard for them [not to keep their creation]. But they’re so good. They just create, have fun, and if they want me to take a picture, I can take a picture and put in their portfolio binder. But [I tell them] ‘Don’t make it permanent’. And they learn to do that. They respect that. And they respect putting everything back in its own place. It’s kind of fun actually [that they enjoy sorting things back into their containers]. Usually this is my plasticine/play dough table, but I’m looking forward to changing it up and see what else they can create with the stuff I’m just going to put there: my Exploration Table”
She compares it to building sand castles on the beach.
“You create and play, and the next day it’s no longer there so you can start over again.”
When the children were “finished”, the teacher took pictures and asked them what their creations made them think of. (not “What did you make”!) Here is what they said about their creations – “It makes me think of…”
There were many more. All their creations were beautiful. But even more beautiful is what the children SAW in them. That is both creative AND poetic!
This very simple activity over time creates a maker mindset which values autonomy and exploration, which makes tinkering the default first steps of any activity, which gives permission to try different ideas and which provides invaluable experience with the medium used.
The word on the street these days is Design. It comes up in terms like ‘design thinking’ and ‘design process’. Educators are increasingly being urged to use design in their professional practice and to teach design skills to their students. But what is design? What is its role in education in the 21st century? And finally, how are these ideas related to STEAM and Makerspaces more broadly?
What is ‘design’?
The word ‘design’ exists as a noun and a verb, and has been used in a wide variety of contexts, leading to confusion as to its meanings. When we ask kids in elementary classrooms to tell us what design is, most of them say “to decorate, to make something look nice, like a room makeover”. I would imagine many adults have the same definition in mind as well. Oxford Dictionaries offers the following neutral definition:
de·sign /dəˈzīn/…1.1. Do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.
I like this definition because of its clear insitence on both planning and action, and its lack of reference to context. Sure, you can design a room to make it look pretty, if that is your intention, but the design act can be deployed in a variety of contexts of widening scope, most of which have little or nothing to do with making something look pretty.
Todd Olson of The Design Innovator offers up this more detailed definition of design as a discipline:
design (verb), as a discipline: plan the creation of a product or service with the intention of improving human experience with respect to a specified problem.
The plot thickens. Now we are adding shading and detail to the acts of planning and action found in the Oxford definition. Two new elements emerge: 1) design occurs in answer to a problem and 2) with the goal of improving the experience for the user.
Wikipedia lets us glimpse the scope of design as a discipline across contexts:
Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams, and sewing patterns). Design has different connotations in different fields … In some cases, the direct construction of an object (as in pottery, engineering, management, coding, and graphic design) is also considered to use design thinking.
The design process
Turns out that humans are designers. It used to be that disciplines wanted to be unique and bespoke, with their own ways of approaching the thorny problems of their respective fields. As disciplines emerged, and as information didn’t flow as freely as it does today, idiosyncratic language prevented us from seeing the patterns that unite all disciplines involved with the construction of objects, systems or measurable human interaction – in short, the patterns that unite all of human activity.
Enter the design process. Say you’re a human in the Stone Age. You need to kill and skin an animal more efficiently (problem). Ok, you can use sticks that you sharpen by rubbing on rocks, or rocks themselves, especially those sharp ones you found the other day (brainstorm). Oh, there’s an animal now, let’s try the sharp stick that we have here (prototype). Ok, it works, but it broke in half because of the impact, so what if we attach this here pointy rock we found with some vines (make)? Hmmm, that was good, but the rock is getting dull already, so how are we going to make it sharper (reflect)? We need to sharpen this rock and see how that will work (iterate). Sounds familiar? We’ve been doing it since the dawn of humankind. No wonder it seems so obvious.
Design for educators vs teaching design to students
Here is where things get a bit meta, to borrow a colloquial term. Teachers can be designers of educational experiences themselves, as the classroom professionals that they are. And, they can also teach the design process to students. These are two different acts – and I’ll tackle teacher-as-designer in another post. Let’s focus on students for now.
Why teach the design process to students?
For the most part, education has shifted from ‘knowing about’ something to engaging in action in a specific field. The Quebec Education Program emerged in direct response to this educational climate by rooting its subject area programmes in competencies – i.e. what a learner can do with knowledge and skills in a given context at various points in time. ‘Doing’ implies engaging in one of the many processes we leverage to help us navigate complexity: a research process, a writing process, a problem-solving process, a creative process, a project process, a design process. The design process, like the other processes listed, has the benefit of being able to cross disciplinary boundaries, preparing students for adult life of their choosing. In the Science and Technology programme, the Cycle 1 Secondary text references the Technological Process, which can be said to fit under the umbrella of the design process.
The design process also allows learned to develop the Cross Curricular Competencies (that bête noire of the QEP, but very dear to my own heart), or those 6 C’s of Deep Learning that Michael Fullan talks about, or even 21st Century Skills that we see mentioned in the media. No matter by what name they are called, we all agree that they are the cornerstone of preparing young people for active participation in the world.
Makerspaces and design thinking
It’s no secret that here at LEARN we are big proponents of Making in schools – of getting students’ heads, hearts AND hands right into their learning. The educators with whom we have been privileged to collaborate, have highlighted for us how important it is to have structures within which the chaos of making finds meaning. Make no mistake, when you open up your classroom to Making or bring your students to a dedicated Makerspace, it can get pretty chaotic. Sure, kids are engaged for the most part, and most of them are working on something, but what are they learning? Are they all learning the same thing? (Is that important? A question for another post, perhaps).
The design process brings order to what can otherwise be a chaotic learning environment. It provides structure for the unstructured and the ambiguous. For some students, less interested in tinkering and making for its own sake, it can also provide a purpose, as they wrestle with thorny problems and come up with practical solutions to prototype in the Makerspace.
Visuals of the design process abound and you can pretty much choose one that appeals to you and work with that one. The key is consistency in terms of visuals and vocabulary – your students should have one process to work with, and their student learning tools should match the visual you use. If you see after some time that the visual you have chosen doesn’t suit your evolving needs – change it! Find a new one, or make your own with something like Piktochart.
Diana Rendina from Renovated Learning uses this process with her students – and makes her student tool available for all as a Google Doc:
Here are some other design process visuals
This one above from Stanford’s d.school initiative includes the step Empathize, which allows younger learners not used to thinking about the needs of others to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see the world through their eyes. Heck, apparently, its not just kids who are not used to thinking about the needs of others since Todd Olson of The Design Innovatorwrites “Arguably the most important new line of thinking is around the concept of user-centeredness, which is at the heart of the design thinking movement.” (emphasis mine).
However, I think that if you are just starting out, simpler is better, and you can always add on.
We talk a great deal about schools needing to prepare children for their future, and not ours. We’re not always sure how to go about it, either. But one thing is clear: to teach students how to work with the design process in whatever context, is to give them the gift of navigating those problems that we cannot yet even name.
Reflective Question: Is Design Thinking or processes associated with design on your professional radar for this year? How does it fit with some of your current practices, whether as consultant or teacher?
Wiggins and McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design. Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall. p. 24. ISBN0-13-195084-3.
In early April, a LEARN team composed of Chris Colley and Christine Truesdale visited three schools in the Gaspé to work with students and teachers on the Makerspace idea with our Open Creative Space model. The following is the post published by RECIT pedagogical consultant Craig Bullett on the ESSB blog. We are reposting it.
Eastern Shores School Board showcased our Makerspace initiative as the product of a Professional Development Innovation Grant (PDIG). The project was a collaboration of Teachers from Gaspe Elementary, Belle Anse, and Shigawake Port Daniel Schools. The project was coordinated by the ESSB local RECIT, and generously supported by LEARN Quebec’s Open Creative Spaces Team. LEARN loaded up a van with everything under the sun, and brought the Makerspace concept to the Eastern Shores School Board.
The event took place from April 3rd to 6th, and involved…120 students from grades 3 to 8.
11 Teachers (representing 8 different schools).
The Open Creative Spaces Team from LEARN Quebec.
Gaspe Elementary, Shigawake Port Daniel School, and the Anchor Adult Ed Center hosted their very own Makerspace concepts with students from their respective communities.
Day 1 April 3rd:
Shigawake Port Daniel School with grade 4-5-6 students from SPDS.
SPDS staff transformed the school’s lunch area and stage into an impressive open space to accommodate everyone. Students could move freely through the various stations. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) applications were blended into each of the various stations including,…
Building motorized artbots which draw on their own.
Programming the Ollie and Sphero robots to navigate an obstacle course built by students.
Building a water dam with lego, to create energy.
Creating an homopolar motor, powered by magnets, batteries, and copper wire.
Creating a piano with keys made of play-doh, fruit and cups of water.
Programing turtle art to draw shapes.
Designing and Building a catapult to knock down a tower of cups.
Day 2 April 4th
Gaspe Elementary School with grade 5-6 students from Gaspe Elementary School.
On this day, we converted the entire Gaspe Elementary Gymnasium into the GES Makerspace. The same Challenges and activities were replicated as done at SPDS. It is interesting to note the different outcomes with a simple change of venue. We could have brought the SPDS students to this location, and the experience would have been completely new! GES students exposed new angles and perspectives not seen the previous day.
Day 3 April 5th
Gaspe Elementary School with grade 3-4 students from Gaspe Elementary and Belle Anse School.
We opened the gym once again to our newest student audience. The mixture of students from 2 different schools created an interesting dynamic to start the day. It was clear to see students sticking to their own school group initially. As the day progressed, it was impossible to tell what student was from which school. They were all Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, Artists, and Mathematicians. The selection of stations and the duration to stay at each was left completely to student choice. It was amazing! No stations were ever empty and none were overcrowded. Students moved freely between stations in no particular order and without time restrictions. This phenomenon held true for all of our Makerspace days. It simply worked!
Day 4 April 6th
The Anchor Adult Education Center with grade 7-8 students from New Carlisle High School.
We brought the Makerspace concept to The Anchor to share the concept with the Adult Ed Community. On this day, we brought High school Students to experience the concept, while Adult Ed staff could also appreciate the phenomenon. The concept of stations is making it’s way into Adult Ed Centers across Quebec, and there are similarities to the makerspace concept. I think we planted some seeds for community Makerspace ideas to emerge from the event. Several Teachers commented on the lack of discipline problems and interventions needed to keep students engaged. Students were proud of accomplishments, really stuck to the task, and got through some difficult challenges.
This makerspace event could not have succeeded without the proper framework guiding it. It was important to start with the appropriate mindset. We started each day by reading a story. We chose The most Magnificent Thing, but any similar story could work. It is important to talk about overcoming challenges and not giving up with a challenge. It is also important to emphasize that mistakes are ‘okay’. Finally, remember to have fun!
We concluded each day with reflections from students. This allowed learners to consolidate their experience and identify what about the Makerspace concept, makes learning fun. Typically similar words came from each session. Choice, empowerment, autonomy, creativity, cooperation, trial and error.
We can say without a doubt that we learned something new everyday. We, being everyone involved! Organizers, Teachers, Administrators, and Students.
The most notable observations were the absence of conflict, the seamless cooperation, and the easy transitions between activities.
A few weeks ago, Chris Colley and I were at Edgewater Elementary School (LBPSB) to try our hand at Making with our youngest group ever – Grade One. Since the last school year, we have visited over two dozen classrooms, and have held just over 10 Open Creative Space days at our offices or on the road, working with both teachers and students on the Maker Mindset through hands-on making. You can read about it here and here. We’ve been mainly aiming at the middle, that grade 5-6 sweet spot where maturity and flexible scheduling meet in the perfect learning storm. But we’ve been curious about 1) how our STEAM challenges would scale up or down, 2) how long it would take grade one students to complete each challenge and whether they had the requisite attention span and 3) how they handled some of the more complex materials.
Adapting our challenges to Cycle 1
Although at LEARN we use the inclusive term Open Creative Space for our own makerspace, many in the anglophone education community in Quebec have taken a shine to the STEAM initiatives that have swept across our neighbours to the south. With that in mind, we’ve called our Maker challenges STEAM challenges so that students engage with familiar terminology already in use in their schools. For Cycle 1, we chose those challenges that we could see young learners being able to complete with minimal adult intervention. As it was our first time working in a structured way with Grade 1 students in a Maker context (we are both parents of younger kids, so have plenty of recent informal experience to draw upon), we agreed to try out some challenges even if we weren’t sure they would work, in a spirit of joyful experimentation. We chose the following challenges:
Art-bot: Make a robot that draws using a small motor and simple dollar store items. Our hypothesis: Students will be able to do this with careful scaffolding
Lego design: work with Lego blocks to create something based on a design specification. Our hypothesis: Easy-peasy lemon squeezy
Pinwheel: make a working pinwheel that spins. Our hypothesis: Doable with some adult help
Turtle Art: Basic programming challenge using a Scratch-based interface and programming cards. Our hypothesis: Probably too hard for grade 1
Claymation: Create an animation featuring a moving object. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1
Straw solids: Create a platonic solid from straws and pipe-cleaners. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1
Working with Cycle 1 students – a PMI*
Pascale Quenneville’s Grade One students were excited to being “doing Science”, as they phrased it. They were also used to working through stations, so we decided to use their existing class structure during the challenges. This was familiar to them and made transitions even more seamless than in older grades, and freed us up to focus on getting the challenge tables ready for the next group. Each student was able to complete three challenges over the course of the half-day we spent with them. I’ve divided the stations using a Plus-Minus-Interesting reflection model.
In terms of sheer learning joy, the two clear winners were the Art-bot and the Claymation challenges. We felt good about these challenges for the age group and were proved right. At the Art-bot station, grade one students were able to work in pairs to power a small motor using a battery and alligator cables, to affix the motor and battery to a cup and to attach markers to the cup. The students struggled somewhat with the fine motor skills required to affix the alligator clip to the tiny prongs of the motor, so we gave them a break and cut their duct tape for them. Judicious scaffolding. The testing phase was full of squeals and questions such as “Why doesn’t my robot move as fast as their robot?” and ‘How come the blue marker isn’t touching the paper?”.
On the surface, the pinwheel challenge seemed a shoo-in for Cycle 1. However, we forgot about the straight pin that needs to go through the paper and into the wooden dowel, making this challenge impossible for grade 1 students to complete on their own. Creating a square out of a rectangular piece of paper and then cutting only part of the way along a line were also aspects of the pinwheel challenge that required serious adult intervention. After the first round of students, we switched to using pencils instead of dowels, and sticking the straight pin into the eraser part. This was easier, but still out of reach for grade 1. This challenge would be best done as a multi-age challenge where older students create the pinwheel and Cycle 1 students participate in the testing phase with a fan.
Another challenge that we felt good about for grade 1 was creating straw solids, using pipe cleaners. When we heard that Pascale’s grade 1 students had done solids earlier in the school year, we were even more confident. It turns out that threading pipe cleaners through straws, and twisting them together to form the solid was somewhat out of reach for a majority of students. It was another station at which adult intervention was required to a degree that made the challenge both uninspiring for some students, and inappropriate for our goal of having kids engage fully in the act of making.
One of our newer challenges is one where students choose a card and have to build something with Lego according to the design constraint identified. An example of a design constraint is “build something that is very tall and stands alone” or “build something that moves”. It was interesting to note that the boys in Pascale’s class were highly motivated to complete this challenge, even when they didn’t exactly know what to do. In the future, we will be trying to frame the design challenge questions in various ways to see if any resonate more with girls.
We were also unsure if grade one students would be able to do basic programming with Turtle Art on the iPad. After some back and forth, Chris went through the programming cards and chose the simplest ones, with the simplest series of commands. After a brief intro, the kids were off and running, with very minimal adult intervention.
Overall, our first foray into engaging Cycle 1 kids in Maker activities was very successful, with both teacher and students full of enthusiasm and plans for the future. Pascale Quenneville suggested that her school create a continuum for maker skills and attitudes, so that kids in grade one would be already developing competencies needed for more complex making in Cycle 3. We have seen Cycle 3 students be extremely capable when faced with our pre-planned open-ended Maker challenges. The ultimate goal, however, is for those students to have the competencies necessary for their own projects. Starting as early as Cycle 1 would mean that by the time students hit Cycle 3, they would be familiar with the practical (not just theoretical) notions of circuits, of simple machines, of building, of planning, of trial and error, of perseverance. That’s the dream.
*PMI – Plus, Minus, Interesting
Other posts about Making and our Open Creative Space initiative
Last year, LEARN started exploring the idea of Makerspaces as a way to increase students’ engagement in school. The idea itself is not new. Originally incubated by hackers and computer tinkerers, Makerspaces have taken hold in communities across the world, as people rediscover the simple human joy of making something with their hands. Admittedly, the kinds of making associated with Makerspaces are usually somehow related to engineering and technology, but a growing contingent of low-tech makers are exploring the intersections between engineering and craft, between art and design. At LEARN, we chose to embrace all forms of making (or Making), and have called our makerspace an Open Creative Space, to honour both high- and low-tech making.
We started off holding Open Creative Space days for our LEARN staff composed of teachers and pedagogical consultants. We figured the best way to learn about making was to… make. Once we had a few Open Creative Space days under our belts, we opened up our offices to local educators from all the English School Boards and the QAIS network to join us in joyful, curious making. A lot of what we discovered about our own process is informing our work with schools and communities. In this post, we discuss our discoveries, from each of our perspectives, in the hope of shining a light on some of the more interesting aspects of making (or Making).
Our Personal Experiences with Making
“The human hand is so beautifully formed, its actions are so powerful, so free and yet so delicate that there is no thought of its complexity as an instrument; we use it as we draw our breath, unconsciously.” – Frank R. Wilson
If you asked me last year whether or not I was a maker, I would have replied ‘no’. I come from that peculiar generation, in which – although my parents both know how to make things, sew or build or repair – I was not taught these skills myself. As I was growing up, I was surrounded by the pervasive value that making was what you did if you weren’t good at school. Secondary 3 Technology class was where the kids who weren’t good at academic subjects excelled, and I felt complacent in the knowledge that although I couldn’t cut a straight line or use a drill, I could use my brain to get good grades. In the hierarchy of human abilities in my mind at that time, brain trumped hand. Today, I know that the brain and the hand are inextricably linked in the human experience, from the time early hominids developed opposable thumbs and stood upright. In fact, our experience of the world is fundamentally changed (improved) when we engage with the world with our hands rather than with our eyes and ears alone. Babies and children know this. Neuroscientists know this. But somehow, along the way, we decided that our capacity for abstract thought and creativity could be developed using the brain alone, with visual and aural stimuli alone. That not only was this possible, but that it was desirable. Exit the hand.
Innovative educator, Gary Stager of Constructing Modern Knowledge often says when addressing educators “Less Us, More Them.” The idea being simple, shift agency whenever possible onto the learner. Throughout my career I have found my greatest learning moments with students and teachers have been when I asked an intriguing question or assigned a challenge, and simply stepped back and let the magic happen. However, this morphing mindset from teacher lead subject areas to student based discovery of a multitude of subjects and skills to boot has shown me student learning comes from personal connections, interest and living an experience. This quickly opened up my approach towards students and later teachers, by making students do stuff with their hands, meaningful stuff with a purpose, and saw student engagement erupt in every school I visited. Through well designed, projects, challenges, learning activities, or workshops, like making rockets, building homopolar engines, creating animations, documentaries, complex machines, or circuits, I was easily able to give students back their learning.
Open Creative Space at LEARN
…for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. – Aristotle
We have been thinking a lot at LEARN about student engagement and ways to support schools grow relevancy from within. Dr Seymour Papert’s Eight Big Ideas Behind The Constructionist Learning Lab helped to inspire our very own Open Creative Space (OCS). In this space, the number one rule is “Make something, learn something”. What can this look like in a classroom? was our big question. Our OCS is really that open, an incubator for educators! We don’t tell you what to do, we don’t hand out instructions, we don’t demonstrate what we want you to do. What we do is ask questions, provide support, offer a variety of amazing materials to help ideas or projects develop. We talk, we reflect, we collaborate, we learn. This is an uneasy experience for most simply because we are not used to it. Many educators have come through our hard fun space, and at first are slightly overwhelmed with the open ended nature but soon discover once a good question is asked, they are providing with sufficient time, appropriate materials and of course good support real learning kicks in and mindsets change.
The first time I sat down at a table in our Open Creative Space, I was determined. I could do this. I had a buddy, someone whom I felt knew more than I did about programming, about circuits. The table had an overwhelming array of books on it, and I clung to the most obvious-looking one like a drowning person does a life buoy. Books, I understood. Makerspace Lesson One: Seek out the familiar in the unfamiliar. My buddy decided he wanted to make a theremin, a project located about two thirds of the way through the book. Fighting my desire to start at the beginning, I started by following the steps outlined. We had to backtrack of course and consult some of the earlier bits in the book, but in the end we were successful. Makerspace Lesson Two: Know yourself. I’m cautious and a planner. This may not be bold or audacious, but there isn’t only one way to engage with making. As the kids are saying these days: “you do you”. On subsequent Open Creative Space days, I went with the flow, gravitating sometimes toward the things that felt comfortable and sometimes to the things that scared me. What surprised me most was that sometimes the things that felt comfortable turned out to be quite challenging and the things that made me nervous turned out to be easy and fun. Makerspace Lesson Three: Check your baggage. Every OCS day I discover more about how I learn and about how others learn, while picking up some valuable skills along the way.
Above All, A Maker Mindset
We are approaching the end of our second year working in our Open Creative Space and sharing the Maker model with educators. In this journey, we have realized that the most important thing about Makerspaces is not the technology, the equipment, the supplies, the kits, nor even the clever storage solutions (although these have their merits to be sure). The key to successful and sustainable Making is to above all embody a Maker mindset and help others develop one in turn. It is the core belief that we are most engaged in our learning when we make something that will drive the creation of Makerspaces that fit the community from which they emerge.
Curious about Makerspaces, (or ArtHives, Genius Hours and Passion Projects)? There’s no better way to learn about the Maker movement than by living the experience yourself! Once a month, LEARN invites educators to its Open Creative Space in Laval for a hands-on session. Participants engage in the process of making and tinkering, with access to resources, tools, ideas and community. The next session is May 27th. Spaces are limited and tend to go fast. You can RSVP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The LEARN community of bloggers is made up of pedagogical consultants, teachers and other educators working on a variety of LEARN projects. Together, we represent a wide spectrum of professional experience and opinions about education in the 21st century, especially when it comes to the anglophone community of Quebec, Canada. Learn Teaching and Learning blog.