Facility Planning

Making Things to Learn

For the past 100 years, we have believed that academic learning was distinctly different than applied learning. We thought academic learning was about cognition, knowing things and applied learning was about making things. We set up schools to serve both sides of that divide, especially at the high school level, creating a system that forced students to choose between two separate paths of learning. Traditional high schools typically had high levels of academics and low levels of applied learning. Vocational high schools had high levels of applied learning and were generally perceived as having low levels of academics.

Now, we know better. Research tells us that applied learning reinforces retention of knowledge, and can be a major factor in the creation of knowledge. We now understand that application can create the need to know the academics, and that high levels of academics increases the effectiveness of applied learning. The cognition-application divide we created long ago has been eroded by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs in the last decade. STEM has shown that the divide was not so great after all and that a high school junior making robots could be paving her way to acceptance at MIT.

Vocational programs have been taught as learning to make things. Now we know there is educational value in the inverse: making things to learn.

Making things to learn is the driving force behind two closely related innovations in education: design thinking and maker thinking. Design thinking recognizes that the processes routinely employed by designers such as architects and industrial designers embody many highly valued 21st-century skills: innovation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. Maker thinking expands the concept to embrace the understanding that knowledge can be constructed by making things.

Early adopters in making things and design thinking are highly visible in two opposite ends of the education spectrum. Big Picture Company schools, a national network of public district or charter schools founded on personalized, real-world learning leads the way in engaging students in an exploratory process in which “tinkering becomes thinkering becomes thinking.” Several independent schools in and around San Francisco and Boston, cities with high-tech culture and world-class universities, also have big lessons for public education.

Secondary students at the Athenian School, just east of San Francisco, are now making their third airplane. Their new campus master plan calls for the Maker Space to be relocated as close as possible to academics, near the center of the campus, adjacent to the library. Second grade students at the Brightworks School in San Francisco designed and constructed chairs to meet the physical needs of their fellow students. Their curriculum goal was to learn about the human body. Making comfortable chairs required a detailed understanding of the skeleton and muscles. It also elevated math skills. High school students at Nu Vu Studio, in Cambridge, have been designing and making prosthetics for children who have lost limbs through amputation. Their highly innovative designs, developed as prototypes, can be seen on the school’s website, cambridge.nuvustudio.com.

Stanford’s D School and MIT’s Media Lab are university role models for this kind of learning where innovation is a goal and creativity is applauded. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is now undertaking a three-year study on how making things contributes to cognitive growth, and its Graduate School of Design has produced Design and Thinking, a movie exploring these concepts.

One of the most promising aspects of making things is how modest its space requirements can be, thus minimizing one of the deployment challenges to this type of learning. Making things does require tools and spaces to house the tools, but instead of the large and expensive shops we know from vocational education, Maker Spaces can be small, with space-saving tools such as a 3-D printer and a tabletop drill press. Sound and dust are easily contained. Brightworks has a Fabrication Lab contained in an 8-foot-by-25-foot cargo box. Nu Vu has created its Fabrication Lab in a repurposed 200-square-foot office space on the second floor of its rented building. Brightworks and NuVu have design studio spaces, but studios can easily be created from available classrooms in our typical public schools.

Will the academic world see the value in design thinking and maker thinking? Will design thinking and maker thinking gain the popular acceptance of STEM? I hope so. Then we will be able to offer students choice of how they make things to learn.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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