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"It's important to not get seduced by the cool stuff" in some makerspaces, education technology professor Jackie Gerstein told conference attendees on Saturday. "Spaghetti and marshmallows can engage students for hours."
Gerstein, who also teaches gifted elementary students in Title 1 schools in New Mexico, insists that making "doesn't have to be expensive." Teachers can bring these experiences into the classroom without pricey 3-D printers or other top-of-the-line equipment.
What's as important as the tools and materials, she maintains, is framing the learning experience so that students develop transferrable knowledge and skills. In her session, "A Framework for Implementing Maker Education Activities," Gerstein noted that "too often, we just do the activity, and we don't put enough intention behind it." To ensure that maker experiences are rich and meaningful, she suggests sandwiching activities with frontloading and reflection.
Frontloading is "making clear the purpose of an activity prior to actually doing it," Gerstein explained. Instead of simply telling students how an activity works and handing out materials, frame it by giving them something to think about. "The idea is that if students clearly understand the purpose or lesson upfront, that lesson will repeatedly show itself during the action component."
Essentially, "you're planting seeds in their head of what you want their focus to be," Gerstein said. "It's not just 'let's try this out.'"
Educators can frontload an activity by specifying the standards (introducing them and explaining how they will be applied) or by posing essential questions or scenarios to set the stage. Frontloading puts the hands-on work into context, Gerstein added. "We have to make sure that kids understand why they're doing it and extract something that they're going to take with them after the experience is over." What will they learn from it? How will they apply that knowledge in the future?
The set-up leading students into a maker activity should be followed by reflection when closing it out. There's a tendency, however, to just build the squishy circuits or the Gamibots "and move on," said Gerstein. Instead, try to include time for reflection "right after the make," when the experience is still fresh in students' minds.
To drive home the point, she highlighted a research study from Harvard Business Review, which concluded that learning from direct experience is more effective when combined with reflection—"that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience."
Teachers can support reflection with an exit ticket, a quick pair-share, or simple questioning: "What is one instance where you asked [a peer] for help and one instance where you gave help?" Other options are to have students take pictures and blog about the activity, sketchnote it, or even play a reflective board game.
Gerstein highlighted her message by having the session participants practice the framework firsthand. After a short lead up, they tinkered with Play-Doh, LED circuits, and Gamibots, and then reflected on the experience in small groups.
When leading a maker activity, no matter the tools used or the level of complexity, remember to plan for the pre-game and post-show, Gerstein underscored. Without providing a clear purpose and time for reflection, "You're leaving learning up to chance."
Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of Education Update newsletter.
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