The Maker Movement and the Rebirth of Constructionism

The Maker Movement and the Rebirth of Constructionism

Educational theory and practice have begun to appear more frequently in the popular press. Terms such as collaborative learning, project-based learning, metacognition, inquiry-based learning, and so on, might be new to some audiences, but they have a relatively long and well-documented history for many educators. The most widely-known and promising pedagogical approach is constructivism grounded on the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Given how it has transformed my own understanding of pedagogy, teaching, and learning, constructionism seems ripe for a similar resurgence — like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Taylorization and standardized testing. Constructionism brings creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation to the forefront of the learning process.

Over the last decade my teaching has undergone a dramatic transformation as I played with many methods for getting my students to learn not only through doing, but also through creating. Initially this interest was sparked by a belief that targeting the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) would lead to mastery in all the other cognitive domains. Later it was bolstered by an interest in creating more collaborative learning opportunities for my students.

I also felt passionately that anything my students create should have an authentic audience. I realized, after reading the works of influential writing theorist Peter Elbow, that when they wrote essays for me, they were writing to be judged, not writing to inform. Elbow argued that:

When students write for teachers, they are writing ‘uphill’ in the authority dimension: instead of having the normal language-using experience of trying to communicate ‘across’ to others in order to tell them what’s on their mind, they are having the experience of trying to communicate ‘up’ to someone whose only reason for reading is to judge the acceptability of what they wrote and how they wrote it.

My first experiment was in having them write essays for their classmates, and although it was a vast improvement, still the audience seemed less than authentic.

Fortunately, my efforts to transform the way I teach came at the same time we were experiencing the societal shift from information consumerism to a production and remix culture. Now my students could write for a truly authentic audience through blogs, wikis, and websites. As I strove to facilitate learning through creating, I realized that text-based creations were only the surface and started to build learning experiences in which my students explored and leveraged the wealth of creativity tools which were freely available online, including podcasting, screencasting, online presentation, mindmapping, animation, and infographic tools. Rather than having them write essays, I encouraged them to explore various forms of digital media. They created things such as Prezi presentations, Screencast-O-Matic screencasts, Mindomo mindmaps, Go!Animate animations, and AudioBoo podcasts. I was worried at first that using these technologies would frustrate or confuse them, but was amazed at the immediate and powerful effect this had on my students’ learning process. Their comments reflected deep engagement, often saying that they would use the tools and the learning at hand in other areas of their life. Furthermore, comments such as “I feel like I can do so much more than I ever thought I could” demonstrated greater empowerment.

As the variety of types of creative artifacts my students were producing increased, I realized that I needed a stronger pedagogical framework to keep the work clearly aligned with the learning objectives. Impressive as they were, I couldn’t justify the creation of all these artifacts unless these creations were the best possible means of achieving the learning objectives. I didn’t want to fall into the common trap of using technology for the sake of using technology. After much trial and error, the solution for my particular situation emerged: published digital portfolios. These were in the form of individual student websites to which students would add their digital creations each week. The need to help the reader understand the artifacts produced a benefit which I had overlooked at first, namely, the need for metacognitive processes. When the students explained to the reader what they had created and why, their own learning was consolidated and deepened. An additional benefit was the opportunity for both individualization and collaboration. Each week students would individually create, introduce, and publish artifacts on their personal digital portfolio websites. Then they would share their work with their classmates through an online discussion board and were required to give in-depth feedback to their classmates.

As I searched for the theoretical vocabulary by which to explain what I was doing, I gravitated towards the works of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. However, it wasn’t until I encountered the ideas of Seymour Papert, one of the founders of MIT Media Lab and the first proponent of constructionist pedagogy, that I realized there was a clear theoretical and research basis for my pedagogical practices. At its heart constructionism argues for what I had been trying to articulate: learning happens best when learners construct their understanding through a process of constructing things to share with others. Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman explain in their book The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in Youth Communities:

Constructionism is based on two types of construction. First, it asserts that learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge from their experience in the world. People don’t get ideas; they make them. This aspect of construction comes from the constructivist theory of knowledge development by Jean Piaget. To Piaget’s concept, Papert added another type of construction, arguing that people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful products.

Imagine my surprise and joy when I realized that I had arrived at constructionism prior to knowing that such a theory even existed. I believe that thousands of other educators are unknowingly working within the constructionist paradigm as well. Although many within the Maker movement are aware that it has it’s roots in constructionism, the movement is gaining impressive momentum without the majority of Makers realizing that there is a strong theoretical foundation behind their work. After I came to understand this connection between my practices and the supporting theoretical framework I was better able to focus and refine my practice. Even more importantly, I felt more confident and powerful in forging ahead with further experiments in the learning situations I design for my learners.

Constructionism, a theory developed by Seymour Papert, one of the founders of MIT Media Lab, articulates a theoretical foundation for learning based on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation. Papert had previously worked with Jean Piaget, but felt that Piaget’s constructivism placed too much emphasis on the internal mental processes of learners. He insisted that learning occurs not only through learners constructing meaning, but also through constructing real-world inventions which can be shared with others. He argues that:

the construction that takes place ‘in the head’ often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’—a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what I mean by ‘in the world’ is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there.

The close relation of this idea to constructivism can be seen in the name which Papert gave his theory. Perhaps the similarity of the name constructionism to constructivism is one reason the theory never gained widespread recognition. Constructivism was born in the early days of personal computers and thus work on the theory was centered around computers, programming languages, and connections between computers and real-world artifacts. This was before the digital age in which internet technologies allowed anyone to become a producer of information rather than a consumer of information.

The culmination of my quest for more powerful learning grounded in theory and research came when recently I conducted an experiment in pushing constructionism into the digital age. In one of the classes I taught at Western Oregon University the students usually read four books on a topic of some contention in the realm of technology in education, engage in deep discussion, and write critical analyses of the ideas presented in the books. This term, however, I flipped the model entirely and had my students author and publish a book. In ten weeks the students had researched, written, edited, and published Massively Open: How Massive Open Online Courses Changed the World, the first book ever written on the subject of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

As I analyzed and started conducting formal research on what had occurred through this process (manuscript in preparation), I found that I had been supplementing constructionism with my own innovations. I had added a strong element of continual systematized reflection (metacognition) and more emphasis on an authentic public audience. My work in this project was influenced by other pedagogies besides constructivism and constructionism, such as Elbow’s Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching, and Magolda and King’s ideas surrounding self-authorship.

The time is right for a rebirth of constructionism. In the early work on constructionism, the focus was on childhood education. The original experiments involved programming computers and interfacing student-made real-world objects with computers. This lives on today in the Maker movement. However, constructionism is still at the fringes of educational discourse. In order for the rebirth of constructionism to be brought into the mainstream, we need to broaden our definitions and research. They need to encompass learning at all ages in both formal and informal learning situations. Most importantly, our research and practice must encompass a wide variety of the digital tools which form the landscape of our students’ future learning and work environments.

A major challenge ahead will be the move toward research into a broadened theory of learning which goes beyond the original confines of constructionism. In order to not muddy the waters of the original theory by adding other elements, I have chosen to call the work I have been doing authorship learning. The core elements of authorship learning include multiple senses of authorship, including students authoring their creations, students authoring their own meanings and understandings, students engaging in self-authorship, and broader public authorship through publishing under Open Culture licenses which allow public remix authoring. Other key aspects of authorship learning include student ownership of learning, authentic audiences, and metacognitive practices. These aspects emerge from research and the experience of educators: students learn best when they construct their own meaning. This is facilitated most powerfully through a process of having them construct meaningful physical or digital things in the real world which are intended for a real audience, and these artifacts are constructed in collaboration with others through negotiated roles and through a process which involves systematic metacognition.

New digital tools available to students have flung open the doors to creativity, imagination, and student-directed learning. The sheer number of possibilities is daunting for any educator. Educational theory can help guide our choices and guidance of student learning. Constructionism has inspired me like no other idea in education has ever inspired me.

[Photo by seier+seier]

About the Author

Jonan Donaldson

Jonan Donaldson is an instructional designer at Oregon State University where he also teaches in the College of Education.

20 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Interesting article and thanks. We are designing a new secondary school in our district and maker spaces form a core of the design.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Jordan

  2. Stefanus says:

    Such an inspiring article. You gave me ideas for enhancing meaningful learning in my class in Indonesia. Thank you…

  3. Bobby Wood says:

    Spot on!

  4. Thank you. This was a very informative post, helpful in differentiating the two theories. I had alway leaned stronger towards Vygotsky than Piaget then as I read your post I realized that as I visualized learning within a zone of proximal development it was always “doing” learning. The students always engaged in real making. Our year grade (4) group is just embarking on a unit to hand over the organisation and implementation of a maker faire into our students hands. This is out first official foray into the maker movement and we have most certainly already started to hit some of the muddy middle ground, but my colleague reminds me, sometimes it is worth getting lost with our students so we can find a new way together.

  5. Jonan, thanks for a super interesting article. We at #CIAT, International Center for Tropical Agriculture, based in Colombia, are looking this year into new ways of creating “learning products” from research for multiple audiences, from farmers to researchers. We want to work with two master students. Please let me know if you are interested in exploring collaboration.

  6. We’ve had exciting success developing a Maker Day event as an immersive professional development experience for educators … please feel free to use and modify the materials and join us on this journey. We believe that teachers have to “own” making themselves before they can be called upon to sharing it with their students … http://blogs.ubc.ca/centre/category/maker/

    Susan

  7. Papert’s possibly most well known book is Mindstorms. Hence Lego Mindstorms, probably one of the most popular and unknown of Papert’s projects. Lego brought him In to consult on their Mindstorms line, and used his programming language.

    I love Papert’s work, and his voice in his academic writing is so…avuncular. Warm, generous and kind hearted. It really is….inspirational.

    I think it’s in Mindstorms that he talks about how, as adults, we use maths to do things with. It’s a tool we use to create, shape and make things, and, as such, we should engage children by allowing them to do the things they want with the tools, to create and make their way to learning. Mastery of the tool unconsciously will come first, and conscious analysis will follow later, with transference of the skills following on from there.

    If I have a problem with Papert’s theory, and for that matter Piaget, and Constructivism, problem based and inquiry learning, Vygotsky and aspects of Constructionism, it’s this. The theories are, typically presented in an evidence vacuum. Typically, long on theory, and short on data. And data, despite it’s limitations, is the fundamental currency of certainty. Data, well handled, is a poison to bias. And bias is an endemic charcacteristic of human enquiry.

    I tend to practice a significant quantity of loosely constructionist and constructivist style theories, exercises, and lesson arcs. But I am wary. For subject novices, for example, I tend to heavily scaffold and prepare them for the experience. Because there’s lots of evidence to indicate that novices need a structure, in terms of lack of choice, lack of freedom, and directed instruction. Learning impossible without this, but significantly less effective, and significantly more likely to takeaway lot longer, be misconceived, or, ultimately abandoned. Novices need support, experts probably benefit from freedom. Even with comparative experts, shared control seems a good solution. There’s some evidence that in even those with subject competence, choice within a scaffolded framework where it is carefully, and knowledgeably limited to apt options may well be a better learning context than complete freedom.

    With regard to self direction, it does look like, even at college level, learners strategies, assessment abilities, critical and digital literacies, and assessment of learning preferences are problematic, and less efficient that scaffolded instruction.

    Significant amounts of data are showing that learners self assessment of the effectiveness of their own learning preferences are often wrong, and that self assessment of learning is often inaccurate. Edition ally, knowledge and subject expertise are stil key. Novices, given self determination have a stronger tendency to stay within the bounds of that knowledge rather than to explore.

    To put it another way, effective and efficient self direction is probably not a state for most undergrads, but a destination. There is reasonable evidence indicating this is the case. It’s looking likely that self direction, rather than being a solution, is a goal.

    I’m not saying Papert, Piaget etc are wrong. But it does look like they are limited in their application, or need to be qualified significantly.

    I guess I’m exercising some demons here, and they are not necessarily entirely to do with the article.

    Papert’s possibly most well known book is Mindstorms. Hence Lego Mindstorms, probably one of the most popular and unknown of Papert’s projects. Lego brought him In to consult on their Mindstorms line, and used his programming language.

    I love Papert’s work, and his voice in his academic writing is so…avuncular. Warm, generous and kind hearted. It really is….inspirational.

    I think it’s in Mindstorms that he talks about how, as adults, we use maths to do things with. It’s a tool we use to create, shape and make things, and, as such, we should engage children by allowing them to do the things they want with the tools, to create and make their way to learning. Mastery of the tool unconsciously will come first, and conscious analysis will follow later, with transference of the skills following on from there.

    If I have a problem with Papert’s theory, and for that matter Piaget, and Constructivism, problem based and inquiry learning, Vygotsky and aspects of Constructionism, it’s this. The theories are, typically presented in an evidence vacuum. Typically, long on theory, and short on data. And data, despite it’s limitations, is the fundamental currency of certainty. Data, well handled, is a poison to bias. And bias is an endemic charcacteristic of human enquiry.

    I tend to practice a significant quantity of loosely constructionist and constructivist style theories, exercises, and lesson arcs. But I am wary. For subject novices, for example, I tend to heavily scaffold and prepare them for the experience. Because there’s lots of evidence to indicate that novices need a structure, in terms of lack of choice, lack of freedom, and directed instruction. Learning impossible without this, but significantly less effective, and significantly more likely to takeaway lot longer, be misconceived, or, ultimately abandoned. Novices need support, experts probably benefit from freedom. Even with comparative experts, shared control seems a good solution. There’s some evidence that in even those with subject competence, choice within a scaffolded framework where it is carefully, and knowledgeably limited to apt options may well be a better learning context than complete freedom.

    With regard to self direction, it does look like, even at college level, learners strategies, assessment abilities, critical and digital literacies, and assessment of learning preferences are problematic, and less efficient that scaffolded instruction.

    Significant amounts of data are showing that learners self assessment of the effectiveness of their own learning preferences are often wrong, and that self assessment of learning is often inaccurate. Edition ally, knowledge and subject expertise are stil key. Novices, given self determination have a stronger tendency to stay within the bounds of that knowledge rather than to explore.

    To put it another way, effective and efficient self direction is probably not a state for most undergrads, but a destination. There is reasonable evidence indicating this is the case. It’s looking likely that self direction, rather than being a solution, is a goal.

    I’m not saying Papert, Piaget etc are wrong. But it does look like they are limited in their application, or need to be qualified significantly.

    I guess I’m exercising some demons here, and they are not necessarily entirely to do with the article.

    • Fred Mindlin says:

      Keith, Thanks so much for your detailed reflection. I had been grasping for some of the same ideas, without articulating them as clearly as you have. “Scaffolding” is a crucial and complicated concept in K-12 education, especially at the primary level, and has had many inept and destructive implementations. What so often gets left out are 1) clear messages to the students that the supports or guides they are being given to work with at their stage of development are INTENDED to be removed at later stages, and 2) the freedom of choice to abandon them even sooner or never use them when the intended product can be created without the scaffolding. Both of these lacks I think stem from a lack of respect for children’s metacognitive abilities.
      Another pressing need is scaffolding for inservice teachers unused to messiness and the vagaries of experience and product when students are self-curating their learning.

      • BalancEdTech says:

        Thanks for both your comments and the article. My students and I are slowly building a course we are calling Thinkering Studio. Each year brings new insights and methods. I am finding that the degree to which different students need scaffolding for the overall process of self-directed learning as well as the scaffolding for some of the specific topic/challenge learning varies for each student.Overall it seems that the vast majority of students want only a small amount of scaffolding, though with the flexibility to do without or add more as their needs change. A few students on one far end crave much more scaffolding and a few other students on the other far end want no support. I imagine this might be true of many age groups, but my students are in grades 5-8. Self direction is our goal for all, but so is knowing how to get the scaffolding they need. Self direction is also the process.

        I wonder if the “traditional” modes of schooling (K-16) actually make it harder for undergrads to work this way as they get acculturated to often more rote learning, lectures, high stakes tests, etc.

        http://balancedtech.wikispaces.com/Thinkering+Studio

  8. I am having trouble reading your text. I am interested in this article and would love to continue to read it but I find that It is causing a bit of eye strain. The gray on white does not have enough contrast for me. You may want to think about switching the quote color with the body copy color.

  9. Lynn Harper says:

    Where does the content/conceptual learning break down in this process in your experiencing? Here’s why I ask: there is a kit (constructivist, 5 Es of Inquiry) on motion during which second graders balance pencils and explore the effect of gravity by making paper clip mobiles. Eight times out of ten, when I have asked students to describe their work they say “We got to play with paper clips for two weeks.” When I ask them what they learned, they have no language or conceptual frame on which to place their play. Is self-authorship the part of the learning sequence when students start to construct that integrated knowledge (real experience + scientific theory/concept + genre writing)?

    • Jonan Donaldson says:

      I’m wondering if the wonderful paper clip project could be the first step in a larger project in which students create presentations aimed at teaching others…? Perhaps if they had an intended audience (outside the school setting would feel more “real”) they could approach the authorship learning aspect more directly. And perhaps more of the “metacognitive” practices every day along the way could help them translate their learning into something they can communicate with others.

  10. Powerful article, Jonan! I’m inspired every day by the incredible innovation demonstrated by both students and teachers using Haiku Deck, a visual storytelling tell akin to some of the others you mention, to create and express themselves. We’d be honored for you and your readers to give it a try and share your feedback: http://www.haikudeck.com.

  11. Alejandra Ramírez says:

    En Uruguay la enseñanza de Educación Inicial y Primaria está basada en el constructivismo. Si bien no es una teoría si no la suma de varias, como se especifica acá es la modalidad de enseñanza aprendizaje más efectiva. Aunque no hay que dejar de lado que hay ciertos conocimientos básicos que sin la intervención sistemática y la guía del educador no son adquiridos por sí sólo por el joven o el infante. a mi modesto entender el desafío del constructivismo en la educación secundaria es la especificidad del saber que tiene que adquirir el alumno en cada materia. Acá por lo menos son muchas y cada profesor las presentará de manera atractiva y estimulante para el joven o no. Se supone que ya están en otra fase del desarrollo en la cual deberían ser conscientes de la importancia del estudio por sí mismo. Pero la deserción en secundaria es alarmante, así que estamos con ese gran problema, el desinterés por los estudios.

  12. Hi Jonan,

    Beautiful piece! I’ve been moving towards this too, coming precisely from Papert’s ideas. While I started working with preschoolers and programming, nowadays I mostly work with adults (both college students, adult professional training, and lifelong learning contexts).
    One dimension you include, but I think needs to get way more attention are the online social aspects which were less readily available in the days of Papert’s main writings. I’ve been looking more and more at Lave & Wenger’s communities of practice ideas, but missed the link to constructionism, and your proposal above seems like a nice way to combine all of this.

    While until last year I was lecturing in traditional university settings, I’ve now embraced online education, at Portugal’s Universidade Aberta (a public research university, entirely online, the counterpart of UK’s Open University), and these models seem to make even more sense. I’m open for collaboration ideas.

    To see where I’m coming from, this is a two-year-old paper which show my latest direction (I intend to publish more recent developments soon).
    “Social networks, microblogging, virtual worlds, and Web 2.0 in the teaching of programming techniques for software engineering: A trial combining collaboration and social interaction beyond college”
    http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6201129&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F6196361%2F6201007%2F06201129.pdf%3Farnumber%3D6201129

    • Laura Gatto says:

      After reading your comment, it seems we do have a lot in common. I too have been lead down this path when analyzing teacher resistance to implementing certain technologies in the classroom. Only to find that it’s not a problem that stems from resistance to the methodologies — its a lack of training and support on the professional development side. It’s awesome to see how social media and online communities of practice are popping up to meet this need. I’d love to sync up to talk about his more.
      Cheers,
      Laura Gatto

  13. Laura Gatto says:

    Loved the Authorship Learning diagram. I’d like to incorporate it into my thesis presentation this May. I’ll be writing about implementing game-based learning in classrooms in combination with highlighting the need to re-structure and enhance teacher professional development across the board when it comes to integrating technology into classroom practices. Would you mind if I used it? Of course I will cite your work and this wonderful journal post. And, perhaps you’d be available to do a quick Skype Interview with me sometime this month? Thanks very much. Inspired, Laura @LSGatto on twitter.

  14. Alan Tait says:

    Very interesting article and thanks so much for sharing.
    2 questions:
    1 are there any issues about constructionism in digital environments? It sounds as if it was borne as theory in the predigital age which included significantly, but was not bounded by, artefacts. The digital age asks some difficult questions about the nature of artefacts, and the distancing of experience through media.
    2 to follow up a comment by another colleague, how could we generate evidence to support or revise the testability of constructionism? We need to do that to move it beyond plausibility, where it seems strong, to being a theory that we can, despite the limitations of social science methods, test and validate in new environments.

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