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Dale Dougherty, Father of the Maker Movement Talks About Breaking Rules, Erasers & Building a Learning Culture

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I met Dale Dougherty back in 2008 when I put the "Do It Yourself" trend on the cover of Forbes magazine. Back then, I called him and his long-time business partner, Tim O'Reilly, the "Tom Paines" of this new trend because they had started the quarterly publication, Make Magazine in 2005. Now, a decade into the Maker movement, Dougherty is earned an upgrade: He's become the George Washington of the Maker movement, the leading figure in evangelizing a world in which we learn by doing. Recently, I caught up with Dale to get his reflections on makers, the movement and yes, cutting in line. 

edSurge: Pete Seeger had a hammer; Douglas Adams recommended traveling with a towel. What's the one piece of gear that every maker should have?

Dougherty:  A pencil to sketch an idea or take a note, ideally one with an eraser.

edSurge: Does the typical "maker" in 2015 look the same or different from the "maker" of 2005?

Dougherty: If you look in their eyes, you see the same joy and passion today that I saw at our first Maker Faire. You sense a child-like curiosity and wonder that never seems to age. They may look different in other ways, have new things to demo including 3D printers and drones, but makers are still having fun and enjoying each other.

edSurge: If money was no problem, what would be in your perfect makerspace?

Dougherty: It would look like a village where you had all kinds of people who knew how to make all kinds of things, and you could spend time learning from them, having them show you how they use their tools or work with materials. Some would be scientists and engineers; architects and designers; artists and craftsmen. I'd also have people who knit and weld, those who love model trains or Legos. I'd like to see all those people with their own interests and personalities working on their own and working together. What makes a makerspace awesome are the people who know how to do things and love what they do. The more of them the merrier. (edSurge note: Sure sounds like a Maker Faire to us!) 

edSurge: The maker ethos has bit of a "break the rules" swagger to it. What's your favorite rule to break

Dougherty: At Maker Faire on Friday, we have a big Paella dinner for the makers. I'm on the serving line handing out plates to our makers. The makers are standing in line, sometimes talking to each other and moving slowing, politely waiting on the person in front of them to inch forward. I see that there are plenty of plates waiting to be handed out if only people would move forward. I like to yell: "Jump the line. This is Maker Faire. Who says you have to stay in line?" It kind of goes with "not waiting your turn."

edSurge: Should companies ask people to "make" something before hiring them? (Or just break it?)

Dougherty: I have to say I hate it when making is some contrived exercise. You know, someone hands out a bag of parts and then asks people to demonstrate how they can be creative problem-solvers. I immediately want to go do something else more interesting. If you are trying to identify makers, ask them to tell you what they do because they are already making and will be happy to talk about their project. If they don't have a project, I'd worry about them. Also, I wish companies would encourage their employees to talk about the things they enjoy doing outside of work. We might see a different side of the people if we saw what they did on their own time.

edSurge: What's the biggest misconception that people have about Makers?

Dougherty: Some makers are hobbyists and amateurs, and these terms can sometimes be seen as derogatory, especially by those who comfortably call themselves "professionals." What interests me about makers is that they don't seem to pay much attention to titles and credentials. They will attempt to do things just to experiment, usually without asking anyone's permission. This is a kind of freedom that many professionals never experience for themselves.

edSurge:;Who are your nominees for the greatest "Maker" role models in popular media?;

Dougherty: MacGyver comes to mind. MacGyver's creator, Lee David Zlotoff, wrote for Make Magazine and he told me that he based the character on his father. Who doesn't want to have the ability to think quickly and solve problems by being resourceful?

edSurge:When we met in 2008, I teased you about the 'education" aspect of Make magazine. As I recall, you said, "Not going there!" What do you hope will be the role of making in education in 10 years?

Dougherty: Making represents the kind of informal learning that happens mostly outside of school. Part of me didn't want to see it in school because it would lose its magic if it was to become defined as curriculum. I want making to flourish as something we do because we discover it and love to do it -- not because we are forced to do it. I've also come to think that rather than having making fit into school, we should transform our schools so that this kind of informal learning is given greater emphasis and so-called formal learning de-emphasized. 

Certainly, I would like more and more young people to have the opportunity to become makers, and having makerspaces in schools and library seems like the best way to reach more of them. I've been excited by the progress I'm seeing. I have to say that making is the only thing in education that is getting adopted as the result of grassroots initiatives. It's bottom-up, not top-down. 

I believe that one of the lasting impacts of the maker movement is to transform our education system, replacing a standardized curriculum and testing with learn-by-doing experiential learning. Kids will lead the way, saying "I don't learn the way they are teaching." That's how the next generation will learn that they have the freedom to become productive and creative.

edSurge: When we talked in 2008 and I asked you what you "made" you replied "Books!" How about now?

Dougherty: I still love how-to books (and magazines) that share information that people have learned from their own experience. I should use video to learn to do things but I get bored easily. The Internet is so full of amazing information, whether text, images or video, that literally you can find out the answer to almost any question you have. I love the way in ordinary conversation today a question comes up and we just look it up on the spot and get an answer. In previous times, you might have had to remember to look it up in the encyclopedia -- if you could find one. We are all learning to become fast learners.

edSurge: Could you share one or two memories of Maker Faires that are particular special for you?

Dougherty: This year, I had a family come up to me and ask if I could be in a photo with their oldest son. He was a ten-year old and his father told me he brought his son to Maker Faire as an infant ten years ago, and they have come back each year, exhibiting as makers themselves three of those years. This year, my first grandchild, Henry, came as a one-year old to Maker Faire. I am happy to think he will grow up experiencing Maker Faire regularly. I love to see the world through his eyes, and how he uses his hands to explore it.

edSurge: Maker Faire 2025: What do you hope will be different? The same?

Dougherty: It's hard to think about the next ten years. Yet, I believe that the maker movement will have a very positive impact on culture and the economy in the future. For our first ten years, we have been planting the seeds. As makers young and old grow up, they become increasingly confident in their own ability to create, innovate and solve important problems. They will change the world around them because they know they can do it. They will make things better for other people because they are generous, kind and more than a little bit clever.

Editor's Note: Dale Dougherty is an investor and advisor to EdSurge. And more! Here's Dale's overview of ten years of Maker Faire on Medium.

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