The Maker Movement Isn't Just About Making and Electronics: EdSurge Talks to MIT's Mitch Resnick

The Maker Movement Isn't Just About Making and Electronics: EdSurge Talks to MIT's Mitch Resnick


Mitchel Resnick (or Mitch, for short) knows his making—from a lot of different angles. And he’s not too bought into the whole “electronics and gadgets” side of the maker movement.

Resnick has been in this business for more than 30 years, and it’s safe to say that he’s seen the maker movement—and the state of STEM education, in general—go through its phases, its ups and downs. He’s currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, where he and his team have developed products familiar to many a science educator: the "programmable brick" technology that inspired the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kit, and Scratch, an online computing environment for students to learn about computer science.

Is making something that every school should be doing—and are all interpretations of “making” of equitable value? EdSurge sat down with Resnick in his office at the MIT Media Lab to learn more, and to find out how he and his team are working to bring more creativity into the learning process.

E: Thanks for sitting down with us, Mitch. Let’s start off with a big question: When you have so many students in existence… how do you work with so many different types of learners?

A: Rather than trying to think how we educate all of these students, I think "How can we create opportunities for learning, meaning the spaces and the technologies that support everyone having rich learning experiences?" Of course, everyone is going to have different pathways to learning, so you have to be aware that one size doesn't fit all.

Speaking of different experiences, there's been obvious interest in the Maker movement, project-based learning. Do you think that this budding interest goes hand-in-hand with the idea of "students directing their learning"?

I think it should go hand-in-hand. One of the things that appeals to me about the maker movement is that it's not just about making. That's an important part of what the maker movement is about. If you give a child a set of step-by-step instructions to build something, yes they've made something—but that's not the spirit of the maker movement.

The maker movement is about making things that you care about, things that are meaningful to you and others around you. Sometimes, it gets misapplied if we just get people creating something. That's part of it, but to support rich, creative learning experiences, we need to provide people with opportunities to make things in collaboration with others—and to make things they care about.

I see some similarities between what you just said and an article that was put out by an Olin professor. She's critical of the Maker movement because she's concerned that there’s more interest in the artifact than the development of the individual. Where do you stand on that thought?

It's easy for people to turn their attention to a physical thing. It's not always as easy to turn attention to processes, strategies, and practices—but that is at the core of the learning experience.

For me, process and product do go hand-in-hand. There can be a problem if you go to one extreme where you focus on process, and not on creating something meaningful. Once you make something, it's something you can reflect upon, share with others.

That seems pretty straightforward, but I think back to when I was a teacher. Saying "Today, we're going to make things," and attempting to run that past an administrator… there may be some resistance there. What is the state of maker education today, in your opinion? Are K-12 schools adopting it? Resisting it?

There are some wonderful instances of people doing great activities around making, and other people who misapply it, and do things in a way that's too regimented. We've seen this in some of the projects we've worked on. When we work with the LEGO company on different robotics kits, we see kids doing wonderfully creative explorations and inventions in some places; in other places, the whole class is told what to do and everyone makes the exact same thing. That zaps the creativity out of the process.

For us, helping kids engage in creative learning experiences is our core goal. We think there's nothing more important in today's society than the ability to think and act creatively. But unfortunately, many educational settings (and many homes) don't do enough to support kids developing as creative thinkers. If I look at a new makerspace or set of maker activities, what I'm looking for is not the sophistication of what gets made, but the creativity that goes into the process.

Why that regimentation there? You mentioned there's this need to engage in step-by-step processes. Are there other reasons why educators and parents are restrictive or resistant to supporting that creative process?

I think there are a couple of reasons. One, sometimes it's easier to manage a process if everyone is doing the same thing.

That sounds like the factory model.

Exactly. It's also easier to evaluate and assess it. If everyone is making the same robotic car, you evaluate each one on how well it performs.

So, here at the Lifelong Kindergarten group, you have a lot of activities promoting the creative process. What's been something that's especially near and dear to your heart?

In recent years, we've put a lot of energy into our Scratch programming language—developing an environment that allows students to express themselves creatively. A lot of the ideas that went into it were guided by that.

We often talk about our four guiding principles for supporting creative learning: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. First, we want to design new tools that engage kids on carrying out projects. Then, we want then to work on things that they're passionate about, that they care about, because we've seen that people are willing to work longer and persist in the face of difficulties if it's something they care about. The third "P" is Peers—we know that people learn best when they interact with others. Finally, Play is not just about having fun, but taking risks, experimenting, testing the boundaries. We think the most creative work happens when people play and test the boundaries.

That's what we used to develop Scratch. When we introduced it, we had online community from the very beginning. We wanted to make sure the kids could work on a variety of projects. We wanted to make it very "tinkerable," where kids could remix what others had made. Largely, the success of Scratch has been due to these four P's.

You've got users all over the world now! Where's the most interest?

Well, we've got more than 14 million kids registered on the Scratch website, and many more are downloading it to use it locally. More than half of the visitors are from outside of the United States. It's very actively used in Brazil, Japan, Korea. I saw it being used in China a couple weeks ago—because of some of the strains with connectivity, people there are downloading it.

You know, when I think of Making, the concept of electronics and getting your hands physically dirty comes to mind. Where does this computing movement fit into all of that? Are they two sides of the same coin?

For me, what's most important is the activity of designing things that you really care about—whether it's with traditional physical materials like wooden blocks, or with new materials like electronics, or with virtual materials on a screen. What's important is the activity of designing creatively and playfully with these materials; it's not the media or materials, but what you do with it.

Parents ask me if they should buy electronics; they feel like it's sophisticated, and that it'll connect kids to the new technologies taking over the world! My concern is that with those toys, the designers learned a lot creating the toys; I'm less convinced that the kids who are interacting with the toy are learning a great deal.

When you design and create something, you constantly have this back-and-forth—whether you're making a tower with LEGO bricks, or a poem, or an animation with Scratch, you're creating. By creating things, it gives you new ideas—there's this constant feedback stream. When Making is going well, that dynamic is leading to new, rich experiences.

To listen to the rest of the interview, check out this EdSurge On Air podcast extra.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM teacher and administrator. 

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