What is making? How is it different from other activities? What are maker qualities and values?
These were the big questions tackled at the recent Research Meeting on Making and Learning, a gathering of people involved in researching and implementing maker experiences. The conversation included practitioners representing makerspaces in museums and libraries — both public and academic — as well as a spectrum of researchers, from graduate students such as myself who are just beginning their research on make to those who are already deeply engaged in this work within universities and private organizations. There were also a few funders and a representative from the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education.
We spent two days together, working mostly in small groups discussing a variety of topics around make and make research. The small-group format allowed every voice to be heard while fostering deep conversation that could then be shared with the larger group to spur further discussion. We felt a tangible sense of excitement as we recognized we might all be witnessing the birth of a new field of research. The understandings we arrived at during our conversations could very well shape how make is explored and implemented in the future.
Of utmost importance to many at the meeting was to prevent make from facing the same fate as many previous learning reform movements. To ensure this, we questioned whether it is necessary to define make.
What is make?
Not surprisingly, this group of 30 was not able to pinpoint a single definition, but we did agree on the importance of distinguishing maker experiences from similar experiences such as art, crafting or computer programming. This is not to denigrate the benefits of these other activities but rather to distinguish what is unique about make and why we want learners to have these experiences.
Some of the qualities we could agree on as special about make are the emphasis on the relevance of the projects to the learners and the self-directed nature of the activity. Makers also tend to use materials in creative ways, exploring ideas in a concrete realm. The collaborative, communal aspects of making also form an important component of the make experience.
Should digital-only projects be considered making?
One of the areas we did not reach a consensus on was whether an experience that takes place completely in the digital realm, with no physical artifact, should be considered making. This discussion gave me some new insights into how I think about make. I now see it as the center of a Venn diagram in which many activities could be maker experiences but are not necessarily so.
One example for me is knitting. I tend to knit whenever I have to sit still for very long, such as in meetings or lectures. While I am creating something, this does not feel like making to me. However, I have also taught simple knitting projects at a number of maker faires, and I've found that it is the act of sharing my making with others and passing on a skill that differentiates the experience for me.
In light of this, I argued that digital experiences can be considered making. I think activities like a computer game design club or class can include the important components of making: collaboration, skill sharing, flexibility of novice/expert roles, creativity, resourcefulness, relevance and self-motivated experiences.
The work we started this week is just the beginning, and I for one am excited to see how this field develops. I am so grateful to have been able to help shape this work!
Jennifer Wyld is a Ph.D. candidate in free-choice learning in the Science and Math Education program at Oregon State University. She is interested in alternative education and learning environments, particularly those involving Make, Montessori and environmental education.