Building to learn

Emerging in the mid-2000s, the maker movement, which encourages people to build and repair everyday objects themselves, quickly reached schools in the form of projects. In addition to dealing with fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, students have in these projects the opportunity to exercise creativity and critical thinking in solving problems or challenges. In this conversation with the Observatory for English Language Teaching, plastic artist, English teacher and teacher trainer Danielle Hersey, specialized in the development of educational projects related to the maker culture, talks about how to include this practice in English teaching.

Danielle Hersey, specialist in educational projects and maker culture, with objects built by students in her English classes. Source: Personal collection

What exactly is maker culture applied to education?

The maker culture is directly related to the DIY (do it yourself) movement, in which people manufacture or repair everyday objects. In education, the maker culture is not very different — children, teenagers and even adults build objects and solve problems or challenges, based on their own interests. The difference is that, applied to education, maker culture involves the development of skills in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), at the same time encouraging critical thinking, creativity, communication skills and a spirit of collaboration.

We usually associate maker culture with advanced technologies, such as computer programs and 3D printers, in robotics classes. Is it possible to develop projects beyond the digital world?

Maker culture is not just about the digital world. It can be turned to the construction of objects of any nature, with the use of several tools of different technological levels — which facilitates its implementation by any school, even those with fewer resources. We can assemble a maker kit with very simple pieces, such as ice cream sticks, boxes, clothespins, pompoms, PET bottle caps, corks or stones, and challenge students to create an object. The important thing is that the project is born from the interest and curiosity of these young people, which makes them engage in the topic being studied.

And how can this be applied to English classes?

The construction of an object becomes a context for studying different disciplines. And, in terms of learning, the process is more important than the final product. In the case of English, the construction serves as a basis for learning different skills, such as vocabulary or grammar, reading and writing, speaking and speech comprehension (reading, writing, speaking, listening).

Recently a student of mine created a bracelet that glows, assembled with LED lamps and a battery, interconnected in an electrical circuit. With this, she worked with concepts of engineering and physics and, at the same time, with the design of the object, which involves aesthetics, a characteristic of art. In addition, the student was working in English with colors and sensations, themes that were included in the project.

I give another example with my students: a group of teenagers at an intermediate level of English who were studying a text on design worked with a kit of loose parts that included plastic cups, toothpicks and blocks. First, they analyzed the materials, describing their physical characteristics in English, applying the grammar and vocabulary studied. Then, they were challenged to use the pieces to create a friendly space, such as a classroom or waiting room. Throughout the process, students were encouraged to employ expressions like “let’s try this” or “maybe we can use that”. Younger children could build towers with the same materials, and work on issues related to stability and size, and, in English, with comparatives and superlatives, such as “bigger” and “the biggest”, “taller” and “the tallest”. In either case, the construction of objects makes language learning more meaningful.

Maker culture is not closed to classroom practices, right?

Yes, children and teenagers can propose solutions to social or cultural problems that affect students from other classes, for example. The projects can also involve issues that go beyond the walls of the school itself. And what they learn at school can be taken out, replicated and perfected. The important thing is that students are the protagonists of this process, which can also include contact with students from other schools and even from other parts of the world. In the case of English, for example, it is interesting for students to discuss their projects with students from other countries. This broadens the horizons of learning.

What is the role of the teacher and the school in implementing a maker culture associated with teaching English?

There are several maker culture courses aimed at teachers, but they are not necessary to get started. In general, it is enough for the teacher to guide the activities by asking guiding questions of the project and connecting them to the English language. It’s a matter of posture. The teacher should not act as a simple transmitter of knowledge, but as a guide. He or she can even learn from the students themselves, along the way. From the school, as I have already said, the maker culture does not require sophisticated technologies, which allows activities to be developed, for example, in public schools, in general, with fewer resources. Maker culture is not developed in exclusive clubs. On the contrary, it must be accessible to everyone. After all, in one way or another, we are all makers.


The four Cs of maker culture in schools

The teacher is a fundamental character to create a favorable environment for learning through the maker culture. Mitchel Resnick, from the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT Media Lab), in the United States, one of the leading experts in the field, summarized in his book “Kindergarten for life” the posture that is expected of the teacher to four concepts, the so-called four Cs.

  • Catalyst — arouse students’ curiosity and point out possible paths based on the interests of the class;
  • Connector — to promote interaction between students in a group, so that the skills of some are added to the skills of others;
  • Collaborator — interact with all students, encouraging collaboration between groups;
  • Consultant — act as a guide in the object construction process, giving students emotional and motivational support.