How to Bring Hands-On Learning Back to the Classroom

Highlights from one of Sean’s workshops, where he works to get schools on the Maker Ed curriculum path.

Working with educators inspires us in a multitude of ways: to understand exactly where the gaps are in educating our world’s youth and how we can work together to fix it; to enhance our product to make the lives of educators and students even easier as they empower students with our platform; and to never stop questioning and learning. In this spirit, we sat down with some of the key educational changemakers from across the world to get their perspectives on education and they have seen it transform.

Read on for an exclusive interview with educational changemaker Sean Justice, Maker Ed Expert & Professor at Texas State University. This is one post in our #eduinnovator series, highlighting quotes from the 16 percent of educators who key thought leaders of education, where we go in-depth on the key trends in education, innovation, and how we can rethink traditional frameworks of education.

Reviving Maker Education to Bring Back Hands-On Learning

I grew up in the 70s. And from the 70s to today, there’s been a gradual reduction of hands-on engagement in classrooms and schools. Today we’re talking about tools and materials like computer programming with arduinos, cardboard, and things that we consider to be part of tech and maker education … We didn’t have those computational materials back then, but other technical systems were in schools in the 70s—radio labs, kitchens, print shops, machine shops—but they’ve been gradually removed for a number of reasons.

Now, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in hands-on tools and materials, and we’re bringing those kinds of learning resources and models back. We’re not bringing typewriters back—the tools have changed—but we’re bringing back the hands-on engagement. We’re reviving the fundamental concept of making things, which is the hallmark of maker education, and realizing that maybe we shouldn’t have removed them in the first place.

This interests me because in schools across the states, when it comes to bringing back hands-on learning in the classroom, sentiments run the gamut from manic enthusiasm to fearful anxiety. I encounter this spectrum all the time with teachers and principals and students. But at the end of the day, hands-on making is a step in the right direction.

How Technology Has and Will Redefine Education

Perhaps because of the reintroduction of maker education, we are seeing a trend toward integrating other tech resources, and this is changing the way we look at learning in general. I’m talking about things like the internet and other networked tools that we take for granted in the 21st century. Regardless of whether or not you think things are moving in a positive direction, the truth of the matter is that the internet and tools that spin off from the internet are having a profound effect on the way culture – and by extension, education – works. I’m talking about things like remix culture, social media… the list goes on.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen an over-the-top enthusiasm for maker education, which is sometimes expressed as deep anxiety or skepticism. I’ve also seen a lot of curiosity about what sort of learning is happening, and how to amplify this learning. On the whole, it is very encouraging.

I think there is a shift in what we think education means. We are rethinking everything from our brick and mortar institutions to the philosophy behind those institutions, and we are struggling to keep up with the big waves of change that modern day technology is bringing about. If we look back, this can be said throughout history, regardless of the era or culture. People and cultures always move faster than institutions… and the institutions are always trying to catch up. We must keep this in mind as we begin to shift the institution of education.

Beware the Over-commercialization of Education

People often get into teaching for idealistic reasons—they want to help others learn. Nobody is driven into a teaching career because they want to deliver tests, or assess accountability of teacher effectiveness. But it’s part to the environment and good teachers understand that it’s part of the job. The inspiring thing about speaking with educators today is that there is an abundance of curiosity. There is a more communal approach to exploring how learning works, a cooperative approach towards understanding the obstacles that are preventing teachers from moving forward.

But as I attend events like SXSWedu and try to understand the tools that entrepreneurs are building to help teachers overcome these obstacles, I am realizing a strong emphasis on commercial education. This is fine, but we also must be careful because when it comes to education, commercial product placement is not the same as deep curiosity and passion for change. There’s potentially a conflict between the commercialization of education and the curiosity about reforming it.

Follow the Students, Lead with Materials

If there is one piece of advice I would give to those trying to transform education, it would be to focus on the learning. We must rededicate our efforts to understand what’s being learned, which is not a simple thing to do. The fancy new tools that we use and enjoy are great, but we must get to the core by understanding how they are serving the learning. We must dedicate ourselves to the learning by trying to understand what students are learning in any given situation, with any specific tool.

I ask my students to focus on the “whats” – What is the content? What is the nugget or key fact or disposition? Then I ask them to focus on the “how” — How is the learning being accomplished? There are many “hows” — from lectures to tests to worksheets to hands-on explorations — but the trick for teachers is to focus on the learning. We have to connect the what and the how.

I teach education courses, and I’m trying to get my pre-service teachers to focus on the way tools engage student learning—hands-on tools, digital tools, internet tools, and hands-on making more generally. The point is for teachers to better understand how making things amplifies learning. At the core of it, we must follow the children and lead with materials.

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With the movement of education towards hands-on, experience driven learning, you’ll need the right tools to make this happen. At 100mentors, we are on a mission to empower educators to inspire their students by connecting them with mentors across the world who share the real-world applications of classroom concepts. Join us and explore an innovative new way to inspire the young minds of the world, by connecting students with top mentors (from NASA scientists and Google data scientists to Hollywood cinematographers and New York Post Editors, and more) who help bring lesson plans to life.

More About Sean

Dr. Sean Justice, Assistant Professor, Art Education, teaches and writes about maker education, material inquiry pedagogy, and teacher education in the digital age, and exhibits his artwork internationally. In 2016, he wrote the book, Learning to Teach in the Digital Age: New Materialities and Maker Paradigms in Schools. He holds a doctorate in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, Teachers College, where he taught digital fabrication, physical computing, creative coding, and photography, to pre- and in-service teachers from across the curriculum.

As Digital Marketing Manager of 100mentors, Lucy is helping craft and spread the #100mentors message across the globe. Outside of 100mentors, Lucy actively seeks to spread good vibes, and collaborate with the great tech and marketing minds of the world.

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