The Common Core Meets the Maker Movement

How do maker projects jibe with the requirements of the new Common Core?

Educators were out in full force this past weekend, for the annual World Maker Faire held in New York City. Billed as the “greatest show (and tell) on earth,” a good chunk of the DIYers, citizen scientists, crafting experts, and tech enthusiasts in attendance were, thankfully, also educators.

And in addition to working on their own projects, these educators were sharing ideas for how to use making in classrooms this fall. The Maker Education Initiative released an online resource library, a digital archive of sorts intended to help educators get started making in education.

But how do these maker projects jibe with the new demands placed on classroom teachers from the Common Core?

Back in June, Gary Stager, coauthor of “Invent to Learn,” told Education Week that he felt despite some “overlapping interests” between the standards and the maker movement, the two are ultimately “incompatible.”

Could this be true?

“The standards are rooted in this idea of a centralized body of knowledge that all kids must comply with, which is in stark contradiction to the notion that learning is more fluid, more intimate, more personal,” Stager explained. “That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t tick off boxes in the Common Core by having kids have meaningful making experiences. But the notion that some anonymous committee of grownups has made a list of stuff that all kids need to know because that’s what jobs are going to [require] in the future is preposterous. The maker movement prepares kids to solve the problems that [adults] never anticipated.”

[blockquote style=”large”]The central goal of the standards is to cultivate critical thinking and collaboration and to reinvigorate deeper learning.[/blockquote]

Stager’s point brings up many questions about how the two trending education topics relate. On one hand, the controlled chaos of a makerspace, where kids are soldering and 3-D printing, paints a much different image than the traditional classroom with partitioned topics and year-end assessments. But proponents of the Common Core say the central goal of the standards is to cultivate critical thinking and collaboration and to reinvigorate deeper learning. We don’t know what jobs will be ahead of us, they say, but we do know that being able to think critically will prepare learners.

But there’s a hitch.

Sylvia Libow Martinez, coauthor of “Invent to Learn,” said last May that schools tend to place too little emphasis on the standard’s overarching goals: making learning more relevant and experimental, and making it deeper. Instead, too many resources are directed to the specific standards and assessments.

“When we talk about how ‘making’ can align with Common Core, it requires schools and districts to refocus on those overarching goals, and away from how many computers you need to run the tests,” Libow Martinez wrote.

Science teacher, author, and blogger Marsha Ratzel is one of the thousands of teachers still navigating the Common Core implementation. Last year, she explained she was skeptical at first of how a student-driven science classroom (akin to the ethos in a makerspace) and the standards could be compatible. Although not specifically dealing with “maker” activities, she’s seen spots in the standards that align with her teaching methods, which revolve around keeping her classroom hands-on and student-driven.

“If assessments mirror the broad principles and effective pedagogy that the CCSS authors have championed, there is hope that rote learning and teacher-driven classrooms will not be necessary in order for students to pass the test,” she said.

A common misconception is that the Common Core dictates curriculum. Rather, the standards are goals. The path for getting students to achieve them is up to the teacher. First-grade teacher Tommy Young, who was invited to the White House Maker Faire, sought to reach those goals by using lessons embracing hands-on making activities, like having students build monsters using only materials they could afford in their budget.

Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a project-based learning expert and blogger, recently explained at Edutopia that her method of designing a curriculum doesn’t use the Common Core standards as a starting place at all. Instead, in her English language arts classes, she develops projects and explorations that excite her and her students. Then she goes back, looks at the standards, and “fills in the gaps.” Most of the time, she’s already hit the Common Core targets.

Although the Common Core and the maker movement grew from two very different places, it’s no coincidence both reject memorization and the antiquated idea that schools should act as storehouses of information. Both reflect of a larger shift in how we think about teaching and learning, one that recognizes that rote testing isn’t going to prepare kids for the dynamic world ahead that will ask them to adapt to new technology and problems faster than we have ever had to.

Like Stager said in the Education Week interview, the maker movement equips kids to solve problems we don’t yet know exist. That should be a goal of education as a whole and, like any good maker problem, the best way to do that probably involves more than one solution.

Published September 22, 2014