Makers,Designers,Tinkerers and Thinkers: Realising the potential and avoiding the pitfalls

Picture Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton in their excellent book New Kinds of Smart make the point that a common misconception about intelligence is that ‘The mind and body are separate and truly intelligent activity is located in the mind.’ Lucas and Claxton point out that our emerging knowledge about embodied cognition shows that the physical and the cognitive are deeply entwined.They conclude that, “It would be great if that deep coalition of the physical and the cognitive were to inform the curriculum in more schools.’
This desire to ensure that students have ample opportunities to learn with their hands was one of the moving principles behind implementing a Kindergarten to Grade 5 Design course at Nanjing International School where I work.
As the Design element of the curriculum has developed I’ve been inquiring more into the Maker Movement and Design Thinking and recently came across an amazing book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. in addition to a great deal of practical advice, this book clearly outlines the potential of Making as a central aspect of the learning process but is also clear about some of the potential pitfalls. I would highly recommend that people get hold of a copy as it makes a very clear case for the importance of designing and making things both physically and on computers whilst addressing some of the concerns.
As I tinker with my own understanding of the potential of design thinking and making in the classroom number of potential pitfalls seem to need to be addressed:
1) Empty Creativity: Matthew Crawford in The Case for Working with your Hands (published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft) makes the point that Einstein was not a creative physicist in isolation from being a highly knowledgeable one. “Creativity” Crawford argues “is the by product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice.” (p51). As we empower students to to come up with creative solutions and creative problems how do we also ensure that they are becoming skilled at using the tools, both physical and mental, they need to solve that problems. Unless carefully structured we run the dangour of creating a group of frustrated students who know that if they’d ever learnt to programme or to solder or to saw they would be able to solve something. Even more worryingly creating students who are not frustrated by this and feel the goal is to talk about what you would do if you ever learnt any skills. How do we ensure that there is the necessary rigour so that creating something is not the end. Creating and building something that genuinely works should be the goal.
2) Abdication of responsibility by teachers: One common pitfall of inquiry based teaching is hearing teachers say “I don’t need to know it the children can find it out.” Whilst for certain specific knowledge this is true, Martinez and Stager are very clear on this point; “In case we have been to subtle, you should learn to program,solder,build a robot or design a 3D object,especially if you expect children to.” Teachers do not need to become expert in all fields of making but they need to have the curiosity to learn slightly ahead of their students.
3) Learning the Design Cycle becoming more important than Designing: How do we avoid the importance becoming knowing the phases of the design cycle over and above being able to design.This is the flip side to point 2 how do we ensure that teachers don’t become overly prescriptive and make design thinking about an abstract thinking process rather than physical designing and building.
4) Students not thinking deeply about making: The Agency by Design project
is trying to link the Project Zero Work on thinking with the Maker movement and talk about giving students agency to have the knowledge skills and understandings to design effectively. Martinez and Stager argue that “Making is a way of documenting the thinking of a learner in a shareable artefact.” How will teachers become skilled at understanding and enabling the thinking process of a student engaged in making and tinkering?
I am excited by the potential for a truly rounded learning experience that Design Thinking and the Maker Movement offers but wary that without great teachers and great teacher training it may well not live up to that potential.

About derekpinchbeck

I am currently the Elementary Principal ISS International School Singapore. My website is and twitter @DerekPinchbeck
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3 Responses to Makers,Designers,Tinkerers and Thinkers: Realising the potential and avoiding the pitfalls

  1. Terrific post with so many important points–I’m putting it on my summer read and to do list. Thank you.


  2. Derek,
    This is great! Very interesting. I have to say I am really looking forward to being a part of this at Nanjing. Have not read the links but will keep for the weekend. I know my colleagues will find this interesting too!


  3. To quote Zorba the Greek, “Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything.” As an incorrigible maker of things and a science and woodworking teacher for the last seventeen years who is discovering what I and others like me have always done, is now the “Makers Movement,” I liked your post.

    However, I think your title feeds the very reluctance that many teachers have for letting their students make things. People worry about all the possible pitfalls that might conceivably happen, that kids won’t learn enough, they don’t think deeply enough, and most crippling of all that the teacher doesn’t know enough to be able to teach the kids.

    To quote Martinez and Stager, “In case we have been to(o sic) subtle, you should learn to program,solder,build a robot or design a 3D object,especially if you expect children to.” It is not unusual that my kids want to build something I have no familiarity with, and I say “Great, go for it, but appreciate I have never built a guitar, a luge, a vortex cannon, a trebuchet…. and you are going to have to learn on your own.” And the kids usually rise to the occasion and often fail at actually getting what they hoped for. But rarely do they not learn a lo, and even more rarely are their tender egos destroyed, as in never.

    So I would suggest teachers quit weighing the risks and jump in. What is the worst that could happen? Your kids try to build something and it doesn’t work, which I guarantee they will enjoy and remember. Or maybe see their teacher admit they don’t know something or fail at it, which I also guarantee they will enjoy and remember.

    Good post to contemplate.



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