A Decade of Maker Education: Where Do We Go From Here?

A Decade of Maker Education: Where Do We Go From Here?

Ten years after Dale Doughtery coined the term Maker Education, schools are increasingly building Maker Spaces--purpose-built labs, areas of existing classrooms, or any free space equipped with 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters, and other tools. Heralded as woodshops of the 21st century, many of these spaces and associated educational programming extend longstanding educational traditions and introduce new ones. Teachers and students worldwide engage daily in Maker Education activities, independent of purpose-built spaces. Whether one calls this phenomenon the Maker Movement in Schools or Maker Education (sometimes shortened as MakerEd), neither is a unified pedagogical philosophy. Moreover, some ideologies infused in Maker Education do not align with progressive, democratic pedagogy. After a decade of Maker Education, one thing is clear: educators need a framework of Critical Maker Pedagogy to problematize the dominant ideologies, tools, software providers, vendors, projects, ecological realities, and curricula.

Foundations of Maker Education

In 2005, pioneering technologist Dale Dougherty founded Make magazine. Make features DIY projects and how-to guides that encourage the exploration of new tools and community-building. Its publication is considered the beginning of the Maker Movement. Dougherty founded the first Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, the following year. While pinpointing a date on which the Maker Movement in schools began, 2013 is a reasonable choice based on the relative explosion of events, resources, and hype. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2013, Silvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager published their seminal work, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, a  guide for teachers and students on using technology, including 3D printing, physical computing, and computer programming, in the classroom.
  • In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama lauded the benefits of 3-D printing as one way his administration planned to restore manufacturing jobs, beginning with building a manufacturing innovation hub in Youngstown, Ohio. The hub was made possible by a new private-public partnership between the Department of Defense and Energy and private businesses.

The ideological foundations of Maker Education are varied. Some credit educators like computer scientist Seymour Papert, who championed Constructionism and learning-by-doing in works such as his classic 1980 book Mindstorms. However, the movement's origins are much older. Paulo Blikstein describes a decentralized movement that includes Papert but acknowledges the shoulders on which we all stand--the work of key education pioneers such as Friedrich Fröbel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and John Dewey. Blikstein connects the influence of these pioneers to modern-day societal and educational trends, particularly the growing emphasis on computer science education for K-12 students in the 2000s and the dramatic decrease in the cost of digital fabrication tools (e.g., 3D printing, CNC milling) in the 2010s.

Purpose-built institutional and community-based facilities also played a vital role in developing the ideological foundations of Maker Education. The introduction of Fab Labs (short for fabrication laboratory) by Professor Neil Gershenfeld at MIT in 2001, the founding of Hackerspaces such as Pumping Station One in Chicago, and the phenomenon of node-based meetups by nationwide organizations like DorkBot, all played a role in the seeding the still-growing Maker Movement. Fab Labs tend to focus on digital fabrication, mainly 3D printing, laser cutting and etching, and CNC milling. Hackerspaces allow like-minded individuals to explore the creative use of traditional and digital fabrication tools, electronics, carpentry, and textile arts in a member-supported, grassroots environment. DorkBot, with the mission of "people doing strange things with electricity," is a loose confederation of over 50 worldwide nodes. Dorkbot sessions often begin with a tutorial or workshop given by a member or guest teacher, followed by an opportunity to apply the skills introduced in the workshop.

This growing, decentralized, mostly grass-roots movement began garnering endorsements from the rich and powerful. The Obama Administration promoted digital fabrication for manufacturing and building Maker Spaces in schools and communities, intending to build a "Nation of Makers." 2013 featured a peak in the promulgation of so-called 21st-century Skills by educators, private companies, investors, and the government, with computational thinking among the most lauded. For example, President Obama hailed the founding of Code.org in 2013 by entrepreneur and investors Hadi and Ali Partovi. Code.org provides easy-to-follow educational computer science activities for a variety of ages. To date, 67 million students have used code.org to create 225 million projects. The organization's "Hour of Code" week kicks off on or around December 9th annually. The choice of December 9th is not random; December 9th is the birthday of legendary mathematician Grace Hopper, and December 10th is the birthday of the inventor of computer programming, Ada Lovelace.

Maker Education Today

Although related, the aforementioned events, initiatives, and organizations represent very different ideological manifestations of the Maker Movement. The Obama administration's initiatives are typical of the growing role of government, private companies, and corporations in K-12 schools. Conversely, Dougherty, Martinez, and Stager promote philosophies grounded in the DIY (Do it Yourself) ethos, Hacker Culture, and Constructivism. Fundamental questions remain:

  • What does it mean for students to be Makers?
  • Who should create and deliver related Maker curricula in schools?
  • How should students access resources?
  • How can educators and policymakers insure that access and instruction are equitable?
  • How can educators and policymakers promote belonging in Maker Spaces and Maker curriculum?

Maker Education needs a pedagogical North Star. The movement is not truly a movement but a mixture of murky and often conflicting ideologies and motivations. It is dire that educators understand and contextualize the ideologies present in their curriculum and pedagogical philosophy for themselves and their students. Like many aspects of schooling, Maker Spaces are contested spaces, not unified by one pedagogical philosophy or various complementary ones. The following sections detail the dominant ideologies in Maker Education today.

Technological Fix and Innovation

The opportunities afforded by even a modestly equipped Maker Space naturally inspire visions of high-tech panacea. As popularized by engineer Alvin Weinberg, the notion of the Technological Fix holds that there is a technological solution to any problem. As Abraham Maslow’s ‘law of instrument’ (or Maslow’s Hammer) states, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” For Weinberg, there was an engineering solution for any ill, whether technical, environmental, or social. Following the Watts Riots in August 1965, Weinberg surmised that the source of the riots was “personal discomfort” and suggested in a letter to the Johnson administration that they use poverty-ameliorating funds to purchase air conditioners and televisions for the “slum dwellings.” To Weinberg, the issue was not police brutality and structural racism but rather a dearth of TVs and air conditioning.

Consider the mission of Stratasys, a worldwide additive manufacturing industry leader and purveyor of the trendy Makerbot brand of 3D printers:

We empower people to create without limits for an economical, personalized, and sustainable world. We envision a world in which ideas become reality through 3D printing technology. The imagination of the human mind is unlimited. The limitations are physical ones that we can overcome. We are freeing engineers, manufacturers, educators, designers, doctors, and other creators from those constraints. Through the potential of additive technologies, impossible human challenges become possible.

This mission is brimming with ideology. Stratasys encourages creating without limits (but somehow in a sustainable manner), using an unlimited human mind. Any limitation is purely physical, and additive technologies render impossible human challenges possible. This ideology encourages students, teachers, and policymakers to look to technology to solve any issue affecting schooling and to see technology as the primary tool to mitigate any problem facing humanity. Companies use their missions to signal what is missing in education and frequently promote their products as a fix. For example, neither students, teachers, nor parents created the worldwide phenomenon decrying the perceived scarcity of K-12 computer science education.Indeed, technology entrepreneurs created the urgency around computer science education in K-12, and companies like Wonder Workshop, the maker of the popular Dash and Dot robots, are ready to solve the s0-called problem they helped promote. Their mission:

Our mission is to inspire every home and classroom to be a place of innovation–where children, parents, and teachers solve problems of the future using tools created by Wonder Workshop.

Their mission tasks consumers to address very ambiguous future problems with a specific tool, Wonder Workshop products. The meaning of the term innovation in this context could be more explicit. Innovation is used increasingly in K-12 schooling, synonymous with human superlatives such as creativity and ingenuity. Karol Śledzik credits political economist Joseph Schumpeter with the widespread, modern usage and a sense of innovation.

Schumpeter articulated five types of innovation:

1. Launch of a new product or a new species of already known product;

2. Application of new methods of production or sales of a product (not yet proven in the industry);

3. Opening of a new market (the market for which a branch of the industry was not yet represented);

4. Acquiring of new sources of supply of raw material or semi-finished goods;

5. New industry structure, such as the creation or destruction of a monopoly position.

All five types comport with the term's modern usage in business. This concept of innovation is particularly pronounced in schools that teach entrepreneurship, thrusting all activities in school Maker Spaces toward developing and prototyping products and services. As such, Maker Spaces in schools are increasingly described as incubators, reflecting the motivations of commercial incubators. mHub, a membership-based innovation center in Chicago, is typical of a new wave of Maker Spaces-cum-incubators, providing members with a one-stop-shop to develop products, prototype, seek mentorship, and finally, investors. The goal is commerce.

The Hacker Ethic and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)

In contrast, expressed missions and manifestos of community Hackerspaces and Maker Spaces privilege a different ethos (while still full of ideology). Two examples:

Artisan’s Asylum (Allston-Brighton, MA)

Artisan’s Asylum envisions a world enlivened by makers. We imagine a whole society where everyone feels welcome to share their talents and ceaselessly develop their capabilities, contributing to the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of our communities. Our mission as an inclusive, not-for-profit community workshop is to advance the learning, practice, and culture of do-it-yourself (“DIY”) fabrication. We strive to provide anyone with access to the tools and training necessary to develop creative confidence and build the things they love.

Assembly (Austin, TX)

Our mission is to enrich Austin’s creative maker community by providing a top-notch creative space with tools and educational opportunities in a multidisciplinary, inviting, and member-focused setting. As an educational nonprofit, we will continue to expand class offerings to both our members and the community at large.

The missions of both Artisan’s Asylum and Asmbly echo the Hacker Ethic. Hacker is usually a pejorative term in popular culture. However, there is a clear distinction between a hacker (one who is interested in data, computation, and the free sharing of information and resources, free of borders or private ownership) and a cracker (an individual who seeks to gain unauthorized access to computer systems, often for nefarious purposes). Journalist Steven Levy first articulated the Hacker Ethic in his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Levy created six tenets that comprise the Hacker Ethic. The first is:

Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!.

"Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!" encourages humans to go "under the hood," as it were, to learn how mechanisms and processes--both naturally occurring and human-made--work and may be used. This idea can be heard contemporarily in the often repeated maxim of the Maker Movement in schools, that students should be producers, not solely consumers, of technology. We find echoes of the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement in the missions of Artisan's Asylum and Asmbly, which promotes the sharing of information and computer code, as opposed to closed-source, proprietary philosophies often championed by private companies and corporations.

Human-centered Design

The missions proffered by Artisan’s Asylum and Asmbly also evoke aspects of Human-centered Design (HCD), often referred to as Design Thinking. HCD provides a framework to solve today's problems, regardless of the type of problem, which centers humanity throughout the design process and, crucially, includes those most affected by the issues in the design cycle. HCD promotes a design methodology that begins with the foundational activities of listening and empathizing, immersing oneself in the milieu in which the problem or task originates. From this beginning, one defines goals, and an iteration cycle begins. The products and understandings of this iteration are continually checked against the realizations unearthed in the initial listening and empathizing phase, ensuring that the solutions are practical and appropriate. This iteration continues until one completes the task or finds a solution to the problem. The HCD design cycle is an educational tool educators may use to help students scaffold large projects. In schools, instructors compare this design cycle to the scientific method or the iterative process writers use as they work through successive drafts.

Proponents of the HCD design cycle believe it encourages open-ended tinkering, prototyping, and creative wandering toward a satisfying final iteration. Detractors maintain that HCD centers design and engineering efforts solely on humanity, therefore excluding non-human life on earth, privileging economics rather than ecology. Another criticism of HCD is the ambiguity of the inherent goals of the methodology, as the context in which it is used or communicated can vary greatly; a sociologist might extol the virtues of HCD for solving social or community issues, while companies may describe the benefits of HCD for increased profitability. Andrew S. Lau advocates for a new paradigm in engineering. Lau proposes Life-centered Engineering (LCD), which values the whole of life in our universe and holds the following as its maxim:

Engineers shall hold paramount the improvement of both human life and the larger community of life for present and future generations.

LCD places the economy and economics subservient to ecology, valuing life systems and sustainability and eschewing decisions that have economic benefits at the expense of the environment--even if the economic benefits are great.


Finally, DIY is a core ideology in many school Maker Spaces, Hackerspaces, Innovation Centers, and FabLabs. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos is broad-ranging, with connections to various movements from Jazz to Avant-garde art, often forgoing commercial motivations to personify the true amateur. Whether by passion, necessity, or both, the DIY ethos promotes learning by doing, understanding underlying processes and mechanisms, and the marriage of critical making and fixing. DIY opposes a growing wave of cultural obsolescence, in which a device or machine is rendered useless due to the release of a more updated or culturally-valuable version. Those involved with DIY commercial enterprises, such as Etsy (an online storefront for selling DIY products) and Adafruit (an online retailer of electrical components and hardware kits), frequently occupy the same philosophical worlds as do attendees of DIY meetups like Dorkbot. In the case of Etsy and Adafruit, this overlap is not unusual. Etsy provides users with a marketplace in which to sell their DIY goods. Adafruit fills a niche left by the transformation of stores like Radio Shack, which primarily sold electrical components for projects and repairs for decades but has shifted business models to include mainstream electronics, particularly cell phones and accessories.

What one human invents or makes can be understood by others; we can mend most broken things.

DIY is countercultural and liberatory. The empowering nature of DIY aids in the subversion of a society dominated by ubiquitous computing maintained and controlled by a minority priesthood of technocrats. What one human invents or makes can be understood by others; we can mend most broken things. In an educational setting, DIY centers students and student agency in project-based learning. Learning by doing, from first principles, tasks students with exploring creative processes themselves rather than observing a demonstration by a teacher or following a heavily contrived lesson.

A Framework for Critical Maker Education

A framework for critical maker education is needed to problematize the dominant ideologies, tools, software providers, vendors, projects, ecological realities, curricula, and goals in the Maker Movement in Schools. Critical reflection and creative inquiry can help students and teachers unearth the implicit biases, motives, and ideologies in Maker Education. Critical Pedagogy, mainly based on the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, provides a superstructure and philosophical core for a framework of Critical Maker Education. Freire advocated for democratic pedagogical approaches undermining the traditional teacher-centered, "banking" education model, in which the teacher "deposits" knowledge in students. Rather than a unidirectional learning model, Freire encouraged teachers to join their students in critically problematizing aspects of their world and building curricula around what they find there. Critical Design, created by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, can be married harmoniously with Critical Pedagogy and applied to Maker Education.Dunne and Raby begin from the premise that all design is ideological, despite the standard view among designers that design can be apolitical and neutral. They posit that all design falls into two major categories, Affirmative Design and Critical Design:

Design can be described as falling into two very broad categories: affirmative design and critical design. The former reinforces how things are now; it conforms to cultural, social, technical, and economic expectations. Most design falls into this category. The latter rejects how things are now as being the only possibility; it provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical, or economic values.

Critical Design advocates vary in their sense of which aspect of the design process is most important. Some, such as Mark Ratto, argue for a process-heavy approach that relies on rough prototypes and deemphasizes refinement. Critical Maker Education requires an emphasis on both process and product. Due to the nonlinear nature of learning, a simple prescription or step-by-step methodology is difficult to imagine. A properly researched and tested framework created by students, teachers, and other stakeholders is desperately needed. Given the number of passionate educators working in this area, this framework is undoubtedly attainable. For now, one can begin with a series of prompts, maxims, or simple questions. These prompts must address each phase of the making, including ideation, research, iteration, and final product(s). The prompts must also consider the impact of both the process and product on the maker, their communities, society, and all living things. Finally, the prompts must encourage interrogating and excavating the ideologies and motivations present in Maker Education. To this end, I propose the following prompts, maxims, and questions:

  • What is the best tool or process to express this idea or conduct creative inquiry?
  • Who created this tool, and for whom?
  • What is the impact of using this tool on the surrounding community and the environment?
  • What is the impact of the waste, regardless of the level of recyclability of that waste, on the surrounding community and the environment?
  • What is my level of authorship in this work? How can I acknowledge the work of others in this process legibly in the final product?
  • What ideologies and motivations are inherent in this tool or process, and how will they be combined, subsumed, or changed by my biases, ideologies, and motivations in the design cycle or final product?
  • How accessible are the affordances and opportunities in my educational context to others? How does others’ access (or lack thereof) to these affordances and opportunities affect their experience of the final product?

Going Forward, Critically

The Maker Movement and Maker Education are not singular movements with unified ideologies and harmonious motivations. They are blanket terms for a mix of complex ideas that manifest in equally complex ways. The dominant ideologies, such as Technological Fix, DIY, Hacker Ethic, Innovation, Human-centered Design, Entrepreneurship, and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), are just a few of dozens of ideologies found in Maker Spaces. Humanity requires a Critical Maker Education framework in which both students and teachers critique and problematize the dominant ideologies, tools, software providers, vendors, projects, ecological realities, curricula, and goals they encounter in Maker Education. However, this framework cannot solely privilege the goals and outlook of humanity alone. It must consider the impact on all life and the built environment. Understanding the motivations and ideologies of manufacturers of tools, software developers, and promoters of products and curricula, whether public or private, is key to clarifying their impact on learning outcomes and school programming. A framework that draws on other philosophies, including Critical Pedagogy and Critical Design, can help guide educators and students toward the co-creation of Maker Spaces and curricula conducive to progressive, democratic education.