Reflections of a Maker Educator

Posted on Aug 5, 2015 in Craft, Learning

I wrote this for maker extraordinaire Becca Rose when she was leading an educator workshop on facilitation and making. Resharing in this space and original post is here, down a ways on the page.

1. What is your role as an educator?
I wear a few different hats in terms of content: I work with K-12 teachers to teach them how to design games and playful experiences learning environments; I work with graduate students to teach them how to construct soft circuits; I work with middle and high school youth to use the design process and new technology to solve problems in their communities.

But being an educator is more than just being an expert in content. I consider my role as an educator to be a person who enables discovery. This doesn’t mean being the sage on stage or the resident expert. This means creating a productive setting to test ideas quickly and a safe space to take risks and to learn from them. More than anything, it is about empathy – remembering what it feels like to learn something for the first time and placing yourself in your learners shoes.

2. Can you describe an ideal class / session / moment. How do you create this?
Basically, a class that I stand at the front of as little as possible.

Picture 15 students surrounded by a pile of materials, ideas flurrying among them as one grabs duct tape and the other runs for a hula hoop or Arduino or tissue paper. They work in small groups, listening to each other and testing ideas for the assigned design challenge. In 30 minutes they must share and test with the whole group.

Or imagine individuals working to expand a simple concept, like a basic circuit or simple code snippet, focused, unimpeded by prior knowledge constraints, inspired by the materials or tools at hand. Students question each other about their designs and offer ideas of how to improve efficiency, aesthetics, etc.

These two situations embody my ideal moments during a learning experience. These are elegant, juicy learning experiences that promote discovery: simple, open design constraints; structured collaboration; and plenty of inspiration. Creating this environment means taking the time early on to establish norms and expectations from individuals and from groups, setting protocols for feedback, and being explicit about the design process at every stage.

3. Can you think of a challenging class / session / moment. How did you overcome it?
Absolutely. The most challenging moment of learning experience within the design process is the muddy space between inspiration and realization. Specifically, I remember a workshop in which groups of teachers had to develop a game for students to playtest the next day. By the end of the session, most were stuck in ideation quicksand and left feeling frustrated. The next day, however, they entered the room shoulders back, smiling confidently and excitedly discussing their games with each other. The playtest was a huge success.

The point is, it is important to acknowledge and account for moments of frustration in the design process with learners. It is a lesson in developing ideas, testing them, and throwing them away until you find the right one. As a facilitator this can be difficult – it’s hard to see people struggle. But design means taking risks and it’s important for people to learn about this mindset as much as other skills. From moments of frustration come bursts of incredible inspiration and insight. Discuss it and incorporate it into your reflections.

Bonus question: what was the best piece of advice given to you when starting out as an educator?
Don’t ever be afraid to say you don’t know. 1) It is empowering to you and the learner to find the answer together. 2) It allows you to take risks as an educator that you might not otherwise – and this is incredibly important.