“In this age of complexity and ambiguity, learners need new skills”

Gareth Halfacree, flickr.com, CC BY-SA2.0
Gareth Halfacree, flickr.com, CC BY-SA2.0

Daniel Rabuzzi, until recently Executive Director of the youth development nonprofit Mouse, argues that how children are taught in schools has to change significantly to meet the needs of the 21st century, and discusses where new models of learning, such as Maker Education, can make a difference.

Aisha Schnellmann: Does formal education in schools today meet the needs of the 21st century?

Daniel Rabuzzi: All children need to know how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic – that hasn’t changed. What is different today, however, is that beyond acquiring content knowledge, it is equally essential that children understand the mechanics behind these learning processes; in other words, they need to learn how to learn.

This is an important skill they will need to thrive in the 21st century, where lifelong learning will be expected. With things changing so quickly, we truly do not know what knowledge will be relevant in the future. In fact, half of the occupations, let alone specific jobs, ten to twenty years from now, do not exist yet because they are still being created. This is why knowing how to learn will be key.

What needs to change in schools today is then not so much what is taught but how. Instead of an emphasis on teaching, which often means direct instruction, children will benefit more from models that encourage self-directed learning, such as Maker Education.

“What needs to change in schools today is not so much what is taught but how. Children will benefit more from models that encourage self-directed learning.”

AS: The Maker Movement model of learning is increasingly finding its way into K-12 schools. How can children benefit from the incorporation of Maker education in their schools? 

DR: The Maker Movement is about learning by doing, tinkering, messing about, and pottering around. It is about solving a problem that you yourself define, with tools that sometimes have to be created by you, towards an outcome that is unknown. It is so counter-intuitive from how children are taught in classrooms today, where teachers present clearly defined problems that come with specific solutions, and students are only expected to figure out the steps to take to solve them.

When children engage in Maker education, they experience an enormous shift in mindset. Firstly, they learn how to identify and define the problem they want to solve. This skill of problem recognition is increasingly important as we tackle major global issues such as climate change – problems so massive and complex that they are not yet clearly defined.

Secondly, children develop an understanding that multiple solutions may exist for a single problem, learning how to compare and evaluate effectively. This cultivates in children a comfort with ambiguity and flexibility. Lastly, because teamwork is an important aspect of Maker Education, they learn how to work in truly collaborative ways, leveraging on each other’s strengths to achieve a common goal.

“This skill of problem recognition is increasingly important as we tackle major global issues such as climate change – problems so massive and complex that they are not yet clearly defined.”

Despite the growing interest however, most children who engage in Maker Education today continue to do so through after-school programs run by organizations like Mouse. But does this engagement and interest continue after the children leave these programs? In response, Mouse recently participated in a research study to examine how it could support students to keep on making after they had attended its Maker Nights.

What we learned is that although such after-school programs are generally successful, their effectiveness is hampered because they are held outside of formal curriculum. This limits the time and effort children can dedicate to such programs, reducing the support and opportunities available to reinforce what they’ve learned.

AS: Maker education encourages risk-taking, unstructured tinkering, and embraces learning from constructive failure. Success and failure in formal school education today however is measured differently. How can formal education be aligned with the values underpinning Maker Education?    

DR: Recent research in fact has questioned if Maker Education sits in “uneasy alignment” with what formal education requires. It’s tough because on the one hand, with formal education, we are saying “please pass your standardized tests”. On the other hand, with Maker Education, we want the learners to embrace failure because it is through that process that they will identify problems and develop solutions.

“We want the learners to embrace failure because it is through that process that they will identify problems and develop solutions.”

But it’s not that Maker Education doesn’t value success or doesn’t measure it. On the contrary, we insist in our Mouse programs for example, that success is measured, albeit differently. Because our training is not theoretical, children must build a digital and/or physical solution as a team; typically both. They must then be able to demonstrate it to an outside audience and explain how it works. If the device works, it is immediately evident that the students have succeeded. But if it fails on Demonstration Day, which often happens, that’s also ok. What matters then is that the students are able to explain why it failed and how to fix it.

Successfully incorporating Maker Education into mainstream formal K-12 education therefore requires that new matrixes of measuring success, simultaneously addressing the needs of both formal and Maker Education, are developed. By doing so, I think that children will benefit from a more holistic learning experience that reunites the academic and vocational aspects of education well.

Daniel Rabuzzi most recently was Executive Director of Mouse. Prior to that, he held various senior roles at Year Up NYC, at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, and at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. He is currently a member of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine (USA) committee on “Authentic STEM Learning for Computing/Technology”. He has been a judge for the Reynolds Program in Entrepreneurship at New York University, an evaluator for the Echoing Green Fellowship, and an evaluator for the U.S. Department of Education’s Career Technical Education Makerspace Challenge. The opinions Daniel expresses here are solely his own, and not necessarily those of any of his past or current affiliations.

Mouse is a national youth development nonprofit that believes in technology as a force for good. It empowers youths and educators to engage with computer science and creative technology to solve real problems and make meaningful change in our world. It designs computer science and STEM curriculum on its online learning platform, trains K-12 educators, and engages students through the Design League and maker events.

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