Maker Ed vs Code Consumption

In the past few days, I’ve been at the Bett Show in London, together with sCool. It is the penultimate Disney Land for educational geeks like me and my colleagues. I was particularly drawn to the STEAM corner, where -of course- were a tons of new developments on coding and robotics for kids.
Talking to people such as Carrie Anne Philbin from the Raspberry Pi Foundation wasn’t only interesting, but inspiring and invigorating. I could probably add more words starting with i to that list, but I’ll refrain myself.
However, I did have one major concern. Perhaps, in the quest for teaching children to code and become master of this amazing digital superpower, we lost track of the goal and have relapsed into plain old consumerism. 
You might disagree on this, as lots of initiatives on learning to code and robotics claim to empower children to produce digital media. But as I was walking through the Bett aisles, I saw toy after toy that required little assembly or allowed for hardly any remixing. Don’t get me wrong: I would happily play with every robot building kit or coding game I saw. And I’d be having a great time at it. There was just something missing.

Acquiring a mindset vs. getting high scores

Coding games often seem to be obsessed with getting ‘the right solution’ and achieving effective program codes. Players are then rewarded with stars, points, high scores and so on. Nothing wrong with that. I love getting high scores too and believe me: I will not stop until I get three stars on all levels.
But how do we go beyond that? I often miss a crucial phase in these kinds of projects and that is ideation. Children by nature have the perfect mindset for generating crazy ideas and then figuring out how to make it work. However, you don’t see this in these types of coding games. The goal has been set in advance by the system, not by the child.
I believe we should have more attention to open ideation and the mindset of creativity. This will not only make children feel happy, it will increase their problem solving skills as well. Because believe me, it is no easy process to go from your dream robot to actually building one. But at Dwengo Robot Camps over the summer, teams of children succeed in it every single time, thanks to ample attention for the ideation and brainstorming process.

Step-by-step vs. open creativity

There is nothing wrong with following a plan of action. Sometimes a manual is the most valuable resource you’ll have. But I feel that children are losing the skill to deviate from it. When asking a group of 9-12 year olds to build a ‘two-wheeled robot’, we shouldn’t give them a piece of paper on how to do this. No, we should give them a box of bricks, some DC motors, a set of wheels and most of all: each other.
Through open assignments and peer collaboration, children will not only explore more creative ideas, but they will find it easer to refine these as well into practice. They will try different setups and probably fail a few times. But through feedback and building on each others inspiration, they will eventually come to a deeply personal solution. One that is not found in any manual.
Step-by-step guides and especially games might teach children the most efficient way to do things or to code a game. But this knowledge will rarely transfer beyond the platform they were acquired in. Once an open mindset is needed and they are to ‘start from scratch’, some children will come to a full stop. They learned how to apply the steps. Many of these games set a claim to teaching problem solving skills. But how is this possible when in every phase children follow a set of instructions?
Not to mention how quickly children will outgrow these games and toys, which will end up in a closet or under a pile of apps. To me, this doesn’t seem like sustainable learning at all. We need an ecosystem of tools that go above and beyond consumerism, ditching a large portion of the step-by-step mentality and continue to stimulate children as they grow.

Tangible experiences with open outcomes

I probably sound overly critical now. However, there were quite a few projects on the floor that inspired me. I’ve already mentioned the obvious, open-source magic of Raspberry Pi, but they aren’t alone. Many companies are on the right track and made me jump with joy (usually internally, sometimes for real).
The best ones to me were the projects using a tangible experience. You might have heard from the Kubo Robot from Denmark, using puzzle pieces as coding blocks, or the adorable Primo Cubetto. But my favourite was probably the Hummingbird microcomputer and sensor kit. This company stimulates children to use regular craft materials (such as popsicle sticks, cardboard, wood and a lot or glue) to make their robotic dreams come to life.
Making coding tangible opens it up for young learners, who might still struggle understanding on screen logic and sequencing. They receive direct feedback to increase learning. But most of all: it encourages remixing. Everyone will have seen a child try out toys the way they weren’t supposed to. We all tried to ‘hack’ things and find other uses. By using their hands, children are challenged to experiment with new perspectives and opportunities.

Maker Ed skills roundup

For me, Maker Ed and even STEAM is so much more than the current focus on learning to code or even digital DIY in general. It encompasses a set of lifelong learning skills, applicable in the entire curriculum and life. The activities are not a goal in itself, but a pedagogical means and motivational tool to reach a higher goal. Here are just five of the elements that I think should be crucial in every Maker Ed program, tool, game or toy; beyond the classic coding and problem solving skills:
  1. Ideation and brainstorming skills
  2. Physical prototyping and crafting
  3. Acquiring a network of both people and sources for knowledge
  4. Communication and collaboration skills
  5. Identity development


Note of the Author:
Please keep in mind that this blogpost was written after 3 days of working on a stand at the Bett Show and in a bout of insomnia. It was 5.30 in the morning when I started and I hope I didn’t write any gibberish in the process. Peace out.

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