MakerEd through a Transdisciplinary Lens
So, heya! I’ve landed in Korea and started a new school year. I’m learning as I go, picking up great lessons on #makered process and structure from Gary Donague. I’m also learning about the Primary Years Program, which is the heart of Chadwick’s elememtary practice.
I’m in an online PYP course at the moment. That provides some great resources and opportunities for reflection, but it also resents a “top-level” view that’s similar to any other curricular program. Namely, it’s a bunch of PDFs with overly specific and dense verbiage.
Applying those PYP concepts to my #makered framework has already proven very useful. I’m going to try and capture some of that here. I use lots of the PYP terms in here, after several long talks with our PYP coordinator to help ground the vocab in examples of teaching practice. Those conversations were absolutely necessary for me. I carry my own interpretation of both classroom & PYP language, and those required time and effort to unpack. If this sounds like nothing but semantic distinctions, then it’s likely because I’m glossing over or mis-explaining some term. Please let me know how I can make this explanation more clear.
The most visible aspect of student’s #makered experience is what they build & create. Viewing #makered through this lens ties the experience to a project level. “Students create windmills and solar harvesters in the Makerspace during our Unit on Energy.” With this mindset, the making & design cycle is tied to a product, which is in turn tied to a particular bundle of school-knowledge. There are obvious benefits from this approach, starting with how current curriculum practices can adapt to new projects. Teacher’s are accustomed to sentences of the form “students will learn X by Y,” and changing Y doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Over time, this can create deep (often unstated) linkages between X and Y, to the point where the #makered experiences becomes a curricular fixed point instead of a force for change. As any tech integrator knows all too well, elementary classrooms can easily forget that project Y was an chosen to embody larger curricular/cultural values, and only remember that “3rd grade do PowerPoint for Greek myths in March.”
Our PYP coordinator suggested instead that #makered experiences should arise directly out of the transdisciplinary themes (for reference: Who we are, Where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, sharing the planet).
I had become accustomed to thinking of my role in #makered planning conversations as the person with wide vision. Teachers would describe their units and learning targets, I’d brainstorm incredible possibilities for student making, and then need to convince teachers that the (messy, complicated, risky) experience would meet their curricular goals. I’d developed a view that making experiences “contained multitudes” which meant I could find almost any marker of school-iness inside.
Thinking about #makered through the lens of the TD themes asks something very different from me and from teachers. Instead of designing a project where the topic/UOI (PYP translation: Units of Inquiry) questions are a fundamental to the domain, we need to create powerful, reusable question that chart a direction for students using the Design cycle.
I’ve tried to draw this a bit. My art skills aren’t great, but hopefully this captures my mental image of this abstract concept.
The TD themes form a hexagon of doors/windows around any #makered activity. Even if every first naive draft of that activity looks pretty similar, wedding the Design cycle to the TD themes ensures that each iteration will move students further away from the “just stuff” version of the project and deeper into meaningful, reflective PYP work.
The project example we used to think this through was “fashion design,” an activity with an intentionally vague and flat description. When iterating on this from a project-focused model, the primary change is students climbing ladders of material/tool/skill sophistication. It provides great differentiation and reflection on the design process, and is neutral enough to “fit” anywhere.
Considering the same activity through the TD lens, it’s clear that while it keeps those positive traits, it adds specificity and thematic consistency to the design cycle. Instead of one project that can fit anywhere, we actually have 6 very different projects that happen to share one material/skill base.
Who we are: Build a model/outfit that depicts your friend. Each iteration will need to focus on how we identify ourselves. Since the poseable models lack body characteristics and the project spans weeks, students can’t rely on a single outfit or “blond hair” as signifying characteristics. Students’ models will develop to include signifiers of activities, hobbies, and history.
Where we are in place and time: Make a model of yourself and a grandparent at the same age (ie, when grandparent was in Xth grade). What were the major historical changes in the intervening 60 years, and how can we express those through the materials? Each iteration should explore those issue. Is it possible to show a pre-plastic world through the 3D printer and scrap nylon? What other techniques can we use/develop?
How we express ourselves: Create a model/outfit for a character from literature. Best choices are books with first person narrators, where students will focus on capturing the POV character’s world view through the materials. Iterations can include increasing specificity for the time/moment in the narrative. How would this character’s outfit/presentation change after SIGNIFICANT_PLOT_X?
How we organize ourselves: How do you make a uniform? What information do uniforms from large entities (cities, countries) need to convey through similarities and differences? Maybe small groups are developing model city-states and need to create three different uniforms for important functions within that society. Maybe different groups are exploring the symbolic expressions of hierarchy and rank, and need to create models to convey those ideas? What would uniforms look like for an organization trying to avoid those traits?
How the world works: What can clothing do? Focus on creating a single clothing item that performs an assistive function. This could be a jacket that insulates (measured by temp sensors over time) or rain gear or cycling pants or… Perhaps this is the most classically maker/design style of iteration, with lots of solid numeric data to inform each new model.
Sharing the planet: Where does our clothing come from? What resources does it consume, and how are those reflected in cost? Perhaps this theme involves creating a “raw materials” schema for makerspace materials, and each iteration attempts to lower the “resource footprint” of an outfit. Or maybe each outfit has a given materials list and the iterative challenge is to improve resiliency?
It’s still true that #makered experiences are rich, and that any given kind of making can fit within any of the TD themes. But what’s powerful about TD integration is that after a few iterations, students doing the “same project” through two different lenses will wind up with very divergent work and be able to articulate why those differences exist. Even if the dolls & outfits might look similar to a parent observed when displayed without context, as educators we can be certain that the learning experiences were specific, powerful and distinct.
Project level integration suggests that by selecting right project/task/challenge, students will produce enough observable thinking, reflection, iteration to meet any assessment criteria. TD integration, by contrast, doesn’t demand that teachers find a perfect #makered activity. Any making, fueled by questions that derive directly from the TD theme, will create substantive, unique, visible learning.
This isn’t a frosting layer, where the same learning/making experience is recontextualized by the observer. TD integration operates on the reflective/iterative axis, which fundamentally changes the course/direction of student learning.