The family that makes together learns together.
GUEST COLUMN | by Heather Weiss and Gregg Behr
When families wander into MAKESHOP, they are greeted with an inviting array of electronic tools, circuitry, sewing needles, and saws. Educators at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh makerspace help visitors develop a project that family members can complete together. The idea is to build something physical while building knowledge and relationships at the same time – all while having fun together.
Maker education provides an accessible and fun pathway to connected learning for families.
In traditional schooling models, families have participated mostly at the margins, helping with homework or chaperoning field trips. Now, with the spread of anywhere, anytime learning, a school is just one setting where kids can learn. Connected learning posits that the best education begins with a child’s own interests. A range of institutions and mentors then help kids connect their passions to academic and professional opportunities.
This new learning landscape requires—and presents opportunities for—updated parental roles.
Parents are often eager to become more involved in their children’s education, but they may not know where to begin. The explosion of digital learning tools only compounds the confusion.
This curiosity is actually a fruitful place to start. Take maker education. Emphasizing exploration and risk, the hands-on maker movement creates abundant opportunities for families to get directly involved in their children’s schooling and learning. Ambitious and creative maker projects demand and inspire collaboration with parents and caregivers. At a MAKESHOP electricity workshop, kindergarteners and their fathers were presented with a pile of batteries and motors. Together, they designed and built functional inventions, including a handheld fan.
Often, tech tools and gadgets are new for both parent and child, giving each the chance to be a teacher, or the option for both to learn as peers. In other cases, the materials are low-tech but still offer prospects for cooperative learning. A MAKESHOP blogger wrote about a father-daughter duo who visited Pittsburgh and ended up spending two days at the makerspace sewing a fabric pouch for the family tablet.
The Harvard Family Research Project has spent years tracking the boom in informal learning opportunities, and advocating for wider access. High-income families outspend their low-income counterparts on extracurricular programs nearly seven to one, write Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane in Wither Opportunity?. Lower income families often have less time to dedicate to children’s educational enrichment, and less money to spend on expensive afterschool programs. By sixth grade, middle-class kids have spent 6,000 more hours in extracurricular learning programs than poor students, according to The After-School Corporation.
Public makerspaces give all parents and guardians an opportunity to play a supportive role in their kids’ exploration. The programming at places like Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP or the New York Hall of Science makerspace is designed to be flexible and interactive. The spaces facilitate connection between family members and also act as community resources. Like MAKESHOP—where low-income families can present an EBT card to receive $2 admission for up to four people—many maker sites are affiliated with museums, libraries, or community centers where families can join a social network or find access to other public programming.
In Pittsburgh, these spaces exist at the Millvale Community Library, where there are maker programs for kids and teens; at Carnegie Mellon University, where the CREATE Lab churns out community-oriented tech; and at Assemble, where the assorted community programming includes a summer camp that neighborhood kids can attend for free. The explosion of maker learning in Pittsburgh is part of the city’s effort to “remake learning” into a connected, inclusive, hands-on experience, and to expand these opportunities to all of the region’s young people. There are now more than 100 documented maker spaces in the Pittsburgh region. At the National Maker Faire, The Remake Learning Network, will launch a new Playbook, designed to help scale learning innovations like those that are happening in Pittsburgh to other cities and regions across the country.
When families are involved, young learners have a framework for connecting their work at school to their life and community beyond campus. With parental support, kids are more likely to pursue projects and maintain focus. Maker education provides an accessible and fun pathway to connected learning for families.
Gregg Behr is the executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council, a civic leadership group advancing maker learning and learning innovation generally. Heather Weiss is the Founder and Director of the Harvard Family Research Project.