Maker Empowerment: A Concept Under Construction

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

Over the last 18 months, the Agency by Design team has visited several school-based maker spaces and maker programs, talked with many educators involved in maker-inspired teaching and learning, and read numerous articles and books about the maker movement and maker-based education. As part of our effort to distill common themes, lately we’ve been talking about a concept we’re calling maker empowerment. We arrived at this idea by distilling what we’ve learned, by applying a “maker” lens to the concept of agency, and by trying to articulate our best hope for what young people might gain through maker-centered educational experiences—recognizing that maker-centered learning can take many different forms and yield many different products and activities. Here’s our working definition—what it may lack in poetry, we hope it makes up in precision.

Maker Empowerment: A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so.

If you look at this definition from a design perspective you’ll see that it cobbles together three distinct ideas. The first phrase, A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, points to the importance of simply noticing that many of the objects, ideas, and systems we encounter in the world—from desktops to democracy to driver education classes—are human-made designs. They are comprised of specific parts that fit together to serve a purpose (or multiple purposes), and they can be understood and analyzed from the standpoint of design.

With a little help from a colleague, Agency by Design researcher Jessica Ross was empowered to use some basic electronic materials to power an LED light and a small speaker with a 9V battery.

With a little help from a colleague, Agency by Design researcher Jessica Ross was empowered to use some basic electronic materials to power an LED light and a small speaker with a 9V battery.

The second part of the sentence talks about a nudge toward tinkering and pushes the idea of sensitivity into action. It suggests that to be maker empowered, you not only notice the designed dimension of the world, but also feel impelled, at least from time to time, to fiddle around with making or remaking things yourself. The range of activity encompassed by this nudge toward action is quite broad. It includes constant tinkerers and inventors, weekend DIYers, and the kindergartener who notices that lining up in single file to go out to the school playground is a certain kind of system and tries to envision an alternative approach. The word “nudge” is meant to capture the sense of agency that is comingled with the inclination to hack, tweak, reinvent, or create.

Teachers from the Oakland Learning Community get hands-on with their learning as they take apart a spigot.

Teachers from the Oakland Learning Community get hands-on with their learning as they take apart a spigot.

The third part of our working definition of maker empowerment mentions increased capacity. This points to the obvious fact that designing and making things require certain skills, but the definition uses the word capacity rather than skill intentionally. Capacities can consist of knowing how to use certain tools and procedures, but they can also consist of knowing how to find out how to use those tools and materials. This finding out might come about through formal instruction; for example, you might follow a teacher’s instructions on how to use a drill press or take a course in soft electronics. But you might also find what you need to know through more informal means, such as searching around online, watching others, or just giving a tool a try and learning through doing. This point about multiple modes of learning is important: The maker movement celebrates thinking with your hands, and learning what you need from wherever and whomever as you go along. From an educational standpoint, helping young people develop the capacity to engage with the world as makers means creating environments in which skills can emerge naturally in the process of making—a process which often occurs in the company of others. So the capacities that give rise to a sense of maker empowerment include skills related to learning-to-learn and collaboration as much as they include technical skills.

Bumping back up to the big picture, here again is our working definition:  Maker empowerment is a heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so. We suggest that helping young people develop a sense of maker empowerment is a worthy goal of maker-centered education in all its varieties, and that achieving this goal means attending to all three elements captured in the foregoing definition—developing a sensitivity to design, a sense of agency with regard to making, and capacities that support self-directed, community-resourced learning.

As the title of this blog post indicates, maker empowerment is a concept under construction. As we continue to develop this idea, we’d love to know what you think!

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About Shari Tishman

Shari Tishman is a Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Project Zero, where she recently served as Director. Her research focuses on the development of thinking and understanding, the role of close observation in learning, and learning in and through the arts. She currently co-directs Agency by Design, a project related to the maker movement that is investigating the promises, practices and pedagogies of maker-centered learning. She also co-directs Out of Eden Learn, an online learning community, currently being used in over 700 classrooms worldwide, that is linked to National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek's seven-year walk around the world. Past notable projects include Visible Thinking, a dispositional approach to teaching thinking that foregrounds the use of thinking routines and the documentation of student thinking, and Artful Thinking, a related approach that emphasizes the development of thinking dispositions through looking at art. The author of numerous articles and books, Tishman is currently at work on a book on 'Slow Looking.'

17 thoughts on “Maker Empowerment: A Concept Under Construction

  1. I’m not sure “nudge” is the best trigger for a sense of agency (a prime mover is an agent while a thing nudged is a, well, a lump.) You are right about the lack of poetry too… That sucker is DOA. Here is an alternate try:

    Maker Identity: Seeing one’s environment as largely “built” and “human generated” from components. The Maker Identified feels a personal invitation and liberty to interpret and interact with their environment as such. That world is subject to criticism, experimentation, editing, remixing and connoisseurship.

    In this formulation “agency” does not need a “nudge” but instead needs a frame where the made, composite and chosen aspect of the environment becomes apparent. Repairs would seem a good entry point for this understanding as would bricolage.

    I do worry about:
    1) how to, for hesitant kids, generate a sense of permission/liberty to do something permanent with “real” materials.
    2) make skill acquisition pleasurable.

    for 1) I think seeing maker’s bone-yards is a help as is a goodly supply of materials and avoiding preciousness about them.
    for 2) maybe it is leading with connoisseurship, collecting, cataloging (limited motor skills involved) then once the engagement is fixed, the stickyness of the subject can support repeated tries with, for instance, hand tools or fiddly bits.

  2. I love the idea of maker empowerment but I’m not sure if your definition is empowering enough.
    How about something like:
    Maker empowerment allows us to understand that much of the world we live in was created by people like ourselves. It empowers us with the capacities and confidence needed to become active agents, in designing and building our future.

  3. I love the pieces of your definition that center around a sensitivity to design. It leaves open an important question of how to nurture that sensitivity.

    I wonder if the “nudge toward tinkering” needs to expand to include some sense of inquiry, of questioning and/or problem-solving. Some might argue the pure tinkering is just that, just a playful exploration. But why do we have that inclination, to use your word? I think there is often a question or a desire to improve/grow/expand/answer at the heart of the tinkering. Doing so also, in mind, adds to the sense of empowerment at the heart of your post.

  4. Inclination is an interesting frame for this. The metaphor implies a broader/earlier/normaller? stage of equanimity toward tinkering (and everything else possibly.) That dispassionate state is OK as a starting point (If it exists – I have doubts) but the humanness of design issues should be, for the majority of socially plugged-in kids, a good draw into design talk, analysis and play. Seems like a more positive assumption than the need to “nudge” and “incline”… I know it got semantic in here, but these early framing issues are important.

    • (Hi Paul…) I question “invitation and liberty” because they imply a third party. “Inclined” implies a leaning towards, a tension, which captured a bit of the “irresistible” element I associate with makers and the need to make. “Inclined” is the obvious choice rather than the rather provocative “nudge”–AbD friends, this dialogue must have been an interesting one…
      Curiosity and play are intertwined here for sure (the deeper I go into this maker/ thinking like a designer world, the taller my stack of books about Play grows…) and cause me to ask whether culturally we are educating and “consumerizing” natural making tendencies right out of our children. Gasp!
      Putting that larger question aside– the answer is obvious in any case—perhaps a simple maker empowerment definition could be found in (what seems to be) the fact that when you develop a sensitivity to something, you must scratch that itch! (For better or worse…)

      • (hey Ilya) Nudge not just implies, but requires a third party acting on you. IF you are “inclined” then it is irresistible… BUT if you are not predisposed to tinkering, then the question becomes what is the method of tipping: which are ethical and effective. You can invite yourself and assume a liberty. You cannot nudge yourself (nor can you tickle yourself – maybe a better, at least more fun, frame for all of this.)

        we cannot swap “nudge” and “inclined” since they are different parts of speech and in this discussion they cover two distinct participant sets. The inclined mostly need leeway and coaching. The dispassionate need a transformation in their motivational basis (to be “nudged.”) If we accept that there are some disinclined who would benefit from a change, then we have the obligation to think out how that “nudge” happens. I think invitation and presumption that the kid is in a “make tribe” (humans) would give some normative pressure in the right direction. Also worth considering as enticements to a maker identity:
        1) exposure to others trying NEW things (see earlier tinkering posts)
        a) the kids who do cooperative multi day builds and then present
        b) guest makers with tools
        c) exploiting snags in projects to discuss strategy

        2) invitations to reflection and examination (appliance autopsy, drawing, listing, comparing and contrasting)
        a) who notices X
        b) draw, fidget with model, draw, fidget, draw
        c) room audit (as vocabulary first then drill down to the sub parts of everything on the list

        3) community values expressed in care for the material environment (long subject)
        a) a flavor of 2)a) above

        … So I’m fine with a third party, and if you believe in a “nudge” so do you. My point is the “nudge” should ideally be more of an inspiration or ignition than a “shove” as those metaphors (which all have third actors in them) still have the special sauce of addressing a nascent, in-borne, agency, that our third party acts awaken or quicken.

  5. While the ideas within this project are fantastic, I struggle with the use of the term “empowerment” because it implies that the people in power are the ones giving power to the unempowered, which only perpetuates the assumed hierarchies of knowledge and access.

    I am wondering how project activities are/might be designed to build on participants’ personal and cultural knowledge and interests, as opposed to relying predominantly on the skills and awareness that come from outside resources (e.g. teachers, instructions, online, etc.).

    I would also be interested to hear what researchers are learning from working within the project communities, as I imagine that the various cultures and age groups have fascinating alternate perspectives on the maker trend, systems awareness, and design concepts.

  6. What a great conversation! Thanks so much to all who have commented. This is just the kind of dialogue we were hoping for. We’ve been talking about your thoughts at our team meetings, and we’re really excited by the ideas you’ve shared. The conversation is definitely helping to sharpen our thinking about maker empowerment – both about the definition itself, and about the work we want the concept to do. The concept is still “under construction,” and we plan to write another post about it soon. So stay tuned, and in the meantime please continue to share your ideas!

  7. Paul and I had an off-line conversation today, and this post will no doubt serve as a “nudge” to him to share the left to right flow of our empowerment thinking. I bring forward one question for the larger group: Once empowered–and/or sensitized–, is it possible to turn it off? Can you stop scratching that itch and, assuming scratching brought on a happy feeling, still be happy?
    Hey! This prompts another question: Is maker empowerment by its nature a happy state of being?

    • I just had this quote appear in my inbox…

      “The only cure for boredom is curiosity.
      There is no cure for curiosity.” -Dorothy Parker

      In response to the “nudge” :
      I theorized that in the pre and post empowerment states there is a different conception of what is possible in the realm of materials and craft. Before one identifies as a maker stuff is a given, it is whole (not, for instance, made up of parts to be individually considered and maybe even torn down to.)

      I think the pre state is mostly theoretical. It seems most people make something, but if you are timid, uninspired and kind of stuck for inspiration on what might be interesting to tinker with then we might call you functionally “pre” maker and seek to spark within you some curiosity. But what is holding you up – and keeping you in the pre-state? I propose that some are presuming that things are less arbitrary and more special than they are. So a fear of screwing up a hidden order and getting in trouble for wasting material or even time could be serious inhibitions.

      And that brought me to the classic (forgetting who identified this, google?… “Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”” thank you google.) distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Applied to pre and post maker identified people – the not yet “free from” are subject to things in the material world and their importance etc. while the “free to” persons act upon the world and see it as a place to impose and express meaning. So the evolutionary movement for the pre-makers (to the extent that any person is a pre-maker) is from this feeling of being apart from and under the influence of things (a lack of “freedom from”) to a feeling of agency and freedom to make decisions, try stuff, spend time, spend materials, make choices.

      The left-right distinction (I was gesturing a lot in that in person conversation) was mostly an exaggerated “on the one hand vs the other hand” exercise. But it is true that left to right is, in our culture, a usual move from past through now to future or beginning to end. And I do see the move from non maker to maker as progress. So she caught me there. Bias for sure.

      So the push back question from Ilya was “can you go back to a pre maker state or is it a one way process.” I’m inclined to think that since it is a change in perception it is likely to stick – once a maker always a maker, at least in spirit. Maybe you don’t have time or pertinent interest. For instance, I built one car but my current Honda even gets its oil changed by others. But I have not regressed to a premaker understanding, so I do describe small changes in the sounds and behavior that I do not think I would have noted were i pre-maker. At least I think so.

      Here is where the freedom from vs freedom to parallel gets foggy. If i remove your freedom to, say assemble, then you are short a freedom from my authority. If I am powerful enough I can impose that on you. If you enjoyed meetings then this lack of freedom will pain you but you might get used to it and change your feelings about it but I think we’d agree that objectively your freedom has “a shape” or extent and your understanding of it is another thing. And they do not match now that you are bad talking meetings… But identity is a different material that way. Since it is just self perception then it is going to have a very close overlap between its felt and “real” borders.

      happy vs unhappy. I think that might be a separate axis. Plenty of makers are miserable and many are happy and still others grind up and down those hills. If I am engaged in “flow” then neither seems to apply so much. The engaged state (not available to the pre-maker) strikes me as valuable even if it is not a happier one. It has a chance of driving toward happy, I suppose, but I don’t think that is a for sure consequence nor a requirement.

  8. Hey Ilya, thanks for your second comment on this topic. I love your concluding question about whether or not maker empowerment is a happy state of being. This reminds me of some of my own research on the concept of creativity. If we consider the concept of creativity as residing within individuals (as maker empowerment seems to be considered here) then creativity is often characterized by a longing to pursue what’s possible or what’s next and an unhappiness with things as they are. There is always a further state to achieve, which, in theory, relates to a constant state of dissatisfaction, or—discontent (don’t get me started on Lacanian theories of “jouissance” and creativity as a form of sadness…) with things as they are. In other words, the pursuit of the pursuit is what drives the pursuer. Achievement of an objective just makes the pursuer hungry for the next pursuit. But I don’t think maker empowerment and creativity are alike in this way. For starters, maker empowerment doesn’t imply a constant pursuit of novelty (as creativity must), it’s more about an inclination to just do something—to just make something—even if that “something” already exists in the world.

    While the not knowing how to make or do something may be an unhappy place, the empowerment to make or do that thing—and then the later achievement of having made or done that thing—would indeed be a satisfying state. I wonder then, is a heightened sense of maker empowerment, like creativity, a cycle of happiness/unhappiness that bounces back and forth from want to do–can do–want to do more–can do–want to do even more that that… If so, well, happiness or not, is that constant pursuit of the next horizon—that next level of maker achievement—a bad thing? It’s a cool question to consider… as are the roles of contentment vs. insatiability in how we raise and educate our young people. What do folks think?

  9. At the risk of a filibuster :^) I’m going to vote for happiness not coming from accomplishment. It is like “maker identity:” it is a feeling/perspective about what the world is made up of and the path available to you in that world. That and something to do with dopamine.

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