5 Challenges in Maker Education (and How to Overcome Them)

Maker education is an inspiring, creativity-filled, rich, thought-provoking way to teach. But that doesn't mean it's without its challenges. Here, the maker educators we interviewed discuss the difficulties they've encountered and how they've gone about overcoming them.

1. Getting Students to Work Together

"Even though we think we do cooperative learning," said Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher at Kensico School in Valhalla, New York, "a lot of times kids aren't really exposed to each other to the point where they're reliant on each other for success."

To overcome this, Singh says that he designs all of his all of his modules so that they are a well-oiled machine.

"They all have jobs, they're all interdependent on each other. Once they understand how it goes and they rotate roles a couple of times, they get it," he said. "It's a rare occasion when teams just cannot work together."

2. Being Overwhelmed by Scope and Scale

Maker educators always have to come to terms with the fact that not all students will be able to fully complete projects. Given constraints like technology and time, not everything will go as planned. Singh suggested that teachers try to split projects into 45-minute or hour-long modules. This can be a challenge but is ultimately worth it.

3. Assessing Projects

Grading maker projects is tricky. While benchmarks are important, it's just as key not to discourage students from taking risks that may lead to perceived failures. Rather than letter grades, consider giving students comprehensive feedback from both yourself and from peer and self-assessments. Have students keep journals along the way that help them self-reflect. Add in a presentation element that can be easily graded. Reward students for showing their thought processes, for being resilient, for striving to fulfill, and for working well in groups.

4. Keeping Track of Tools

Managing many different complex tools can be difficult. To avoid this problem, use only tools you are confident with and engage in learning how to use new tools alongside your students.

Large class sizes can also prove difficult. "Managing a maker project in a class of upwards of 30 kids — that sometimes feels impossible," said Simon Mangiaracina, a sixth-grade STEM teacher at the Ann Richards School in Austin, Texas. "Keeping your kids on task and safe can be a challenge when you have a large group."

Also, don't be afraid to ask for help from parents; you'd be surprised at the breadth and diversity of skills represented in your parent population. "I have relied on parents in the past," Singh said. "I always invite them in to see what we're doing. You'd be amazed at the resources you have if you just tap your parents."

And if your school can afford to hire a dedicated makerspace teacher, all the better. This way you will be able to team teach and also have someone who is dedicated to mastering all of the classroom tools.

5. Setting Boundaries

It can be difficult for both teachers and students to understand just what a makerspace is and how it is different from a traditional classroom. Without a dedicated maker teacher who is versed in the principles of maker education, it's easy for makerspaces to slip into a "do whatever you want in here" kind of space, or worse yet, to gather dust. For maker educators, it's important to remind other teachers and students that the kind of learning that happens in a makerspace is different.

"Maker education, especially if you're managing a space, is really setting boundaries for how it will be used," said Patrick Benfield, STEAM and makerspace director at St. Gabriel's in Austin, Texas. "People have different ways for how they want it to be used, but it might not be the best use for it, so push back."