How Maker Education is Impacting Student Cognition

Maker education changes the way students think. Here, we'll look at how that's evident in both pedagogy and practice — gleaning insights from both research and our maker education panel on how this movement is improving student learning across the board.

Reports from Maker Classrooms

1. Fostering a Sense of Empowerment and Resilience

Simon Mangiaracina, a dedicated STEM teacher at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, said that seeing his students develop confidence is one of the most striking aspects of a maker program.

"Students feel really uncertain at first and then suddenly familiar with so many of the tools and techniques and materials we're using — knowing just the basic stuff like the difference between different kinds of screwdrivers and saws, what kind of wood to use," he said. "I see maker education as a way to find learners who are less experienced with certain aspects of creating and making and expose them to this new world of making and solving problems."

"I see maker education as a way to find learners who are less experienced with certain aspects of creating and making and expose them to this new world of making and solving problems."
Simon Mangiaracina
Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

According to Patrick Benfield, STEAM and makerspace director at St. Gabriel's in Austin, Texas, "The idea is for them to walk away with a real sense of resilience. It's not about a specific thing they learn. Because it's high tech and low tech — workshop tools and digital fabrication equipment — the exposure to so many different concepts and tools [gives them] a different kind of confidence."

2. Creating Flexible Thinkers Who Are Less Afraid to Fail

In traditional education, students often find themselves in constant pursuit of a letter grade, which comes with real risk aversion. After all, why take a risk by experimenting with new and creative ideas that might not work, when you can play it safe and get a guaranteed A?

"So many kids are so afraid to fail. They worry about letter grades," said Kristi Merchant, a library media specialist at George Washington Carver Middle School in the Tulsa Public School District.

"It's such a different mindset," Benfield said. "Some students are good at playing the game of education. This is completely counter to that. Some kids that might normally excel because they know the routine of education — they get here and that's all gone, they have to re-figure out how to learn."

3. Promoting Collaborative Group Work

When projects are collaborative, the opportunity to unite around a common fun, choice-filled creative project often helps students who had previously struggled to work in groups.

As an example of this in practice, Merchant relayed the story of a project she ran called the "Quidditch Challenge," in which students built drones to complete an obstacle course inspired by the "Harry Potter" books. One of her students was struggling because, as a natural engineer, he felt responsible for getting his group's design right. On the first day, Merchant said the student got pretty agitated with the group, but the next day he came back, gave a rousing presentation, and actually got his team on board. Later on, during that student's absence, the team was able to fix a problem with their quadcopter without his help. When the student returned, he was impressed and praised the other students on their design.

"I was so thrilled," Merchant said. "I think it helped him. I could see the pressure of thinking he had to come up with the perfect design. I think maker education has so many benefits that we can't even begin to describe."

4. Sharpening Critical and Creative Thinking

When students enter a makerspace, they know that they won't succeed by repeating what the teacher says or by taking a test. Instead, they have to make choices.

"They're deciding how their robot is going to look. How to build their village in Minecraft," said Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher at Kensico School in Valhalla, New York. "We respect them enough to give them those options."

Executing on their plans requires deep critical thinking as a form of problem-solving, It requires having students "look at the problem through a different lens rather than us guiding them," Singh said.

For Merchant, it's all about the design process. "They're given a challenge and they have to think about it and come up with a solution. The whole design process model is being incorporated into their learning and that's huge," she said.

"There is no right or wrong answer. The right answer is thinking in an innovative way and articulating it back to the group."
Kristi Merchant
George Washington Carver Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Merchant also praised the ability of her maker students to "think outside of the box."

"There's no right or wrong answer," she said. "The 'right' answer is thinking in an innovative way and articulating it back to the group."

Digging Deeper: What the Research Says

Maker education itself is too new to have been extensively studied, but the benefits of related movements and techniques, such as project-based learning and hands-on learning, are clear.

1. Hands-On Education Improves Test Scores

A study on science education out of the University of Virginia found that "students who engaged in hands-on activities every day or once a week scored significantly higher on a standardized test of science achievement than students who engaged in hands-on activities once a month, less than once a month, or never."

There have been similar findings when it comes to math education , and in a comprehensive review of studies on this topic the education nonprofit ASCD found that, in comparison to students in traditional settings, those who participated in project-based learning tested better in solving word problems and planning.

2. Project-Based Learning Promotes Richer Learning Outcomes

According to a compilation of project-based learning (PBL) research from Edutopia , "A 2016 MDRC/Lucas Education Research literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills."

Similar studies listed on the same page also found that project-based learning increases long-term retention, collaborative skills and attitudes toward learning.

3. It's a Matter of Equity

According to a 2013 RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching) report , "It has been demonstrated that students who are disadvantaged economically or academically gain the most from activity-based programs. … Hands-on learning inspires all students to meet and exceed high standards for learning and participation."

As such, it shouldn't be surprising that an earlier 2011 RAFT report found that "89 percent of teachers report that they are doing more hands-on activities in their classrooms and offering a wider variety of hands-on activities. Ninety-nine percent report their students are more engaged in learning and retain knowledge longer as a result of their hands-on experience."

How to Support Maker Thinking

So how can you best support your students so that they're getting the very most learning benefits out of your maker projects? It requires a shift.

"You don't want to stifle their creativity," Merchant said.

Maker educators tend to act more like a guide or a coach to learning than you find in traditional educational models. There's less direct instruction and more questions. Did that student's design not quite work out the way they hoped? Don't tell them what to do. Ask them the kinds of questions they should be asking themselves to get them thinking critically. Then send them off to investigate more effective approaches.

Just as it is important for students not to fear failure as they make, it's important for maker teachers not to worry about knowing everything there is to know when it comes to instruction. Instead, teachers are often learning right along with their students. If you're lucky enough to have a dedicated maker teacher, like Benfield, you'll have someone who can assume the learning curve.

"I learn the concepts and tools first and then work that into the planning so that eases the pressure on the teacher, who also has the pressure of time and curriculum. We collaborate," Benfield said.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a maker teacher in your school, take baby steps. Start going to maker fairs and maker meetup groups. Do as all of the maker educators we interviewed did: Start small, with projects that are in your wheelhouse, and move up from there.

More than anything, be ready to embrace a different sort of learning process. If you're like the teachers we interviewed, you've got a secret maker hiding inside of you, waiting to be unleashed.

"I think I've always kind of had the makerspace in me," Merchant said. "But now I just get to really let it shine."