Review of Invent to Learn Part One: Introduction

“Playrooms and games, animals and plants, wood and nails must take their place side-by-side with books and words.”
– Angelo Patri, A Schoolmaster of the Great CIty, 1917

Recently I wrote about the lack of personal reading that I had been doing in general, both for enjoyment and for professional development and committed to rectifying, at least, the reading for professional development aspect. I decided that I would begin with reading Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez (@smartinez) and Gary Stager (@garystager). I was fortunate enough to hear Gary speak at FutureSchools in March of this year and was able to purchase a copy of the book, which Gary kindly signed.

Gary Stager's salutation and signature in my copy of Invent to Learn.

A post shared by Brendan Mitchell (@c21_teaching) on

I began reading it on the train home that evening, and was both challenged and inspired, but promptly got busy, with the remainder of FutureSchools, preparing for my current position which I had been offered whilst attending FutureSchools, and failed to return to reading the book, which brings back to this article. Having committed to reading a chapter of a book each week for professional development purposes, I decided to start with Sylvia and Gary’s book. All quote within this article have been sourced from this book, unless otherwise referenced.

Angelo Patri’s quote, which I have included at the top of this article, encapsulates, I believe, the general sentiment behind the Maker movement while providing a relevant opener for the book’s Introduction. Sylvia and Gary provide a very general summary of the history of learning vis-a-vis the Maker movement by pointing out that play and experience is prized, both within Angelo Patri’s opening quote, and as the work of childhood. Think to your Facebook wall, and how many videos of your friend’s or family member’s young children have been posted celebrating milestones such as first steps, or even just general play and exploration, and the celebration we and those children exhibit when something new has been accomplished.

They write that the cessation of learning centres  where students were able to become lost in the flow of learning something in depth is a relatively recent occurrence, describing how it teachers were regarded as polymaths for whom becoming a teacher implied that playing the piano, making puppets and mathematics manipulative objects out of household items were as much a part of mastering the craft of teaching as learning to teach reading, physical education and science.

Screenshot from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Sylvia and Gary write that it has “…been a dark time for many schools in the last few decades,” and they provide some examples to demonstrate this:

  • the recent focus on standardised testing and teaching to the test,
  • the de-professionalisation of teachers,
  • the over-focused spotlight on data and
  • the reduction or removal of teachers’ ability to exercise their expertise in making judgements about how, what and when to teach.

Further to this, Gary is not shy about speaking his mind on Twitter, and has expounded his views on educational commercialism on twitter on occasion, denouncing the rise of the empires of educational corporations selling textbooks, tests and learning management systems (LMS). Not only does this take education further afield from Angel Petri’s opening quote, it also removes education from John Dewey’s vision of education; “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results” (Dewey, Democracy and education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, 1916)

It is this move towards a commercial ‘EduEmpire’  that has created what Sylvia and Gary see (or rather, my understanding of what they see) as a dark time in education as it has led to the creation of classrooms that are increasingly empty of on-going exploratory play with rich materials and deep learning via doing.

It is the embedded nature of technology and computer processors as a result of miniaturisation and the resultant change with the way we interact with our tools that has created a situation wherein the Maker movement has been able to thrive. This change in the way technology is available along with the now ready access to cheap tools and materials has resulted in an ease of access and shareability of ideas, designs, and reduced the barriers to engaging with making and tinkering. The authors point out that it is through direct experience, touching and playing with materials that children have their first learning experiences and the Maker movement naturally overlaps with our nature of learning by doing.

School regularly compartmentalises, unnaturally, the learning areas into discrete subjects learned in isolation within the context of that learning moment, despite that not being how learning or the application of learning occurs outside of school. It is pointed out that there is an overlap outside of the school between the hard and soft sciences; architects and craftspeople deal with aesthetics, tradition and mathematical precision. Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame was also, under his birth name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an accomplished mathematician. This sentiment of the overlapping nature of the various disciplines is captured neatly in this quote:

“…it obliterates the distinction between vocational and academic education. When the same hardware and process skills are required in the physics lab as the art studio as the auto shop, schools need to no longer sort students into imaginary tracks for jobs that no longer follow those arbitrary rules.”
– p.3

They go on to discuss that now, with the ability to provide tools, materials and contexts, there are multiple pathways to learning those skills and concepts and pieces of knowledge which we have always taught, some of which were unimaginable until only recently. Active learning places students at the centre of the learning process, and tinkering and making are active and engaging ways of learning by doing. I was involved in a chat on twitter recently about power in schools and giving power and agency to students and this image was shared with the chat:

Retrieved from http://rhonimcfarlane.com/2015/10/19/empower-and-embrace/ on 19 October 2015.

It fits, I feel, nicely with the general sentiment. Children often (not always, it must be noted) learn best when they do that which they are supposed to be learning. I do need to note that whilst I can absolutely see the value in tinkering and making and coding, I am not convinced that we should be putting the level of emphasis on coding that I seem to hear about. They are all powerful tools in and of themselves, but the questions that we should be asking about using technology or any other tool, for that matter) within the class apply here as well.

  1. Why does this tool suit the learning I want for my students in this context?
  2. How does this support my students’ learning?
  3. How does this support my teaching?

This is a theme I have heard before, when Paul Hamilton discussed using augmented reality in the classroom at Future Schools. He commented that as teachers, we are creators and designers of learning and that when we design a learning experience around an app, that we negate all of our training. A builder would never design a dream house based upon a new tool s/he has just bought, it would be designed around being an amazing house, and let the tools sort themselves out later.

The line between the utopia of learn by doing all of the time and the need to teach the curriculum is one that needs to be carefully balanced by individual teachers, policy makers and school leaders. I certainly do not profess to be an example of what it should look like, I am very much aware that I am still learning my craft as a teacher, particularly as I am working in an RFF capacity at the moment and thus do not have the day to day consistency of the group of students and am very much subject to the vagaries of timetable interruptions. But I am learning and, I believe, improving. This concept is a challenging one, and even if a Maker space does not eventuate in my school, I can see myself embedding the principles of Making in my teaching style.

As always, please leave comments or questions about what I have written in the comments section. The Maker movement is something that is still in its infancy in the school-context, here in Australia at least, and I am very much curious about others’ thoughts on the topic.

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