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We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

Alternative Education: a catalyst to the maker movement


Nandini Ramesh

Jun 25, 2020


Making has always been viewed as the most important differentiator for humans over their counterparts in the animal kingdom. Ever since homohabilis (‘handyman’) emerged, the bipedalism and the relatively separated thumb enabled the first known occurrences of making tools in order to survive. This very start has been proven to lead to immense development of the brain and limbs bringing us to where we are today! ‘Creation’ akin to ‘making’ is a strong and fundamental instinct in all human beings, second only to survival instincts.

There has been a lot of buzz around ‘ Makerspaces ’, ‘ Maker Faire ’, ‘ Maker Mela ’ as part of what is popularly known as the immensely popular maker movement. To me, it sounds ironic that we had to create an event-led culture to tap into one of our most basic instincts in order to ‘make’. Mostly, the maker movement celebrates ‘getting messy’ with building anything in and for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While it is all of these domains that strongly contribute to progress in technology and hence the economy, one must not forget that making can also refer to any outcome of creativity - poetry, historical research, fashion design, cooking, etc. In this post, ‘making’ will refer to all elements of creation in any domain.

What does alternative education have to do with the maker movement?

On a parallel note, there has been mounting proof to show how schools in their traditional format are killing curiosity and creativity in the children. This, of course is not meant to vilify the players in the system; it is the system itself that is flawed. This is vividly explained by one of the many experiments described in “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. It says that the human mind can be seen as two components - the rational rider and the emotional elephant. The rider makes decisions rationally and controls the elephant that is most reactive to emotional stimuli. When there has been excessive emphasis on conformity to a system (here, schooling), the rider has been trained to behave and is constantly pulling on the reins of the elephant subjecting it to self-control. Self-control is an exhaustible resource and can tire the mind. Well, tired minds just about manage to meet expectations and cannot seek to learn anything more. Lack of curiosity impacts the ability and urge to create or make. The rider and the elephant continue to trot along the path taken by many, believing that the journey’s end will bring them ‘success’.

Recognizing the potential of promoting the maker movement, several alternative schools now have begun to integrate maker time into their schedules. A weekly slot is believed to inspire a set of children alike. I have seen (and been one of those) talented teachers put in their everything to plan these sessions. The investment of the effort invites celebration of the smallest moments of engagement with the learners that occur occasionally and by chance. While all of this is definitely a breather from packed academic sessions, it also ends up becoming a fixed and time-bound activity. The rational rider in every child’s mind starts to perceive a routine with expectations and the elephant is yet again reined in to belong and conform. The elephant in the teacher’s mind seeks to indirectly take charge so there is more of a story to tell from that session, that would appeal to the riders in the minds of their colleagues.

Creating a haven for budding makers in schools

Let’s just say that schooling needs to be re-imagined. The need of the hour is inspiration and increased self-worth, which would lead the elephant to seek, explore and inquire. Alternatives to schooling need to carefully create environments, not ‘systems’ to nurture learning. Making it an environment and eventually an ecosystem would allow for co-learning through ambiguities and would keep the process dynamic and nimble. Making or tinkering or creating anything in this environment is not ‘scheduled’ in the eyes of the learner. The learning environment that is ‘un-schooled’ would have drifted far enough from the ‘portion completion’ mindset, thus in turn eliminating the need to prove oneself through performances (in school setting - tests). This, I have seen, goes a long way in enabling the learner approach the act of making with willingness and confidence to even fail! There is time and mindspace for curious questions, thus seeding the idea of trying. Here are some traits of a maker I have observed in such an environment -

  • The maker recognizes a shortcoming or a problem and looks for solutions. Just knowing that there are no time boundaries and scrutinizing eyes gets him/her to focus at incredibly high levels and accomplish a lot more doing and learning than when there could have been a deadline.
  • The maker not only feels confident about his/her competence to solve a problem in a non-judgmental environment; he/she stops at nothing in order to build/create the best version of their idea. I have seen them being extremely critical of their own work and seek more information (from study material or known experts etc) in order to bring out the best.
  • The maker realizes the limited nature of material resources that may be required for the product and pushes for economical usage and efficiency. This is a mindset that develops over time - something that only an alternative ecosystem can provide.
  • I have noticed the makers develop appreciation for the efforts that go into the invention and discovery of anything because of going through the toils him/herself. There is a newfound respect for the gifts and capabilities of others. A value that emerges from experience and not from lessons in a class.
  • The learner when making/building/creating something is at the top of the Bloom's pyramid having gone through different stages of knowledge acquisition during the making - comprehension, application, analysis and evaluation. This organic evolution is made possible only by an alternative that trusts the learner and sheds away the need to examine the learner’s knowledge through pre-set questions.

We all learn from the actions of a creation. Learning environments that support autonomy and agency are without doubt, more motivating. Being a part of such an ecosystem, I see it go a long way in supporting engagement and persistence and promoting identity development and resourcefulness in our learners. Evidently, alternative education builds the mindset and culture required for a high-knowledge, high-skilled economy by enabling and empowering the maker in every learner - something I believe that the maker movement aims to accomplish.

Are you a maker or a parent of a maker? Tell us about your thoughts on how best the education system can support you to follow your passion.

We are not an alternative school.
We are the alternative to schooling.

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