What's wrong with the DIY, Making, Hacking Scene for Kids? Not much.

I received several emails yesterday from parents who were offended by this article we were apparently tagged in. The author clearly feels that the DIY Maker educational scene is not supporting the individual interests and passions of our young ones and that we could be doing better. Much of the freedom to explore and create that she so clearly values is derived from her own philosophy about education and focusing on individual interests. And I don't disagree with much of that. These are not new ideas. I myself have written about the dangers of cookie cutter curriculum and placating the interest by setting kids in front of projects where they merely need to acquire the skill of following directions. I'm not particularly offended either, I always welcome dialogue about education and kids. I almost didn't write a reply but I decided it was a good time to address these kinds of assertions and talk openly about what we really do. I deeply disagree with some of her rant (her word), not just as a member of this movement, but also as a life long educator who works with all kinds of kids from all kinds of communities.

The idea that adults should stay out of the kids way is a nice one, except for when they don't want us to or don't need us to. Certainly we can and should often get out of their way but  children often come to us with either little experience or little confidence- sometimes both- and it is our job at Curiosity Hacked to build both. Many times they have never had the opportunity to create something they designed or they are coming from communities that do not value these skills. Sometimes that means exploring different projects at an Open Lab to get a sense of what they like and what they can do. Each project may be similar, but they are very rarely the same and we encourage the kids to find new ways to create their own vision. Sometimes that means creating a context I know will be comfortable for them in order to get them where they want to go. For example, I had a group of girls who really wanted to do electronics but every time they came, they were too intimidated. So I started bringing projects, like wire sculpture and e-textiles, that allowed them to learn and get comfortable with soldering and electronics at their own pace. Sometimes that means finding an expert in a specific skill that a kid really wants to master. The apprenticeship model, learning from a master through a relationship, is one that has worked for centuries. And those relationships are not just about teaching either. It is about having a village of adults who care and respect each child. It's about having the right mixture of mentors and peers and opportunities to support cognitive, emotional, and social development. There is nothing wrong with having a structure to hold a community. We have found that there is such a skill gap and such a berth between how children learn and what adults know about how children learn, that our leaders and mentors appreciate having a structure in which they can rely on to help them support the kids in their program while being flexible enough to allow for individualized learning. There are also many kids who thrive by having a structure or rhythm they can count on. That consistency allows them to free up emotional and creative energy to out towards their projects. 

"You have to start somewhere" is not an excuse, it's a reality. Sometimes having an experience can spark a life long passion. Starting with a well-defined project can be a really useful way to be introduced to brand new tools and processes. The relationship that I and other mentors cultivate with the kids who come to us allows us to support them and help them achieve their own visions. The relationships they form as a community, relying and teaching each other as peers creates a bond that is unique. I have seen firsthand how the kids in our Oakland Guild trust each other and utilize each others skills as resources in an amazingly collaborative way. And we believe that's the way our society is going: from competitive to collaborative. So by offering them an experience that allows them to develop the skills in networking, resourcefulness, innovation, sustainability, and adaptation to technology in whatever form they choose, they are in fact working on real world problems, solutions, and applications that have both immediate and long term impact. We are able to provide accessibility to all this skill building and empowerment to thousands of kids for very little money because of grants, volunteers, donations, and community. The impact this has had is incredible. I get feedback from our leaders that range from "this has changed the way my daughter sees herself. She has so much confidence in her abilities now!" to "This has completely altered our community's view of what education could be." Our vision is resonating with many, and through our programs we try to make a difference where we can.

In our programs, the kids have control of their education and are never coerced into doing anything they don't want to do. When working on badges, they are choosing to work on skills that get them to a short-term or long-term goal, they are choosing the project they will produce, they are collaborating and prototyping until they are satisfied, there is no deadline unless the kid/group decides there is. There are expectations, and I stand behind them. The kids know the difference between being placated and actually mastering a skill and they are proud to meet those expectations. These requirements are to ensure the kid has all of the skill acquisition, knowledge, and retention needed to utilize that skill again on their own, but there is also a safety element involved. I will not give a kid a badge in fire safety, for example, unless I see that he or she has the ability to safely use that skill. The badges are simply a visual acknowledgement of the work kids have put in. If a family does not want to use them, they don't have to. But what we have found is that our kids don't really see the badges as a "bribe" because they themselves are choosing their education within our program. It has not inhibited their ability to explore ideas, think creatively, or take chances. In fact, the kids see that the possibilities are endless and often take part in designing new badges. Many of our badges are a direct result of collaboration with our kids. There is nothing more empowering than to work with their mentors and help shape the organization they have come to see as their community. Also about this:  "Authentic learning generates questions which require research that in turn requires talking to people, finding resources, and discussing relevance. None of those things can happen if we all have to have our remote-controlled planes finished by the Maker Faire six weeks from Monday."  This to me is limiting. Deadlines are incredibly useful for some people all the time, and for all people some of the time. I and two of my children are perfect examples of people who seek out and thrive on deadlines. They do NOT make authentic learning impossible, and exposure to them can sometimes ignite the creative process.

So, in the end, the author of the article put up a checklist of what to look for in a group and we met every criteria for what she says is important. Again, our basic ideas mesh, although we've actually put ours into practice.  The ONLY THING that matters is this: 

If your child comes away from this group experience full of personally motivated plans, goals, and ideas that will no longer fit into a preplanned structure, then it worked. 

Tada!  That's it! If a child is full of personal ideas inspired by our projects, and we're giving that child the skills, confidence and support to realize those ideas, then IT WORKS.   Regardless of anybody's opinion on the internet. But I would argue that doesn't matter. There are other organizations that follow a very prescribed path or teach a skill in a very specific way and I say that they have a place as well. Every child learns differently, and these organizations may be the catalyst for some kid. If they are not, we all have a choice not to participate. But to tell a parent or a child that their desire for community or the mentorship to achieve big dreams is misguided if it isn't entirely self-directed illustrates a lack of knowledge in child development and ignores the very spirit of the maker movement. It ignores all of the wonderful achievements made because someone- or a bunch of someones- believed in a child and helped them. There is room for it all, and anything that works for a child or a family is valuable in my book.