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The Maker Movement's Precarious Place in Society and Education

By Wesley Fenlon

Seth Godin made some harsh claims in an energetic speech, both praising Maker Faire and indicting the way industrialism has influenced our society. But without some of the things he targeted, the maker movement's most exciting creations may never have existed.

At its heart, Maker Faire is a show for kids. Adults go to Maker Faire to meet potential business partners, talk shop with fellow creators, or catch up on the latest in do-it-yourself technology. But for kids it's a wonderland--a place where they can see a real life-size Wall-E or Dalek or dancing robot. And for a surprising number of budding geniuses, it's a place where they can fully celebrate their geeky interests as the norm, not the exception.

At World Maker Faire in New York, I saw kids proudly showing off the robots they designed for the FIRST robotics competition. I saw Stephen Wolfram's 13-year-old son code a path for an autonomous quadrocopter on a stage in front of hundreds of people. And I saw him debug that code when it didn't quite work right the first time. The second time, it flew.

Maker Faire is also a show about kids: What we're teaching them, how we're teaching them, and why the Maker movement is encouraging them to be creative. Phillip Torrone, the senior editor of Make Magazine, wrote "The Maker Movement belongs to the kids now" after this year's Maker Faire in San Mateo. He continued: "The average maker isn’t just a 35 year old guy, it’s becoming a 10 year old girl or boy with a 3D printer. There are kids who can recognize (and have used!) the open source hardware logo just as easily as us older folks recognize the Nike, Coca-Cola, or Apple logo."

One of the speakers I saw at World Maker Faire wasn't so optimistic--or, at least, he didn't believe the creativity Torrone alluded to extends beyond the maker movement. Seth Godin, known for his blog and books on business and marketing, argued that something has happened to our culture to make events like Maker Faire essential, implying we've lost the spark or drive or education to make of our own volition.

"We built a culture about doing things right," Godin said, "about getting a car where we don't need to change the oil, we don't want to change the oil, we're unable to change the oil." He pointed to industrialism as a serious problem in modern culture, claiming that the industrial system has become so efficient "we've given industrialists a lot of power and a lot of authority and they have taken it and they have built it deep into what we believe and how we run our lives."

Godin went on to critique education and the "kits" that have replaced elements of our society that once favored user-changeable parts. His talk wasn't quite doom and gloom, but it did present a pessimistic view of the United States education system. Yes, the maker movement is important, but has modern industrialization really made our schools as empty and worthless as Godin claims?

From the Kit to the Classroom

"LEGO, which we all grew up with, is a company that was built on a few principles," Godin said. "One of their core principles was that every bit of LEGO has to be used in multiple ways. That the difference between LEGO and a car model kit was that you could use your imagination and build things with LEGO that were absurd and wrong and didn't work, cause every piece of LEGO does something else. Well, based on the rules of LEGO, LEGO was going to go bankrupt....Because not enough kids were buying LEGO. And new management came in and cut costs, but mostly what they did was invent the LEGO kit. A LEGO kit can only be used in one way. You can build a Star Wars creature, and that's it. And then you can go on to the next LEGO kit."

Are kits really so bad? Godin used LEGO kits as a prime example of society's creative limitations. This is why we need organizations like the maker movement, he says: Because kits teach us to follow the rules, to build one thing instead of the dozens of things in our imagination, to look at the whole as a fixed object instead of the pieces as building blocks for many objects. And it's true that LEGO has built more and more custom pieces for special sets--particularly for licensed kits like Star Wars--and some of its series like LEGO Architecture are designed more like models than playsets.

But are kids really that bound by instructions? I grew up with LEGO, and my friends and I would always build kits, play with them, and then tear them down to build something new. We built an entire city out of cannibalized parts from LEGO robots and forts and space ships, and we never needed prompting to Frankenstein different sets together.

Godin began his talk by recalling two kits he had as a child: an electronics kit only good for building a radio, and a chemistry set that sparked his creativity as a nine-year-old maker. He also pointed to the kits sold at Maker Faire and put them in the same category as the electronics kit. Sure, you can only build a Raspberry Pi with a Raspberry Pi kit, but once that base hardware is assembled there's enormous potential for tinkering by hooking up Arduinos and sensors and fiddling around with software.

He then branched out from kits to the education system, criticizing the way we teach kids to follow orders, regurgitate notes and memorize information, not learn or experiment.

"If you sit in a science lab in a high school class, you will not see any students doing science," Godin said. "What you will see them doing is following the instructions to demonstrate that they know how to go through the steps of doing science that someone else did 40 years ago or 400 years ago. If they try to innovate, if they try to be a maker, if they try to understand and see what doesn't work, they get marked down."

That struck me as overly harsh, but in a 2009 study US high school students placed 25th out of 34 countries in math and 17th out of 34 in science. Not exactly great scores. But is that because our classrooms are stuffed with students and understaffed and underfunded, or because teachers are simply preparing teaching to the test? Would our science classes be better if students had their own chemistry sets and had to figure things out for themselves?

I don't have much of a perspective on today's high school science classes, so I asked my cousin Emily, who's a junior in high school, to watch Godin's talk and give me her take on it. This is part of what she wrote back:

"I'm currently taking AP Physics and along with the regular homework problems we also have to answer conceptual questions from the textbook to show that we understand the main idea of each chapter. I would argue that we aren't simply taught to mimic processes, but we also must understand the concepts behind them. However, his statement about failure does apply. I would say that not all, but a lot of the work we do in school is designed so that it 'should work out.'

However, at least at my school, there are plenty of instances when a teacher will ask you to try to solve a problem before they actually give you a method with which to solve it. They will give you a couple of minutes to work on it on your own, so that you at least attempt to discover a method yourself. I would say the science lab is one place where it's more obvious that students are simply mimicking the steps given to them.

This is not to say that I necessarily think this process is useless....Even if the students are not coming up with the labs on their own, they still learn from them. I do think that in certain situations it may be beneficial to give students more leeway in labs, [but] much of what we learn in science classes was discovered by some of the greatest minds in history. It is simply foolish and unrealistic to expect elementary and high school students to be able to work towards the same information in a one hour class period....In order to create and discover for ourselves it is necessary to have some foundation to work off of, and the stronger our foundation, the easier it will be to build off of it."

The maker movement offers kids the resources and encouragement to go off the beaten science path, but it's not like those kids were hopelessly lost before Maker Faire. School-organized science fairs, for example, have always given students opportunities to tackle their own projects. Has the industrialization of society really screwed up how we educate kids? Or could we deal with that issue with better funding and smaller classrooms? Perhaps the problem isn't what we're teaching in schools, but merely the amount of teaching educators are able to do with the time and resources at their disposal.

Maybe making needs a stronger presence in the classroom. But thanks to the steady march of technology, we may see CNC machines in classrooms before long, even without an organized push for creativity.

A Brighter Picture of Industrialism

There’s a fork in the road," said Godin, about halfway through his talk. "And the fork is this: We can go on the left fork and the left fork is a race to the bottom. And the problem with a race to the bottom is you might win. Its’ a race to be faster, cheaper and more compliant...this is the safe industrialist path that makes you blameless. It’s the one where you stand up at a school board meeting and say, “We want what we’ve got now but we want it 3% better and 4% cheaper” and no one is going to criticize you.

And then there’s this other path. And the other path has nothing to do with that. The other path says we’ve built this industrial foundation that made us all have phones in our hands that are smarter than any computer ever available in 1970, it's this revolution that made us able to travel across the world without worrying about a plane crashing...but what did we built it for?"

The "connection economy," Godin says, is the answer. We're done with industrialism and should, instead, focus on sharing interesting ideas over the Internet.

Speaking after Godin, Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson offered a different take on the maker movement that struck me as a counterpoint to Godin's two paths. He doesn't see a choice ahead, or a need for us to fight back against the "race to the bottom" of industrialism. Anderson seems to think we've already taken the right fork:

"A factory is the ultimate amplification of human potential, but it comes at a cost. When you moved to cities we were able to create not just factories, but also education systems, sewage systems, wells....cities increased the quality of life. That was 1776 through Henry Ford and the assembly line.

Publishing used to be reserved for companies that owned printing plants. You needed access to a factory....What desktop publishing did was turn 500 years of industrial skills into a software application and the menu item 'print.' ... Then along came the web and 'publish' became a button on your browser. I know that when you have a blog or press the word publish it doesn't seem like a big deal, but that is literally taking the 20th century media monopoly and turning it into a button. That was the second industrial revolution. I think the third is going to be combining the two: applying the web's model to the industrial revolution's manufacturing model. Rather than a desktop printer, we have a 3D printer."

Making, in Anderson's estimation, is actually a natural evolution of the industrial revolution. Just like the printing press and Internet revolutionized the media, making is destined to shake up the industrial world and enable creativity.

In manufacturing, entrepreneurs once needed to own factories. Today, Tech Shop is the factory. They once needed investors to raise capital, since manufacturing costs are heavily front-loaded. Today, Kickstarter makes us the investors.

Of course, industrialism isn't going anywhere, and it's optimistic to think that companies like MakerBot can revolutionize manufacturing in the short-term. But Anderson's optimism was a welcome change. Where Seth Godin said our schools have trained us to be cogs in the industrial machine, Anderson pointed out we wouldn't have easy access to education without the cities that grew around factories.

Godin said we needed to choose between the left fork, the race for better faster cheaper, and the right fork, where we need events like Maker Faire to foster creativity and build new ideas. I'll side with Anderson on this one: We've already taken the right fork, and it's only a matter of time until making and 3D printing are so commonplace, we won't need a Maker Faire to celebrate them.