Quakers & makers

I watch the maker movement’s entrance into education from an uncommon vantage point: I teach and run a makerspace at an independent Quaker school. As an independent school we navigate our own path around state-mandated curricula and tests; as teachers at a Quaker school we are politically and ethically engaged educators, steeped in values of community, equality, and deep respect for the individual; and in our makerspace teachers and students share their projects and experiences as case studies for other schools to consider. When students left campus and summertime settled in last year, I realized that my perspective lets me see something pretty surprising: I’ve found that the characteristics that are radical about maker communities and Quaker communities are also the very things that make them similar. 

To define my terms for a moment: Quakerism is a spiritual tradition that believes each person has the capacity for goodness and a responsibility to meet that capacity. Quakerism was originally a Christian movement in 17th century England and today includes Christians, atheists, and nontheists as members in Quaker meetinghouses around the world. Quaker schools, some of which are older than the U.S. itself, are religiously oriented but typically have a small percentage of students and faculty who self-identify as Quaker. Makers refers to the community of tinkerers and enthusiasts who promote ingenuity and invention of all kinds. While making things has always been a fundamental human activity, “making” has been termed a “movement” in just the last decade. It turns out that something so old (the Quaker approach to education) and something so new (the maker movement and its entrance in education) have a lot in common and have a lot to gain from each other.

The maker movement in education feels brand new: exciting technology, innovative projects, and rejuvenating energy. Educators who are empowering students to learn through making are shaking up schools in a fundamental way: they remind us that what we teach, the way we teach, the opportunities we provide for students — all of it speaks to the world we intend to shape. As Sylvia Martinez points out, bringing the maker movement into classrooms treats students as agents of change instead of objects of change. The maker movement is calling teachers and administrators from all over the education landscape to (re-)examine their goals as educators.

The maker movement in education is also founded on ideas that aren’t so new at all. Many educators trace the maker movement’s educational roots to Seymour Papert, the educational theorist who coined the learning theory called “constructionism” in the 1980s. Some trace it to Paulo Freire, who described a vision of education as being a democratizing, liberating force for students to understand and critically engage with the world around them. Others look even further back: promoting hands-on, experiential learning is in some ways a reawakening of progressive pedagogy in the century-old lineage of John Dewey. You don’t need to know these names to tell that learning-through-making has a history that reaches further back than the first time a school bought a 3D printer. I find myself positioned at a school with even more historical context: my school was founded in 1845 and celebrates its Quaker heritage that dates about 200 years before that. This perspective has helped me see past the bright lights of laser cutters and LED throwies to focus on the values of making that I hope will last.

Motivation: The power of powerful questions

The tools of a makerspace are secondary to the culture of a makerspace. 3D printers do not fabricate innovation out of molten plastic. Instead something powerful happens when the resources, both material and human, of a makerspace suggest that the challenge is not what can we make but what should we make. Prescriptive workshops and “getting started” projects that pervade the web are inclusive on-ramps for beginners, but more meaningful work happens when makers enter into dialogue with their projects, exploring new questions and ideas through their work. Forests of interactive light art installations, unique creatures that roam the oceanfront, kinetic sculptures of dancers in motion — these projects explore what is possible through a process of open-ended discovery.

The Quaker tradition itself is, in some ways, founded upon this same motivating force. Quakers trust that meaningful answers emerge from a process of ongoing inquiry, and they have specific language for it: they call these powerful questions “queries” and the process “continuing revelation.” And so this year I introduced every class project that took place in my school’s makerspace with a query. All queries followed the same familiar format (with language borrowed from the design thinking toolkit), which began by prodding at potential with an inclusive pronoun. English classes explored: “How might we understand and share the metaphors of our lives by building representations of them?” and the STEAM club asked: “How might we encourage our classmates to take better care of our school’s campus?”

Consider this language and compare it to the introspective questions we sometimes ask of ourselves to see the parallels: these queries are best answered by the individuals who ask them and no single “right” answer lies with a third party waiting in the wings. Instead a reflective, iterative practice paves the way to actualization and fulfillment. Maker communities and Quaker communities alike value the process of discovering the right questions and unfolding them, not just getting an answer. As educators we hold a common belief that understanding is not downloaded from teachers to students, but that it is created through a process of shared inquiry and emergent discovery.

Community: everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner

The fact that a diverse group of people commonly self-identify as “makers” emphasizes the fact that their common pursuit overshadows differences in culture, age, expertise, and discipline. In maker communities, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. On the other side, Quaker educators have long chipped away at the traditional hierarchical roles of schooling too. Outsiders are struck by this immediately when they see students addressing teachers by their first names. Beyond the first blush of culture shock, visitors see that this has something to do with the essence of Quaker schools: an affirmation that, regardless of age and expertise, we’re all on the same journey.

Makerspaces are most valuable when they are defined as places for sharing: sharing ideas, resources, skills, or help. I see this in the makerspace at my school when boundaries further dissolve: when a middle school student helps a high school student on a project or a science teacher mentors a student on an art piece. This year I invested countless hours learning how to sew — and many of my best teachers were students. If the culture of the makerspace promotes the value of the community, then this kind of cross-pollination begins to feel normal.

For both Quakers and makers community is a core value, not just a byproduct. Open-ended inquiry and emergent discovery sound great, but they usually aren’t possible without a community of fellow practitioners. Whether it’s a local makerspace or a Quaker meetinghouse, the most important element isn’t the four walls or the things inside them, it’s the people. A vibrant community to accompany you on the road of shared inquiry is not just helpful — it’s vital.

Equality: Authority is distributed

Underlying both groups’ stance toward community is an even more fundamental commitment to equality. Many American Quakers were pioneering abolitionists in the 19th century and civic leaders for peace in the 20th; many of today’s makers take a radical approach to equality with open source software and hardware and the copyleft movement. While the scale and historical perspectives of these cases are wildly different, the inclination for equality is the same. Generous, reciprocal engagement is the currency of these communities, not power or position.

Where do we see these values of equality in practice? My favorite makerspaces are the ones that position the high-tech and low-tech tools side by side, the ones that value the “hard” sciences with the “soft” skills of crafting equally. Different kinds of making have different histories and stereotypes attached to them, sometimes about gender, class, or how it’s typically valued, and so it’s a powerful thing when makers of all kinds share equal footing. When sewing and soldering are stationed at the same workbench, when origami and 3D printing are complementary approaches — that’s when a makerspace feels right. The secret sauce is when authority is spread evenly and no one group is made to seem privileged or dominant.

Educators hit this sweet spot by finding a similar balance of authority in the classroom. When we value the choices, experiences, and abilities of our students, and we don’t just view them as empty knowledge-receptacles for us to fill up — that’s when a classroom feels right. Hearing the unique voice of each individual is the cornerstone of what Quaker educators do. (It’s pretty much in the contract.) And so Quakers and makers can propose a radically inclusive approach to learning: we can discover our truths by making them, together, in all the ways we know how — and not just by filling in the blanks that someone in power put on the test.

Challenges: there’s plenty of room to grow

While these themes of motivation, community, and equality ring true in theory, they still have a long way to go in practice. Motivation is complex and multifaceted; self-interest always sings a siren’s song to drown out community; and all of us should strive constantly to work harder to create environments that are more diverse and inclusive to all kinds of people. And so it’s best to take these themes as goals: points of overlap where these two communities can support each other in their common aspirations.

But I also predict a few bumps in the road where these two don’t quite align. I hope a few queries might help educators, both Quakers and makers, learn from and grow with each other:

  • How might we use materials without being materialistic? We need to show students that it’s the learning, not just the stuff, that matters.
  • How might we be mindful of resources and our environment while making? We need to show students how to think about the lifespan of the materials we use, where they are from and where they will go once we’re done with them, not just their purpose in the moment that we use them.
  • How might we model ongoing openness to change while maintaining our roots? It’s not only that change is hard for both kids and adults, it’s that it’s hard to embrace change while keeping a firm grip on lasting values that shouldn’t change.

Making is here to stay

Running a makerspace at a Quaker school has allowed me a close look at these fundamental qualities of maker and Quaker communities: the power of powerful questions, the value of community, and respect for individuals and their inherent agency. And it’s these values, not the stuff, that need to be in perspective as the animating forces behind the entrance of the maker movement into schools. Otherwise the flash of new tools will soon fade and the carousel of what’s in vogue for schools to teach will turn once again. But if educators can remain focused on values — progressive, empowering, humanizing values — then making-to-learn stands a chance to outlast the dissenting voices that say this is just a fad.

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