Free Schools and Makerspaces

Here are some thoughts as to what [free schools, homeschooling groups, and unschooling centers] have to do with hackerspaces, makerspaces, and the like, as well as why you might want to consider bringing [DIY projects, tech, hands-on projects of various kinds] into your alternative learning space.


Why run an interest-driven space of any kind?

  • Because it helps to concretize the project and gives people a way to get started.  People who are leaving school come with a lot of baggage about “what learning looks like,” what “accomplishing things” means, and what does and doesn’t count as “work.”  Framing your space around “making things” provides an easy answer to the question: “OK, I’m not in school. Now what do I do with my time?” [Answer: Make a boffer sword. Build a trebuchet. Launch a water bottle rocket. Et cetera]
Free Schools and Makerspaces
  • Because multi-age, interest-driven communities are really cool. Simply rejecting school isn’t necessarily enough to form a cohesive learning community, and while learning how to learn is great, it’s really fun and awesome to get to share your interests and enthusiasms with people of all ages who are into the same general set of things.  In our case, that thing is building stuff, launching things, and taking things apart – but it could be anything, really.
  • Because “making things” is widely inclusive. It doesn’t have to be exclusively tech, or, more accurately, “tech” can be almost anything.  3D printing and computer programming are great, but pretty much anything you might pursue probably has a hands-on component to it. Into theater? Learn carpentry skills to build a set. Like to cook? Go out and grow the plants yourself, or learn to identify them in the wild. Love to draw? Make a comic book. Et cetera!

Enlist grown-ups as friends and collaborators rather than teachers.

  • Find “that person”- We’ve all met “that person” – the one who builds weird motorized sculptures in their garage, who builds bikes or sews all their own clothes, who makes kinetic origami out of computer junk. Your community is filled with them – they populate knitting circles and amateur radio clubs, garages and hackerspaces. These people are an incredible resource! They are passionate about their projects frequently psyched to share them with people who are by nature curious, enthusiastic, and weird (i.e . kids).
  • Invite “those people” into your space to do stuff with kids – There is pretty much nothing better than a roomful of nerdy grown-ups eager to share their projects with young people. Giving kids an opportunity to hang out with self-taught hobbyists who are passionate about their craft is a fantastic way to break down the “teacher-student” paradigm and get kids into the habit of directing their own learning.
  • Building out from play to apprenticeship. Hackerspaces and makerspaces are filled with self-starters and entrepreneurs – people who carry their skills on their back, who have weird projects that have turned into careers or employment. Makerspaces are filled projects and opportunities that kids can easily latch onto and learn from.

Makerspaces and Free Schools

What does the “free school movement” have to contribute to the “maker movement?” What do makers have to learn from homeschoolers, unschoolers, and free schoolers, and why should makers care?

The maker movement is getting into the education business

  • All too often, that means getting into the “school” business. The past few years have seen The past few years have seen a revival of enthusiasm for traditional shop programs revamped as “makerspaces,” and combining traditional craftwork (metalworking, woodworking, auto maintenance, etc) with new technologies in ways This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Makerspaces taking money from the military isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, but if you’re like us, it’s not necessarily a thrilling prospect. Here’s why:
  • Makerspaces may transform schools, but schools will definitely transform makerspaces. Makers are excited about education because they see hacker- and makerspaces as a way to revamp schools and make them more self-directed spaces. But who’s to say it doesn’t go the other way? When the default location for kid’s hackerspace is in a school, the tendency will be to strip out the element of play, mainlining and quantifying the aspect of experimentation that makes them really vital, “making to the test,” and so forth. That would be a real tragedy and a loss for maker education.

Makers and alternative educators have a lot in common

  • Many tools for makers are particularly suited for alternative education environments. • Many tools for makers are particularly suited for alternative education environments. Scratch is a case in point – a programming environment designed for kids which is explicitly set up to hang out, play, and mess around with. Scratch is often wedged into school curricula in awkward and counterintuitive ways, with carefully timed activities or limited time for free play, when it’s really designed for more open-ended and free-form spaces (like, say, your free school or homeschooling resource center).
  • Alternative education and maker movement have broadly synchronous goals. This is a tricky one, but we think it’s true enough that it’s worth saying. Tinkerers learn by playing, experimenting, hanging out, chatting, and learning at their own pace. This is also what we strive for in alternative learning environments. Makers do things, try things, and experiment for the sake of finding out what happens. Isn’t what liberated education is all about? This stuff happens in school too – but it’s frequently out of school that people have the space to really stretch out and see what happens.

Hanging out, messing around, geeking out (HOMAGO)

  • Differentiated levels of learning HOMAGO is a term devised by group of researchers at the University of California to describe differentiated learning among kids using new media. The idea is that learning happens all three levels — low-stakes low-level play with friends (hanging out), low-stakes experimentation with tools or projects (messing around), going deep on your own into a particular project or idea (geeking out)
  • This is what hackerspaces tend to look like. They’re filled with projects in various stages of completion – and frequently also board games, video game consoles, couches, and tiny nooks that people have taken over for whatever comes up at the moment. They are transient, experimental spaces devoted to playful exploration and experimentation. This is what differentiates hackerspaces, say, from business incubators (though many of the same features are frequently present in both)
  • This is also what free schools, home schools, and alternative spaces tend to look like. They’re filled with weird, idiosyncratic projects, one-off experiments, and kids working single-mindedly on random things that have captured their interest. They’re also filled with kids hanging out, chatting, running around outside, playing, and having a blast.