The other day I was interviewed by NPR about Hacker Scouts and I was asked an interesting question. The reporter asked me my opinion on the DIY program sites that are cropping up for kids like DIY.org and Maker Camp and a few more that are specifically utilizing an online presence to connect with kids and Maker culture. This is a more complicated question than it seems! On one hand, how can using technology to power this movement, when technology plays such a large role in it be a negative thing? My response might surprise you. Because it can.
There is no doubt that the more resources we have available to us, the better off this movement is. The ability to go online, get new ideas, see tutorials on how to gain new skills or goals, not have to leave the house in order to do those things. The online presense of the Maker community is enormous and powerful and essential. But it is not without it’s failings, and one of it’s biggest is that it doesn’t actually meet the learning needs of most kids. We can see why by looking at a snapshot of development in this age group.
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to the cognitive development occurring between ages 7-11 as the “concrete operations stage”. Children in this stage can not think both abstractly and logically, instead they are limited to thinking concretely. Their knowledge is tangible, definitive, and exact based on real, concrete experiences rather than abstractions. Unlike younger children, they have moved past magical thinking into a thinking process that relies on classification, serial ordering, cause and effect, stable identity, and conservation. This is one of the reasons math and science becomes so attractive in this age period. They are also developing memory strategies for retention of knowledge and skills. Developmental psychologist and theorist Erik Erikson names the stage between the ages of 6 and 12 “Industry vs Inferiority.” In other words, children are recognizing and actively seeking out the ability to gain new knowledge and skills and assessing their personal method and competence, often comparing themselves to peers. This is an essential time for self esteem, the building of relationships, and providing opportunities for success as well as failure. According to Erikson, it is critical children successfully master this stage before moving on the the stage of “Identity vs Role Confusion,” in which adolescents grapple with devotion and fidelity, purpose and potential. Children in this age range need quite a bit of praise and reinforcement around competence and self-image, mentors to help them recognize and develop their own unique talents and abilities, and guidance with relationships, problem solving, and communication. So then, in order to truly meet the developmental needs of this age group, we need to recognize the limitations of the internet and come back to what the maker movement is all about: community.
The first problem is that online programs depend on a capacity for abstract thinking and follow through that most children in their target age group (6-14) typically don’t have. Learning, or the forming of synapses in the brain are formed through repeated experiences, and like younger children they are still learning mostly through movement and tasks their body must perform physically. These pathways become more complex when subjected to multiple sensory input, language, and relationships. But the problem is that these pathways are a “use it or lose it” system, so if a function is not repeated to ensure retention, that pathway disappears. The higher cognitive functions that make children such eager and easy learners starts to decline into the slower adaptive adult levels of synapsis by the teenage years and so it becomes essential to create an optimal learning environment during those crucial school age years. Selecting skills from a webpage fills an interest need, but not much beyond as there is no support around follow through. And since there is no process for ensuring retention, it is hard for an organization or the student to measure skill building or progress in this manner.
Another issue is the real and perceived nature of structure. Online programs have no other choice but to have a structure that tend not to meet the needs of most students. The skills and projects are chosen and categorized and tend to all be very similar from website to website. Most kids in this age group have very specific ideas about what they want to learn and why, and what they really need is someone with experience to back them up. So what you end up with are many kids who are bored and/or uninterested in what is offered for very long, or they feel internal pressure to complete the specified badges. The issue is that if the structure induces this kind of emotional response, the brain automatically goes into “fight or flight” and is unable to process or retain the information. This happens in school quite a bit under high pressure conditions such as test-taking or a student being called upon unwillingly. Kids actually lose their peripheral vision, increase their hearbeat and breathing rates, and lose memory strategy. You could argue that this should not be symptomatic of an online resource as it is meant to cater to the interests of the student when and where they are available. They could take breaks and come back. But my point is that they all have a managed system, in which someone else had laid out the rules, the value of the skills, and the end results. Many kids could easily find this stressful and limiting.
Finally, and probably most importantly, online programs eliminate the beauty of mentorship. There is a reason that most professions throughout history were/are still taught by apprenticeship. Even my husband says he owes his technical abilities to what he learned on the job, as do I. Besides the overwhelming evidence that this age group needs guidance through the exploration of their own competence and identity development, there is a subtle transfer of information that happens from mentor to student. The body language, verbal communication, storytelling/history, and observation between student and expert is irreplaceable. Mentors serve as a role model and a source of safety in both attempt and failure. Without a doubt, it is easy to look up an answer or a tutorial on Google or You Tube, but for the student, these experiences do not mean competency, retention, or the give them the benefit of community. And community is what the Maker culture relies on, was built on. The next generation of Makers deserves that sensitivity and investment.
I am in no way saying that these online programs do not have a place. They do. They are cool and fun and great resources. Starting points, if you like. But in order to create something that helps our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big, we need to listen to science as much as we worship it. Programs need to be built in communities, schools, and hacker spaces where kids can have the tangible, concrete experiences they need for life long learning.