Students Lead Their Own Learning in ‘Maker Space’

We can learn something new every day when we open our minds, explore, observe, question, and reflect. I was able to see this process in action recently when I visited a local school. During my visit, I had a very enlightening conversation with two students as they were busy on their laptops in their school’s “maker space.”

These students were completely comfortable with, and not at all surprised by a visitor wandering into their classroom. The students seemed accustomed to the curiosity and questions from new faces. So when I approached these two students, they politely greeted me and made space for me on their corner bench.

I asked what they were doing. With a confident, matter-of-fact voice, one student said, “We are researching current efforts addressing the problem of infant mortality around the world, so we can work on our own possible, more effective solutions.”

These two diligent researchers are in the sixth grade at Pike Road Elementary School — the sixth grade! When I was that age, the most important problem I tackled was deciding which outfit to wear to the middle school dance.

I asked if that was a class assignment, and she simply replied, “Not really. We are both really interested in this issue and want to do something about it.”

I wasn’t the only visitor that day. The A+ Board of Directors held its spring quarterly meeting at Pike Road Elementary, and had the privilege of being given a tour by several of its student ambassadors. Every classroom visited was unique, vibrant, and filled with active, enthusiastic chatter.

None that I visited looked anything like my sixth-grade classrooms. Because my last name began with a “W,” I was always assigned in a seat near the back of the room, in a small desk neatly lined in a row. Predictably every day, we faced the front and sat quietly while the teacher lectured and we took notes.

The classes at Pike Road are dramatically different, buzzing with activity and lively, focused conversations. The students there are the leaders of their learning, and the teachers are more like their partners in helping guide that learning. The students understand what the learning objectives are and they can connect the work they are doing with these goals. We watched as the students used acquired tools of collaboration, deliberation, reflection and persistence. They were questioning, failing, modifying and persisting; all learned skills through innovative classroom practices.

The two students who were researching infant mortality may not have been specifically “assigned” this task, but they were able to choose their project to build on their curriculum objectives and class discussions.

The day where students only learn English in English class, math in math class, science in science class, etc., is fading into the past for schools like Pike Road. Since the implementation of Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards provided a foundation for 21st-Century learning, today hands-on, engaging projects produced and led by the students can cover multiple learning objectives across the curriculum – like English standards of research, writing, analyzing text; connections and comparisons with social studies; and applying math statistics, probability, and data analysis.

The “maker space” is one place to see how this works as the students creatively connect their activities to what they are learning in their classes. I observed students sending prototypes of their own creations to a 3-D printer, testing robots they built on a large platform where they could gather data and feedback, and researching methods to one day eliminate infant mortality.

Several things became clear to me during our visit: the classroom belonged to the students, the teachers were brilliant at following their students’ lead and weaving their enthusiastic activities into learning, and both the students and teachers really LOVED to learn!

The love of learning is often cited as something that has been missing from schools throughout the country. We often hear grumbles of too much testing, teaching to the test, memorizing and regurgitating facts and figures with a lack of deeper understanding of what they mean or how they apply to the real-world.

But that’s not the case at Pike Road Elementary, or in many other schools across Alabama. The Alabama Best Practices Center and A+ College Ready – both programs of A+ Education Partnership – have been working with teachers, school leaders and districts for over two decades, and have witnessed incredible transformations of schools not only adapting to the 21st Century. These passionate, dedicated educators are embracing new, innovative methods of teaching, and igniting the love of learning for themselves and their students.

When the teachers are eager to learn new things and challenge themselves, their students follow that example of enthusiastic learning.

As an enthusiastic learner myself, I plan to visit more schools around Alabama, and share more on this blog about what teaching and learning looks like in a great classroom, or maker space. More importantly, I hope to bring the students’ voices to you. They can explain better than anyone how their schools are preparing them for their future.