Self-Directed Learning

Winter 2014

By Christa Flores

Learning through the making of things is a concept as old as education. As psychologist Jean Piaget argued, knowledge is a consequence of experience. But somehow, with the exception of a small number of schools and vocational education programs dedicated to experiential inquiry-based learning, our nation’s schools strayed from this hands-on approach to education, spending much of the past 50 years focusing intensely on the memorization of information. Information matters, of course, but a growing number of schools and educators are reclaiming our educational roots, aiming to help kids learn by making stuff — but this time with a technological twist.

This new “maker movement” in education is an offspring of a broad cultural maker movement, spurred over the past decade in large part by Internet connectivity and affordable computer software and hardware. Guided by the shared philosophy that, if it can be imagined, it can be made, makers are popping up everywhere. They are do-it-yourself global entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, craftspeople, and inventors. In 2006, the first Maker Faires (yes, they use the Middle English “e” to give it that geeky panache; it’s also the French word for “to do” or “to make”) were organized so people could demonstrate their inventions, prototypes, and other creations, whimsical or practical, and otherwise learn from each other and delight in human inventiveness. The faires have been described as “the world’s greatest show (and tell)” — attracting hundreds of thousands of people annually. In 2013, there were 60 Maker Faires worldwide. Meanwhile, an increasing number of successful websites are dedicated to the movement. Etsy (, for instance, has more than a million artisans selling their wares to the world. Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter also make it possible to get funding for larger self-starter projects. A recent article in The Economist described the movement as the “third industrial revolution,” focusing particularly on the rise of customized, small-batch manufacturing.

In education, the maker movement owes much of its impetus to the professionals at MIT’s Fab Lab, Stanford’s FabLab@School program, Make Media, The Maker Education Initiative, and other educational institutions with fabrication labs on their campuses. A fab lab is a low-cost digital workshop equipped with 3D scanners, computer controlled laser cutters, milling machines, and other equipment that allow users to build most anything. These labs, previously only found at elite engineering schools, are now popping up in urban settings as membership-supported maker spaces, as well as in innovative public libraries and a fast growing number of public and private schools — including Marymount School (New York), Castilleja School (California), and Hillbrook School (California) where I work.

Other schools are undertaking similar efforts, focusing on the infusion of design thinking and, more generally, problem solving and experiential learning into the curriculum.

“Making,” in education, refers to any form of construction that allows students to exercise their creative license to invent things. The making can involve analog and/or digital tools. It can be done in art, science, humanities, math, or any other subject, given the correct supplies. By its very nature, it employs the constructionist approach to learning, allowing each child the opportunity to construct new knowledge and skills while literally designing and building a physical object or digital entity.

The movement is predicated on the belief that students learn best when the learning is self-directed, when it arises from genuine interests, concerns, and questions. Educator Gary Stager sums up the maker philosophy succinctly: “Less us, more them.”

For students who learn through the making of things, the reward shifts from the successful demonstration of learned facts (i.e., tests, essays, lab reports) to the joy and earned wisdom experienced through exploration and discovery. Growing evidence indicates that this process provides students with a deeper understanding of the way things work, as well as a stronger sense of purpose and autonomy. It builds confidence, fosters creativity, and sparks a deep interest in learning.

The Science of Making at Hillbrook

For us at Hillbrook School, the interest in maker education took hold in the fall of 2011 when the school began a yearlong audit of its pre-K-to-eight science program. During this time, two other significant events were occurring at the school: the development of our iLab study 1 and the publication of the new national science standards that put a greater emphasis on problem solving and engineering. This confluence of events created an opportunity for us to rework our science curriculum based on the following guiding principles:

  • Every time we spend more than a moment on an observation we make deeper more rewarding observations. Mastery is the behavioral embodiment of this concept.
  • People can be taught to problem solve and to have greater confidence in their ideas.
  • Because it has been linked to stronger leadership potential, exercising creativity is as important as learning facts.
  • Autonomy is not a privilege; it is an essential element for growing up intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • Failure is not an end, but a chance to explore alternative approaches to a problem.

With these principles in mind, as well as months spent gaining inspiration from peers in like-minded schools, we chose a problem-based model for our fifth- and sixth-grade science curricula, with an emphasis on making, design thinking, and problem solving.

The Problem-Based Science Learning Model

The problem-based science model is simple in nature. The teacher presents students with an open-ended problem — for example, asking them to design and build a structure that can move a 75 gram steel ball from point A to point B — and then gives them the time and space to solve that problem using their knowledge of math, science, engineering, technology, and art.

In contrast to the widely embraced practice of students studying textbooks and engaging in lab work with prearranged outcomes, the problem-based science method supports the development of the following skills:

Constructed knowledge
As a means to solve a problem, students need to apply prior and new knowledge. It’s not about learning facts and moving on. A student might say, for instance, “I want this object to light up and move.” The teacher doesn’t offer a solution. Instead, he or she provides the student with materials to find a solution. In the process, the student will learn not just about circuitry, resistors, polarity, and more, but also about how to apply this new knowledge to solve a specific problem. 

Divergent thinking
Brainstorming ideas with others is a large part of the fun, as well as the challenge, of working in a maker space. Letting go of the fear of peer judgment, as well as the quick rush to judge others, is difficult. When it happens, however, it can be a magical exercise in creativity. Getting into the habit of considering divergent thinking — and seeing the way that staying open to ideas can lead to breakthroughs — makes the practice easier over time.

Convergent thinking
Taking several factors into account, including one’s own testing and observations, to settle on a process for finding a solution to a problem is a form of convergent, or integrative, thinking — an important skill today, says Tim Brown, an executive at IDEO, a design and consulting firm. In a maker space, a student can choose to solve a problem alone or engage in collaborative work with other students.

Finding Success Through Failure
In the more traditional science classroom, or any academic classroom for that matter, a child is encouraged to attempt to solve a problem maybe one or two times before the teacher assesses his or her knowledge and skill. In such a setting, failure becomes a negative label that stays with a child — especially if required to move on to a new subject, project, or paper and leave a weak piece of work behind. In a maker space, failure is not a threat, but a natural part of the process of asking questions and testing ideas. Indeed, deep learning is impossible without it.

Assessing Making in Schools

While it’s clear to any educator involved in problem-based classrooms, student learning runs deep and the engagement is high. But a key challenge in such settings is to develop assessments that clearly measure academic and personal growth. For those of us teaching problem-based science classes at Hillbrook, we’ve experimented with three distinct areas of assessment —the role of pass/fail grading (the documentation of the iteration process), student self-assessment, and students showcasing their work for peer review.

Pass or Fail

Children understand the objectivity of a pass/fail system when it comes to learning a new skill or solving a problem. Failure and success are objective outcomes. They can be measured by answering the following question: Did you solve the problem or not? The role of the iteration process is what matters. Students may fail to achieve a goal or develop a product, but in a problem-based classroom, this only teaches them to search for another path. Students learn that every failure teaches something new and should be embraced as an opportunity for growth and improvement. The goal is not to feel weighed down by failure, but to continue working toward success.

The effective documentation of the iteration process, therefore, is a valuable area for assessing student growth. In the problem-based science classroom, teachers can assess student progress based on the student’s design journal, which keeps track of the student’s iteration notes. The numbering of iterations, the detailed labeling of sketches of a student’s design ideas and prototypes and the reflection of testing are captured on paper for reference at any time. As technologies advance, this process may be better suited to emerging technologies in electronic portfolios, but for now — at least at Hillbrook — students use paper and pencil.

The “Crit”

Some professional practices rely on peer review to improve outcomes and support innovation. In the design disciplines, for example, there is a process referred to as the “crit,” short for critique or critical review. This involves the showcasing of projects for peer review while the projects are in development.

This “crit” has become an essential part of student assessment in problem-based science classes. It allows students to not only demonstrate their understanding of their topic, but also their pride in their work. When students know they need to present their work to peers, they instinctively want to put their best foot forward. Furthermore, peers who have approached the same problem are typically the most stringent critics, offering authentic feedback that can lead to a more well-defined solution.

The presentation of work nearing completion can be extended outside of the classroom through showcases that display student work to the school community in the form of Mini-Maker Faires. This format is more formal than the in-class “crit” and, among other things, exposes younger students to the work of the middle school students, which can help foster in younger students an interest in the maker culture. As more venues for students to share their inventions with the broader community become available, such as a local Maker Faire, students can also present their solutions in a safe and challenging environment more akin to afterschool sports or enrichment classes.


In a self-directed learning environment, students gain knowledge as it becomes relevant to a solution for a problem at hand. Not every student learns the same concepts or acquires the same skills. This presents a major problem for assessing students on a standardized scale. But it’s also an opportunity for valuable self-assessment.

Students engaged in self-assessment can use a simple paper form or they can take part in a more formal process in which they must defend their claim about the product using evidence from independent research and testing. At Hillbrook, we find this latter form of self-assessment to be particularly valuable, since it offers students the opportunity to demonstrate their passion for their work — and their newly gained knowledge.

In problem-based science, of course, the emphasis of assessment is placed on the child’s process of learning rather than a snapshot of knowledge, such as a test or term paper might reflect. But it also requires the use of benchmarks with which to compare the student’s growth.

Why It Matters

As educators explore the potential for new and more meaningful assessments, I hope we can turn our attention to the use of digital fabrication and making in the primary and middle school classrooms as a model of success. Three areas of interest that stand to support this claim, as seen in my own classroom, as well as the current literature, are: increased classroom democracy, empowerment of those typically underrepresented in the STEM fields, and the formation of a new culture of optimism.


Schools are not democratic spaces, historically. But a problem-based classroom allows for greater shared ownership. In this model, the teacher stops telling students what they should know and facilitates the learning process by asking challenging questions. Removing the adult expert from the room frees students to explore, which in turn increases their enthusiasm for learning and their engagement. Once students know that their ideas and questions are as important as others, they also feel empowered as leaders and start to develop essential cues to their identities.

All students benefit from this process, but the students who stand to benefit most are those who historically have been underrepresented in STEM fields. Attitudes about who pursues math and science, as well as images of the life of a solitary researcher, don’t resonate as much with certain students as with others. Showing them how science and math can be applied to any problem — social, economic, or aesthetic — and reinforcing this with role models, is a step toward bridging the gap of historically underrepresented populations in STEM fields. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary nature of making engages multiple forms of intelligence, which allows for a greater number of students to thrive.


As disposable incomes and credit lines increased after World War II, Americans shifted from need-based consumers to desire-based consumers. The acquisition of goods became a means of self-expression. In such a climate, makers and do-it-yourself (DIY) types gained a bad rap — associated with those who did not have the means to buy what they needed or were too stingy to replace a broken item. This attitude toward those with traditional making skills remains pervasive today. Paulo Blikstein of the FabLab@School project at Stanford, notes, “In low-income schools, students would often tell me that they used to ‘make’ and build things with their parents and friends, and often had jobs in garages, construction companies, or carpentry shops.” But, he adds, “because of bias inherit within the educational system, [students’] own forms of engineering and tinkering, stripped down of any form of mathematical of scientific content, were looked down upon by society and by themselves.” 2

The mindset shift occurring now, due in part to the Maker Movement, is good for those with little capital, but it is also valuable for the populations of students we work with today. In a recent survey given to 67 of my fifth- and sixth-graders, 72 percent agreed with the statement, “It is important to be able to fix the things that you buy.”  When asked to explain why, students offered variations on the following comments:

  • “[Because] you can fix it. You can make it better and it is fun to improve.”
  • “I think it is important to be able to repair the things that you buy, because it can save money and the ability to do that will probably help you somewhere else, too.”
  • “I think it is important because it is healthy for your brain to tinker with broken things.”
  • “If you really like something and it breaks, you have to live with it.”

Interestingly, comments made by my students who fell into the undecided category or who disagreed outright with the statement did so because they felt that planned obsolescence was often part of the design. Trying to fix products today not only voids warranties, it’s also, by design, difficult to do. Planned obsolescence is an artifact of a consumer-driven economy, based on the unsustainable resource-management philosophies of the last century. Successful business models that emphasize sustainability are increasingly available today. If we can learn to see a throwaway culture as normal, we can also unlearn it. At the heart of this transition is our ability to embrace the value of making, fixing, and improving things in school.


Let’s face it, the economic prospects of the current college graduate are less than ideal. Statistics indicate that educational debt is higher than it has ever been and that job prospects after graduation are not encouraging. As one Harvard Law graduate, Kevin Golembiewski, puts it in a recent article, “debt dampens entrepreneurial spirit.” 3 Burdened with large student loans, young people cannot afford to be entrepreneurs. Rather, they feel compelled to put their heads down and work a steady job. There’s nothing wrong with working a steady job, but there is no denying that it is less conducive to individual growth and societal innovation. Tony Wagner addresses this issue in Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, when he surmises that the new economy we hope the next generation to enjoy — one which is human centered and more sustainable — will be based on innovations, both physical and social. 

This is where the maker movement comes in. “Makers are confident, competent, curious citizens in a new world of possibility,” says Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez in their 2013 book Invent to Learn4 Emerging technologies in the fields of laser-cutting, 3D printing and rapid prototyping in general, have allowed for students to achieve greater purpose in their work because they can better compare their work to that of the real world of design, engineering, and manufacturing. Furthermore, inviting students to identify problems in their environment to solve and using the design-thinking process, which emphasizes true empathy, to solve those problems is an open door for students to make the world a better place. 

Optimism, requires faith that people are fundamentally good (desire peace and connections to others), and want to do good (have purpose and meaning through work and play).  Give people of any age the tools and the knowledge they need to solve problems for themselves and they will always surprise you with their ingenuity, good humor, and resourcefulness. Isn’t the pursuit of purpose and beauty through tinkering (making and improving things), imaginative pattern making (language, art, music, programming), and collaboration (empathy and communication) what makes us uniquely human? If so, the making in education movement stands to honor the maker in all of us.


1. See video on Hillbrook’s iLad at

2. Paulo Blikstein, “Digital Fabrication and ‘Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention.” In Julia Walter-Herrmann and Corinne Büching (Eds.), FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publishers, 2013.

3. Kevin Golembiewski, “A Recent Harvard Grad Takes on Student Debt,”

4. Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013.

Christa Flores

Christa Flores is director of the iLab for Making at the Hillbrook School (California) and teaches fifth- and sixth-grade problem-based Science. Flores has blogged and written about her experiences in the maker classroom and has presented her observations at several conferences.