Re-Invent learning. Or, how making fosters empowerment and active participation
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Re-Invent learning. Or, how making fosters empowerment and active participation

By Julia Kleeberger

On this school day, the classroom of 7a at the Kurt-Schwitters-Oberschule presents a different picture than usual: In one corner of the room, some students are sitting and building a gripper arm that can be operated with one hand and makes it possible to fetch books and materials from the upper shelves of the room while sitting down. In the other corner, three girls are busy to create sound recordings from the notices of the bulletin board and make them play back via a microcontroller at the push of a button. 

And why? The girls and boys took part in the pilot project “Hackydays”, a mini-makeathon at their school, in which they dealt with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the question of how they can promote the independence of children with disabilities and facilitate their active participation in school life. 

Self-awareness as a tool for building empathy and facilitating a change of perspective

Guided by the idea of what would happen if children with disabilities came to their class who were blind or in a wheelchair, they developed solution ideas and prototypes to fulfill their right of independence and support. In order to be able to put themselves in the shoes of disabled people, the students were supported by two coaches, one of whom was blind and the other was in a wheelchair. They guided and supported the students in their self-awareness. Equipped with a wheelchair or blindfold and a cane, the 25 students explored their familiar school environment and attempted to perform everyday tasks: such as changing classrooms, finding out about news such as lesson cancellations, substitutions, or school festivals on the bulletin board, or simply getting the extra materials from the shelf in the geography room. Everyday activities that they would otherwise hardly give a second thought to – but now the students quickly realized that a stair step posed an almost insurmountable problem in getting to the German room; the materials on the shelf in the geography room became inaccessible and the bulletin board is non-existent for blind people – and they were always dependent on the help of others to read out the information to them. 

With this experience, in which the students felt the problems firsthand, it was easy to develop ideas for solutions: First, they exchanged ideas about their experiences and developed initial ideas. Then our coaches introduced them to digital tools such as microcontrollers and programming: making tools that enable them to implement their own working solutions and harness the power of technology. 

The power of Maker Spaces

By making we mean the process of self-directed and playful tinkering with various analog and digital materials. Accordingly, Maker Spaces have a special significance when it comes to developing one’s own solutions and unleashing creativity and innovative power: Due to their openness, which promotes self-directed, playful learning, they offer the ideal environment for gradually gaining new professional experience in dealing with technologies and materials, while at the same time acquiring important skills for the future.  

In doing so, people in Maker Spaces always work on real challenges that affect them (or another person) and for which they are looking for a solution. This open, project-based work is fundamentally different from the traditional closed questioning and learning process in traditional learning settings. Thus, project-based work seriously involves the individual in finding a solution – unlike closed questioning. The difference can be easily traced in the following example: In a closed question setting there is only one possible answer, for example to the question, what is the result of 4+4. In addition, the teaching person and the learner are not at eye level: as one person has a knowledge advantage, the other is automatically put in the role of testing and an imbalance is present. It would be completely different if the task would be: what is the result of 8. For this there are infinite answers and possibilities. Thus, my own creativity is required, what I answer here. And the person who sets the task is also challenged to think, since he does not know my answer either. This is exactly what we achieve in project-based work. It allows us to develop different answers to a problem – and thus opens up enormous creative freedom. 

It was precisely this spirit of taking students seriously that could be felt at the Kurt Schwitters School, through the concentration and eagerness with which they worked on their solutions. At the same time, they learned important digital skills such as programming and physical computing – as well as skills such as collaboration, solution-finding and creativity. The teachers were also able to observe this: 

“Students who reach their limits in normal lessons had a sense of achievement here! It worked great.” (Mrs Schuster, Teacher Kurt-Schwitters Oberschule)

Active participation: Shaping society together

The pride with which the students presented their results and the gleam in their eyes spoke for itself: the young people experienced the fulfillment when you are able to shape things independently and to experience self-efficacy in the process. Through the Hackydays, they were strengthened in the belief that they themselves carry the solution within themselves. But what exactly is needed to unleash this potential and give them the opportunity to help shape society in a participatory way? In our view, the following three things are important for this:  

  • Sharing & Access: Knowledge and tools.
  • Trust and respect: Addressing people at eye level
  • Mentoring: being a compass and offering orientation

Maker Spaces are open learning spaces that provide easy access to tools, technologies, materials and know-how. Sharing knowledge and tools is the basis of all collaboration here, which is why much documentation is published and shared under free license to encourage learning from each other and developing and building upon each other. This enables innovation through collaboration and exchange. 

In this context, addressing each other at eye level plays an essential role. In order to promote innovative processes, it is necessary for everyone to think and participate equally in the innovative process. We achieve this, on the one hand, by ensuring that everyone has access to the same knowledge and resources. On the other hand, however, it is also achieved by the entire way in which we approach Maker activities: by formulating open problems and taking all those involved equally seriously and integrating them into the innovation process, we often succeed in developing the best solutions. Because the people involved are the best experts for their problems: our task is to enable them to find answers and solve them. This includes access and respectful encounters at eye level, as well as support to provide orientation. As mentors, it is our task to strengthen and enable the learner in his or her process by skilfully asking questions and motivating him or her, to overcome moments of frustration and to develop strategies to acquire knowledge independently and to be able to take the next steps on their own. 

Outlook. What needs to happen now. Edu Maker Spaces for the global south

We truly believe that innovation lies in the people and locals are the best experts for their problems and the ones, who are the best innovators. Thus, it is our aim to bring innovation spaces in different parts of the globe to enable people to solve their own problems. What that means in concrete terms: We want to support the creation of Maker Spaces and looking for opportunities to share our knowledge and get in exchange of experiences. Always with the attitude that we don’t have answers of all the problems yet – but together, we will find a solution. #simpleMaking #actAsOne


Author: Julia Kleeberger | Social Entrepreneur (founder and CEO of Junge Tüftler gGmbH | LinkedIn)

*The Hackyday Makeathon is documented and published under CC-BY-SA 4.0: