Definitions, slogans, and making

Some of the most common things I hear from people who are interested in my work on making and maker pedagogy:

“That’s great! I’m a maker too”

“I do crafts such as . . . ”

“I have an engineering background and I’ve always thought . . .,”

“I do [Insert name of thing or process here], does that count?”

My response: It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters how you want to identify, and what part(s) of maker, tinkerer, craft, and arts cultures you wish to identify with. I am of course happy when someone finds resonance with my work on maker pedagogy, but it is always important to remember that I am but one of many voices interested in these matters.

My response changes a little bit, however, when it comes to the academic literature on making (and its links to “STEM”, a term that I don’t particularly care for–but that’s for another post). When terms or phrases such as making, maker, makerpedagogy, maker spaces, or maker classrooms are used in a research paper, an opinion piece, or as a part of professional development, they often assume that the reader will understand what is meant by each term.

I urge you to define what you mean by terms that you use for writing about your work in making. My enthusiasm for definitions is not because I think that there is a “correct” definition, or because I think that my definitions are an all-encompassing way forward. There are any number of ways that terms commonly used in the maker literatures and cultures can be defined and understood, and so I think we ignore definitions at our collective peril–we risk talking across purposes and misunderstanding one another. 

An interesting case study comes from the idea of science literacy. Relatively few people are aware that the term had its origins in a 1958 issue of Educational Leadership; it was a call to action for science education in the United States after the perceived humiliation of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik a year prior (see Hurd, 1958). The concept of science literacy started, in my view, as a slogan. Noted science education professor Doug Roberts, writing 25 years later, noted that science literacy had come to be nearly synonymous with just about every idea in science education; it meant everything and so it meant nothing (Roberts, 1983). Fast-forwarding slightly, we find similar confusion about science literacy and scientific literacy. STEM debates share similar features–if you don’t agree, I challenge you to do a quick search for the term STEM online and consider the conflicting concepts you encounter.

My point is not to suggest that there isn’t useful research within the domains of science literacy, scientific literacy, and STEM. Of course there is. My purpose is to call attention to the danger of what is known as shallow consensus around anything that has become reified as a slogan. Precise definitions, stated clearly, can help us steer these turbulent waters. At the very least, definitions help the reader to situate their understanding relative to what the author is trying to communicate.

The way I use the term maker is probably different from the way you use the term maker. In fact, I’m still trying to work out what I mean by the term. Some of my current thinking is being informed by both the history of hacking and the history of the Arts and Crafts movement. Again, you don’t have to agree–but hopefully you’ll know what my starting points are when you read my work. 

/SMB

References

Hurd, P. D. (1958). Science literacy: Its meaning for American schools. Educational Leadership, 16(1), 13-52.

Roberts, D. A. (1983). Scientific literacy: Towards balance in setting goals for school science programs: A discussion paper. Ottawa, Ontario: Science Council of Canada.