What Independent Schools Can Learn From New Educational Models

NAIS

Independent schools are trying to keep pace with rapid changes in the demographic, economic, and social composition of their student and parent populations. At the same time, new forms of competition have emerged, providing alternative school options for parents and their children. Despite this, most independent schools continue to provide the same type of education with little variation.

Many schools have made changes in the form of adding programs or services that are perceived as being valuable to parents as well as upgrading facilities, but these changes have contributed to the increasing cost of educating a child in independent schools. Tuition and cost of living increases have made most independent schools unaffordable for middle- and some high-income families. How can we continue providing a top-notch education while keeping our schools affordable?

To understand the forces at play and to help independent schools better compete, NAIS examined schools with different financial and educational models. Over the course of three months, we conducted a review of publicly available information, interviewed administrators at six U.S. schools, and created profiles that highlight some of the distinguishing attributes of each school. Three school profiles follow; all six profiles are available here.

Blyth-Templeton Academy

Blyth-Templeton Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Washington, DC, combines very small class sizes with city-wide learning opportunities. Blyth-Templeton opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and is scheduled to open a campus in New York City for the 2017–2018 school year.

Blyth-Templeton’s curriculum focuses on immersive, student-centered experiential learning, where teachers teach what the students want to learn. The experiential learning is not just an occasional field trip, but a daily and weekly part of the school’s curriculum. Blyth-Templeton’s academic year is divided into four terms, each term lasting about two months. During a term, students study only two subjects, allowing them to explore various subjects in greater depth than in a normal school schedule. Students follow a daily schedule consisting of three two-hour periods. During these three periods, students study an array of traditional academic subjects, such as math, science, or history that are combined with travel time around DC to make it experiential. The final two hours of a student’s day consists of an open period, where the student is free to write papers, work on projects, or study for tests. Teachers are available during this period to assist students with their work. In addition to traditional coursework, the students complete several courses that are more adaptive to their personal interests. These courses explore the students’ interests in a more personalized way, while simultaneously helping them to develop their critical and creative-thinking capacity.

Blyth-Templeton is part of the Blyth Education family, a private Toronto-based company founded in 1977, that offers secondary education and educational credit programs. Belonging to the Blyth Education network means that students at Blyth-Templeton can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses through Blyth-Templeton Academy Online, study overseas with the Blyth-Templeton Academy Global High School, or even do an academic quarter at a Blyth-Templeton Academy High School in Canada.

Fully funded by tuition, Blyth-Templeton has no fundraising events. In 2016–2017, the tuition was $14,850, compared to $37,030, the median day school tuition in DC. The school also offers financial support via financial aid or merit scholarships; about 20 percent of students receive financial support. One of the main reasons Blyth-Templeton is able to provide this type of education at such a lower cost is that instead of spending money on new facilities, labs, or athletic fields, the school uses existing community resources. Operating out of the Hill Center, a community center close to the U.S. Capitol, Blyth-Templeton rents classroom space in the center, paying only for the space while it is used. Instead of buses or vans, students navigate the city via public transportation and walking. School libraries and textbooks have been replaced by laptops and trips to a local public library. There are no athletic teams, but students who want to participate do so in clubs or leagues outside of school.

Rather than lecturing, Blyth-Templeton teachers facilitate academic discussion in the classroom. The
average class size is eight students. The school currently operates with seven faculty members and five school leadership positions. The school’s compensation is comparable to other schools; however, Blyth-Templeton offers part-time faculty positions for those interested in other pursuits. This flexibility helps attract talent and allows faculty to pursue outside endeavors such as graduate school or other work.

BASIS Independent Schools

BASIS Independent Schools, a network of pre-K–12 private schools, combines a STEM-focused education with an emphasis on foreign language skills to provide students with a practical education for the 21st century. BASIS places heavy emphasis on science and mathematics in the classroom. Students begin studying chemistry, biology, and physics in sixth grade, and begin high school math during middle school. Upon graduation, all BASIS students will have taken all three sciences at the honors level, one AP science course, and one AP math course. Foreign languages are also a critical component of the curriculum. All students begin studying Mandarin as early as pre-kindergarten and are given the option to continue Mandarin or learn a new language in middle school. Many high school students elect to take AP courses in their respective languages, often studying Mandarin, Latin, French, or Spanish at the college level.

During senior year, all BASIS students take capstone courses, studying advanced subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory and political philosophy. Students spend their last trimester completing a senior project, which allows them to apply their knowledge to an area of their choosing. Senior projects are guided by a staff mentor, and can take the form of internships, university-level research, field work domestically or abroad, and other options depending on a student’s individual interests.

The BASIS promise includes that not only will students graduate with a deep understanding of academic disciplines and a mastery of traditional skills, but also that they will learn to innovate and think across disciplinary silos and become 21st century knowledge workers. While most schools have similar goals, BASIS prides itself as having a proven track record of great student outcomes as measured by both national and international ranking—like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools—and college acceptance rates. The OECD Test for Schools is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and provides information on students’ performance in math, reading, and science compared to other students at schools in the United States and the world.

Class sizes at BASIS Independent Schools vary between 20 and 25 students. The elementary classes have a unique teaching approach: Each first- to fourth-grade class is staffed by two joint teachers. The first teacher is a subject expert, who has a degree in whatever subject they are teaching. The second teacher is a learning expert, whose job is to help facilitate the holistic development of students, focusing on their emotional and social development. The joint teacher model ensures that students will learn from teachers who are experts in their
field, while developing more general emotional/interpersonal habits simultaneously. Teachers also have two hours of “student time” set aside to support students individually and in small groups.

Funded by a tuition rate that varies from $22,900–$29,500 depending on the grade and location, there is no fundraising or state/federal money. This is possible in part because BASIS Independent Schools are managed by BASIS Education, a company that started with operating charter schools. When BASIS Education expanded into opening private schools, the company drew on 15 years of experience with fiscal control and responsibility. Teachers are paid competitively, but BASIS schools aim to restrict facilities spending to only what is necessary to deliver a competitive educational program.

BASIS Education currently operates 28 schools across the United States and the world, including charter schools and independent schools in Silicon Valley, California (5–12); Brooklyn, New York (pre–K10); McLean, Virginia (preschool-11); Fremont, California (K–8); and the BASIS International School in Shenzhen, China (preschool–12). BASIS plans to expand its current U.S. locations and open private schools in other cities around the country; another New York campus (K–8) is set to open in Manhattan in 2017. Internationally, BASIS plans to open a second school in China by September 2017 and is opening its first European location in Prague in 2020.

Acton Academy

Student agency—the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation—is at the heart of the Acton Academy model. Acton is a learner-driven community that strongly believes children can plan their school day and manage their time. It’s modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, enrolling 36 students in the elementary studio, 36 in the middle school studio, and between 36 and 48 students in the high school studio. The school year consists of trimesters spread out over 11 months, during which students engage in real-world projects, apprenticeships, state-of-the-art educational gaming or “quests,” and Socratic discussions in a multiage classroom.

The educational approach is based on a concept Acton refers to as the “Hero’s Journey,” which seeks to help students discover how they can live a life of meaning and purpose and develop hands-on skills that will allow them to do something that will change the world. No homework is assigned at Acton; however, students are able to access multiple learning programs like ST Math, Khan Academy, and Dreambox at home. Instead, “young heroes” celebrate the mastery of tools, skills, and character by earning badges, assembling portfolios, and taking part in public exhibitions. Parents use these badges to track academic progress in core skills, like reading, writing, math, and spelling, and character development. Electronic and hard copy portfolios capture rough drafts, photos, video, and other creative work. Public exhibitions at the end of most quests allow young heroes to present work to experts, customers, or the public for a real-world test.

Acton Academy opened its first location in 2009 in Austin, Texas, and has since opened another 25 U.S. and international campuses. Schools (as well as parent groups and entrepreneurs) can apply to become part of the Acton network. Most of the schools in the Acton network are nonprofits, and tuitions depend on each school location and offerings. In 2016­–2017, tuition ranged between $500 and $1,000 per month. Acton Academy in Austin reports an annual cost-per-student at $4,300. This low cost may be a direct consequence of the teaching model: Students are supervised by adult “guides” who are more of a support resource than a traditional teacher. The school is run with fewer adults than what you typically find in other schools, which in turn, saves money in overhead.

Acton plans to continue opening additional campuses in 2017 across the United States and in various countries around the world, with the goal of opening 50 to 100 schools a year. There seems to be growing interest in the Acton model: The school has received 2,500 applications from parents who want to start their own school, representing about 100 applications a week. This doesn’t mean that Acton runs these schools; it provides them with kits and resources to use as guidelines for creating an Acton-inspired learning experience.

Modeling These Models

The approach that these schools are taking—combining a teaching model that is more student-centered with a business model that focuses on what is core to providing an excellent education—might not be a good match for the mission of some independent schools, but the inherent practices offer a lot to consider and explore.

  • Balancing low-cost and quality education. A brick-and-mortar type of school, while offering the latest and greatest in facilities, programs, and services, comes with a high price tag. Many for-profit schools prioritize their investments in teaching core academic programs, while outsourcing extracurricular activities. What are the programs and services that your school could outsource? Are there opportunities at your school to take a more minimal approach to facilities and lower operating costs?
  • Understanding your niche market. Many schools offer a wide selection of programs and services trying to please as many parents as possible. However, by being the school for everyone, you’re risking not being the right school for anyone. It’s important to clearly differentiate your school’s offerings from your competition and communicate these differences to prospective families. What type of parents are the best match for your school’s mission? (See sidebar below, “Parent Profiles”) What are the types of messages that resonate best with them?
  • Delivering on the promises of personalized learning. Many independent schools say they offer personalized learning, but to what extent are you offering students the opportunity to decide what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it? Consider what programs or services your school offers to guide students in pursuing a career. Are there additional opportunities to help students explore their interests or to connect them with professionals in relevant fields?

Sidebar: Parent Profiles

What type of parents does your school attract—or want to attract? NAIS’s Parent Motivations Study can help you learn more about the parents in your school community.

The 2011 study sought to understand high-income parents’ attitudes and motivations about independent schools and examined how parents learn about various school options, what they value in an education, and what persuades them to select independent schools. The study identified five parent personas: Challenge Seekers, Success-Driven Parents, Right Fit Parents, Character-Building Parents, and Public School Proponents.

Members can download the full study, which includes an in-depth look at each persona as well as messages that resonate with each segment and tips to help you reach out to parents more effectively, here.

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How to Prepare for an Automated Future

Photo

Sebastian Thrun, left, the co-founder of Udacity, which provides online courses, recording for a programming class with Andy Brown, a course manager. Experts say online courses will be essential for workers to remain qualified as more tasks become automated. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times

We don’t know how quickly machines will displace people’s jobs, or how many they’ll take, but we know it’s happening — not just to factory workers but also to money managers, dermatologists and retail workers.

The logical response seems to be to educate people differently, so they’re prepared to work alongside the robots or do the jobs that machines can’t. But how to do that, and whether training can outpace automation, are open questions.

Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed 1,408 people who work in technology and education to find out if they think new schooling will emerge in the next decade to successfully train workers for the future. Two-thirds said yes; the rest said no. Following are questions about what’s next for workers, and answers based on the survey responses.

How do we educate people for an automated world?

People still need to learn skills, the respondents said, but they will do that continuously over their careers. In school, the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.

At universities, “people learn how to approach new things, ask questions and find answers, deal with new situations,” wrote Uta Russmann, a professor of communications at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “All this is needed to adjust to ongoing changes in work life. Special skills for a particular job will be learned on the job.”

Schools will also need to teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. The problem, many respondents said, is that these are not necessarily easy to teach.

“Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold,” wrote Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice, which provides research on the new economy.

Can we change education fast enough to outpace the machines?

About two-thirds of the respondents thought it could be done in the next decade; the rest thought that education reform takes too much time, money and political will, and that automation is moving too quickly.

“I have complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address those gaps,” wrote Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data and Society, a research institute. “I have zero confidence in us having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skill training.”

Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, wrote, “Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people.”

Will college degrees still be important?

College is more valuable than ever, research shows. The jobs that are still relatively safe from automation require higher education, as well as interpersonal skills fostered by living with other students.

“Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence,” said Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, a policy research firm.

But many survey respondents said a degree was not enough — or not always the best choice, especially given its price tag. Many of them expect more emphasis on certificates or badges, earned from online courses or workshops, even for college graduates.

One potential future, said David Karger, a professor of computer science at M.I.T., would be for faculty at top universities to teach online and for mid-tier universities to “consist entirely of a cadre of teaching assistants who provide support for the students.”

Employers will also place more value on on-the-job learning, many respondents said, such as apprenticeships or on-demand trainings at workplaces. Portfolios of work are becoming more important than résumés.

“Résumés simply are too two-dimensional to properly communicate someone’s skill set,” wrote Meryl Krieger, a career specialist at Indiana University. “Three-dimensional materials — in essence, job reels that demonstrate expertise — will be the ultimate demonstration of an individual worker’s skills.”

What can workers do now to prepare?

Consider it part of your job description to keep learning, many respondents said — learn new skills on the job, take classes, teach yourself new things.

Focus on learning how to do tasks that still need humans, said Judith Donath of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society: teaching and caregiving; building and repairing; and researching and evaluating.

The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College. “The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new work force means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future,” she said.

Even if we do all these things, will there be enough jobs?

Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said he was optimistic about the future of work as long as people learned technological skills: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central.”

But the third of respondents who were pessimistic about the future of education reform said it won’t matter if there are no jobs to train for.

“The ‘jobs of the future’ are likely to be performed by robots,” said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, an email company. “The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs. It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work.”

How Kids Learn Better By Taking Frequent Breaks Throughout The Day

Mind/Shift

Playground
iStock/PetrBonek

Excerpted from Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies For Joyful Classrooms (c) 2017 by Timothy D. Walker. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. 

Schedule brain breaks

Like a zombie, Sami*—one of my fifth graders—lumbered over to me and hissed, “I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule.” And I believed him. An angry red rash was starting to form on his forehead.

Yikes, I thought, what a way to begin my first year of teaching in Finland. It was only the third day of school, and I was already pushing a student to the breaking point. When I took him aside, I quickly discovered why he was so upset.

Throughout this first week of school, I had gotten creative with my fifth grade timetable. If you recall, students in Finland normally take a fifteen-minute break for every forty-five minutes of instruction. During a typical break, the children head outside to play and socialize with friends.

I didn’t see the point of these frequent pit stops. As a teacher in the United States, I’d usually spent consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft, and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time. So I decided to hold my students back from their regularly scheduled break and teach two forty-five-minute lessons in a row, followed by a double break of thirty minutes. Now I knew why the red dots had appeared on Sami’s forehead.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if the American approach had ever worked very well. My students in the States had always seemed to drag their feet after about forty-five minutes in the classroom. But they’d never thought of revolting like this shrimpy Finnish fifth grader, who was digging in his heels on the third day of school. At that moment, I decided to embrace the Finnish model of taking breaks.

Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would, without fail, enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a fifteen-minute break. And most important, they were more focused during lessons.

At first I was convinced that I had made a groundbreaking discovery: frequent breaks kept students fresh throughout the day. But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years—they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.

Teach Like Finland

In my quest to understand the value of the Finnish practice, I stumbled upon the work of Anthony Pellegrini, author of the book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised this approach for more than a decade. In East Asia, where many primary schools provide their students with a ten-minute break after about forty minutes of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon that I had witnessed at my Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more focused in the classroom (Pellegrini, 2005).

Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a U.S. public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less focused when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on (Pellegrini, 2005).

In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside—rain or shine—for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times.

Although I favor the Finnish model, I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be held outdoors to be beneficial. In one of his experiments at a public elementary school, the children had their recess times inside the school, and the results matched those of other experiments where they took their breaks outside: after their breaks, the students were more focused in class (Pellegrini, 2005).

What I realized in Finland, with the help of a flustered fifth grader, is that once I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction. Pellegrini’s findings confirm that frequent breaks boost attentiveness in class. With this in mind, we no longer need to fear that students won’t learn what they need to learn if we let them disconnect from their work several times throughout the school day.

The year before I arrived in Helsinki, the American researcher and kinesiologist Debbie Rhea visited Finnish schools, and she, too, was inspired by their frequent fifteen-minute breaks. When she returned to the States, she piloted a study to evaluate the learning benefits of a Finland-inspired schedule with multiple recesses throughout the school day (Turner, 2013).

Today, Rhea’s research project is up and running in a handful of American schools in several states, and so far the early results have been promising. Educators at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, report a significant change in their students, who receive four fifteen-minute breaks each day; for example, they are more focused, and they are not tattling as often. One first grade teacher even noticed that her students are no longer chewing on pencils (Connelly, 2016).

Rhea’s research is exciting, and it seems like the national interest in bringing more breaks to American schools is high. However, while the tide might be changing in American education, many U.S. teachers and students lack the freedom to imitate the Finnish model. Thankfully, any classroom, even non-Finnish ones, can tap into the benefits of taking multiple breaks throughout each day.

Author Timothy Walker
Author Timothy Walker (David Popa)

Initially, I thought that the true value of Finnish-style breaks is related to free play, but I no longer hold this view. I’ve concluded that the primary benefit of Finnish breaks is in the way it keeps kids focused by refreshing their brains. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music at McGill University, believes that giving the brain time to rest, through regular breaks, leads to greater productivity and creativity. “You need to give your brain time to consolidate all the information that’s come in,” he said in an interview for the education blog MindShift (Schwartz, 2014). But even without scheduled breaks at school, the mind rests naturally through daydreaming, which “allows you to refresh and release all those neural circuits that get all bound up when you’re focused,” said Levitin. “Children shouldn’t be overly scheduled. They should have blocks of time to promote spontaneity and creativity” (Schwartz, 2014).

There are different ways of offering little brain breaks, which I describe below, but one of the most important things to remember is that they need to happen regularly to benefit our students. In other words, it’s wise to schedule them throughout the day. A good start, perhaps, would be thinking about offering a whole-group brain break for every forty-five minutes of classroom instruction—just like many Finnish teachers. But even that timing could be too infrequent for your students. What’s important is that you watch your students carefully. If they seem to be dragging their feet before the forty-five-minute mark, it would seem beneficial to offer a brain break right away.

Timothy D. Walker is an American teacher and writer living in Finland. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education Week Teacher, Educational Leadership, and on his blog, Taught by Finland. While working at a Helsinki public school, he completed his teaching practicum and received his master’s degree in elementary education from the United States. He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic.

*The names used for students in this book are pseudonyms.

When Kids Engage In “Making,” Are They Learning Anything?

The Brilliant Report

By Annie Murphy Paul

 A note to Brilliant readers: The following essay appears in the May issue of School Library Journal. The issue is devoted to making and maker spaces, and includes many interesting articles on the subject—I encourage you to check it out. My own contribution looks at how librarians, teachers, and parents can make sure that kids arelearning while they make stuff.—Annie

There’s no doubt that students find making to be a creative and engaging activity. But as they tinker, design and invent, are they actually learning anything?

Making is too young a phenomenon to have generated a broad research base to answer this question. The literature that does exist comes from enthusiastic champions of making, rather than disinterested investigators. But there are two well-established lines of research within psychology and cognitive science that can inform how we understand making and help us ensure that making leads to learning. Taken together, these two strands of empirical evidence provide the best guide we presently have for maximizing the learning potential of maker activities.

The first line of research is called cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and others. You may recall from a college psychology class “the magical number seven”—the notion that people can only hold seven pieces of information in their heads at one time. In recent years, scientists have determined that our cognitive capacity is even smaller, able to accommodate more like two to four items. So students learn best when they aren’t grappling with too many ideas.

This argument has relevance for student makers in two ways. First, cognitive load theorists warn that activities that are “self-guided” or “minimally guided” (as many maker projects are) may not lead to effective learning, as measured by assessments of students’ knowledge at the activity’s end. Novices are, by definition, not yet knowledgeable enough to make smart choices about which avenues to pursue and which to ignore. Beginners engaged in self-directed projects may also develop new misunderstandings along the way. In all, self-directed maker activities may have students expending a lot of time and effort—and scarce cognitive resources—on activities that don’t help them learn.

Second, cognitive load researchers caution that learning and creating are distinct undertakings, each of which competes with the other for limited mental reserves. Absorbing and thinking about new knowledge imposes a significant cognitive burden, as does pursuing a specified goal (for example, building a model airplane). When students are asked to do both at once, they tend to focus on meeting the goal, leaving precious few cognitive resources for the reflection that leads to lasting learning. Student makers may produce a handsome model airplane having no idea what makes it fly. The best way to ensure learning, these researchers maintain, is to provide direct instruction: clear, straightforward explanation, offered before any making has begun.

A second line of evidence is called productive failure. This research has mostly been carried out by Manu Kapur, a professor at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and has principally concerned mathematical problem-solving. Rather than explain a mathematical concept and then ask students to apply it, as in a traditional classroom, Kapur gives students a difficult problem without any explanation at all. Working in teams, the students are tasked with devising as many potential solutions as possible. Typically, such students do not arrive at the textbook or “canonical” solution—but instead generate more inventive approaches. Only then does Kapur step in and offer direct instruction on the best way to solve the problem.

Kapur has found that presenting problems in this seemingly backwards order helps those students learn more deeply and flexibly than subjects who receive direct instruction. Indeed, the teams that generated the greatest number of suboptimal solutions—or failed—learned the most from the exercise.

This happens for three reasons, Kapur theorizes. One: Students who do not receive teacher instruction at the outset are forced to rely on their previous knowledge. Research shows that “activating” previous knowledge leads to better learning, because it allows us to integrate new knowledge with what is already stored in our brains. Two: Because the learners are not given the solution to the problem right away, they are forced to grapple with the deep structure of the problem—an experience that allows them to understand the solution at a more fundamental level when they do finally receive the answer. And three: Learners pay especially close attention when the instructor reveals the correct solution, because they have now thought deeply about the problem but have failed themselves to come up with the correct solution. They’re eager to find out what it might be, and this eagerness makes it more likely that they’ll remember it going forward. The best way to ensure learning, Kapur maintains, is to deliberately “design for failure.”

Now, neither of these approaches may, at the outset, hold much appeal for maker enthusiasts. Making is concerned with learning through creating—not through lecture-style direct instruction. Also, maker culture is about promoting a sense of competence and mastery—not deliberately setting up learners for failure. Moreover, don’t these two lines of research contradict each other? One advises instructors to tell learners what to do upfront, and the other prescribes just the opposite.

On closer inspection, however, these two bodies of evidence actually complement each other. Some tasks, like those concerning basic knowledge or skills, are better suited to direct instruction. It may be better to provide explicit instruction on how to operate a 3-D printer, for example, than to have students figure out the directions on their own. We should tell student makers exactly how to perform straightforward tasks, so that they can devote cognitive resources to more complex operations. Meanwhile, tasks that themselves demand deeper conceptual understanding are likely to benefit from a productive-failure approach. In such cases, we should organize makers into groups and ask them to generate multiple solutions.

Incorporating insights from both methods can help ensure that maker activities produce real learning. By applying cognitive load theory to making, we can “unbundle” learning and creating—at least at first—so as to reduce cognitive overload. Instead of asking learners to learn and make at the same time, these two activities can be separated and then pursued sequentially. Makers working on that model airplane, for example, could carefully inspect a previously assembled plane, examine a diagram of it, and then watch as we put one together, explaining as we go, before attempting to make one themselves.

Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supportsaccurate and effective learning. The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement: the student learns to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as his skills and confidence grow. And, rather than relying entirely on his own intuitions, he has models to inspect and emulate—again, especially early on, when the mental demands of learning are high.

Applying the lessons of productive failure to making, we can immerse students in a maker task with minimal prior instruction. Students should be asked to generate as many potential solutions as they can, working in teams to maximize the number of solutions contributed and explored. This initial phase should be followed by direct instruction on the optimal solution—instruction that addresses the students’ own array of solutions, explaining why each one misses the mark. The contrasts we draw between the ideal solution and the learners’ suboptimal solutions do much to facilitate their learning. This approach, too, is fully in tune with the maker approach: it encourages students to play with ideas and materials, without the pressure to find the one right answer.

School librarians who direct maker spaces have found ingenious ways to accommodate the ways in which students learn. At New Milford High School in New Jersey, for example, library media specialist Laura Fleming has created two types of “stations” at which students can work: fixed stations and flexible stations. Fixed stations have “low barriers to entry,” says Fleming; students can walk into the library and immediately engage in the activities set up there, without any instruction or guidance. Fleming’s fixed stations include LEGOs and a take-apart technology area, where students can disassemble old computers and other machines to investigate how they work. These fixed stations are available at all times throughout the school year. Flexible stations, by contrast, are periodically changed, and they involve much more structured guidance from Fleming, who might lead students step by step through an activity, modeling what to do as she goes. Projects at flexible stations have included building a robot and creating cartoons with stop-motion animation.

Fleming has ensured that her library’s maker space enhances classroom learning by doing her homework. “Before I ordered a single piece of equipment [for the maker space], I did a thorough survey of students’ existing interests,” says Fleming. “I also looked for ways that the maker space could supplement areas in which the academic curriculum was thin, or make available to all students activities that had previously been open to only a select group.” The “themes” of Fleming’s maker space include molecular gastronomy, wearable tech, electricity and papertronics, polymers, and engineering inventions.

At the library of Perry Meridian Middle School in Indiana, maker space themes include micro-manufacturing and fabrication, digital music composition, textiles and sewing, and architecture and urban planning. Leslie Preddy, the school’s library media specialist, promotes learning there by encouraging kids to collaborate. “We had a student who became very knowledgeable about video production who went on to lead a workshop for his classmates in the subject,” says Preddy. “When you’re teaching other people, that’s learning at the highest level.” Preddy scaffolds student learning in her maker space by providing “pathfinder guides”—written instructions that structure students’ thinking—and by asking “intentional questions,” queries that help students find a solution without handing them the answer. She also encourages them to embrace failure as an efficient and effective way to learn.

“Thinking and sharing have always gone on in school libraries,” Preddy notes. “Maker spaces connect thinking and sharing with creating, and that takes learning to a whole new level.”

Brilliant readers, I’ve already heard from some maker-advocates that with this article I’ve missed the whole point of making, which is to encourage unstructured, undirected exploration. I’m open to that criticism, and yet I think that if we’re going to incorporate making and maker spaces into schools, we should be clear on the value that such activities and spaces add. What do you think?

Please email me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com with your thoughts and comments. (You can also visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook.)