Learning to Teach in the Digital Age

New Materialities and Maker Paradigms in Schools

by Sean Justice (Author)
Textbook XVIII, 269 Pages


Learning to Teach in the Digital Age tells the story of a group of K–12 teachers as they began to connect with digital making and learning pedagogies. Guiding questions at the heart of this qualitative case study asked how teaching practices engaged with and responded to the maker movement and digital making and learning tools and materials. Over the course of one school year, Sean Justice attended to the ebb and flow of teaching and learning at an independent K–12 girls school the northeastern United States. Teachers and administrators from across grade levels and academic domains participated in interviews and casual conversations, and opened their classrooms to ad hoc observations. In conducting the study, Justice interwove a sociomaterial disposition with new materialism, posthumanism, and new media theory. Methods were inspired by narrative inquiry and actor-network theory. Findings suggested that digital making and learning pedagogies were stabilizing at the school, but not in a linear way. Further, Justice suggests that the teaching practices that most engaged the ethos of twenty-first-century learning enacted a kind of learning we hear about from artists, writers, scientists, and mathematicians when they talk about what innovation feels like, leading to the proposition that a different kind of language is needed to describe the effects of digital materialities on teaching practice.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Field Notes (Racecars)
  • Chapter 1. Tracing the Emergence of the Inquiry
  • Field Notes (Robots)
  • Chapter 2. Traditions of Learning and Knowing
  • Field Notes (Parachute Drop)
  • Chapter 3. Digital Materialities
  • Field Notes (Invention Convention)
  • Chapter 4. Methods and Practice
  • Field Notes (Prosthetic Hand)
  • Chapter 5. Participants and Site
  • Field Notes (Biodiversity)
  • Chapter 6. Contact Points: The Ways
  • Field Notes (Rube Goldberg)
  • Chapter 7. Contact Points: The Challenges
  • Chapter 8. Music, Art, Engineering: Enacted Encounters
  • Chapter 9. History and Reconceptualized Objects
  • Chapter 10. The Feeling of Knowing
  • Chapter 11. What Was Learned
  • Chapter 12. After Research
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

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The mistake I see a lot of schools making is that they don’t view technology as a tool for learning. That’s why I never use the word “integration”—because you don’t integrate reading into your English curriculum. Right? It’s a core skill.

— Bradly, K–12 technology director

I have a commitment to deciphering objects and texts, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career. I get the feeling that something else is about to happen where instead of deciphering objects, I’m going to be thinking about creating [them]. I mean, we’re about to reconceptualize the object.

— Amanda, high school history and humanities teacher

This is a story about a study that explored how a handful of K–12 teaching practices began to connect to digital making and learning pedagogies. Since about the mid-2000s a new generation of digital tools and materials have been appearing in schools and after-school spaces, cropping up in newly built FabLabs and makerspaces, stoking enthusiasms for project-based or pro­blem-based learning. These new tools, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, robotics and microelectronics kits, and the cascade of new teaching and learning opportunities that they supposedly initiate, excite educators, students and the general public about the potential for reforming schools. In fact, hopes that maker education will fuel a schooling revolution run so high in some circles ← xiii | xiv → that a kind of evangelism has begun to appear at normally staid educational technology conferences.

Recently, in an emotional appeal at the conclusion of a digital fabrication conference, a university researcher told an overflow audience that if we failed to reinvent schools this time around, we might as well give up on the democratic values at the foundation of our society. The message resonated strongly for many of us who, for one reason or another, have become disillusioned with the rising tide of instrumentalism in schooling—for example, the high-stakes testing and jobs training that push the “useless” arts to the periphery of school agendas. This time it’ll be different, we tell ourselves; the maker movement, digital fabrication, the rise of STEM and STEAM, the Internet of Things—everything has changed, and we really do stand on the threshold of renewal. We’re encouraged in these hopes by teachers who report the achievements of students who have been motivated by maker education to take charge of their own learning. Time and again, teachers, administrators, and even some parents have told me that the problem of schooling will be solved when every grade looks more like kindergarten, where play with materials and make-to-learn activities overflow like the cornucopia on our Thanksgiving tables.

And in fact, for many observers, the metaphor of the makerspace saturates the imagination—that workshop filled with a buzzing rush of students exploring and experimenting, collaborating with and encouraging their co-learners, sharing, questing, tinkering, doing what they need to do, not because some teacher told them to, but because they’re driven by their own interests and curiosity, their own need to know. Often, no further proof of maker education’s effectiveness is required beyond the contrast between a busy makerspace and our memories of those rows of desks from childhood classrooms, or from the classrooms in that other school down the road, the one that doesn’t yet have a makerspace.

While this might sound like an exaggeration if you haven’t hung out with teachers who are committed to maker education, it isn’t. In fact, excitement about making in schools has spread beyond the classroom and taken root in the tool design and toy industry—a sign of the movement’s expanding relevance. For example, today (in the last quarter of 2015), a Google search for makerspace furniture returns advertorials not only from companies that have traditionally produced school furniture, but also from newcomers to the field like IKEA and Steelcase, as well as paid messages from architecture firms vying for a slice of the expanding market in makerspace design. In fact, the commercialization of maker education might explain the skepticism of some teachers ← xiv | xv → and administrators who wonder if the hoopla is just a fad, and if the 3D printers and laser cutters will disappear into backroom closets along with other new technologies that failed to change teaching and learning. Others consider the incessant marketing coming from the maker industry as a simplification that might diminish potential. For instance, in October 2015, a school technology administrator told me that he didn’t like the words STEM and STEAM because they separated science and math from English and the humanities. For him, this trivialized the problem-based learning he wanted in the curriculum. Similarly, the head of a middle school discussed her makerspaces without once using the word maker or any derivative of it. When I called her attention to this, she said that the word itself—maker—had become associated with just one kind of tool: 3D printers. To resist the diminishment this represented, she refused to even use the word. When I asked what word(s) she preferred, she said, “inquiry-based learning.” For both of these administrators, clearly, the language itself has begun to obscure the reason they want teachers to engage with maker education (or whatever we might call it) in the first place.

These anecdotes get to the questions and conflicts that propelled me into a K–12 school in 2013 to study teachers’ learning. By that time, the maker movement had been gaining traction in schools for a while, due in part to the popularity of Make magazine and its DIY extravaganza, Maker Faire (founded in 2005 and 2006, respectively), but most research into how or if project-based, making-infused teaching and learning worked for schooling had focused only on student learning. Left unasked were questions about how teachers and administrators connected with making in education. This, it seemed to me, was an oversight—especially if a resurgence of hands-on learning were to help reform schooling.

A different trajectory is apparent in the digital media and learning movement (known as dml). Stemming from the new literacies movement that emerged in the early to mid-1990s with the advent of the internet and the Web, more than 10 years before the maker movement showed up, dml has attended to the way digital text and Web 2.0 practices like blogging, gaming, and social media participation have changed learning and knowing. For example, multiliteracy movements like the New London Group have been exploring changes in teaching and schooling since the emergence of digital text, especially in Australia and the United Kingdom (see Green and Bigum, 1993, for an early exploration of the challenges teachers would come to face in the digital age). Today, thanks in part to the support of the MacArthur Foundation, dml is a leader in research on 21st-century pedagogy, including ← xv | xvi → teacher training and professional development (see their website for the breadth and variety of dml work in education: http://dmlhub.net). In fact, as I’ll show in Chapter 2, dml is a key strand in maker education, even though its tools and materials (e.g., new literacies such as blogging and gaming) are sometimes thought to be tangential to the making and building that goes on in makerspaces. This is changing, however: As Smith, West-Puckett, Cantrill, and Zamora (2016) remind us, “writing [is] a form of making” (p. 3).

Nevertheless, in spite of that early work, and the rising enthusiasm about the affordances of digital media for students’ learning, new literacies and digital media learning research does not appear to have provoked maker education to ask how teachers adopt, integrate, or otherwise come to terms with digital tools and materials, and whether doing so changes their practices. This, then, is where this book begins: Researchers agree that new tools are changing learning, but we haven’t yet looked closely at how (or if) teaching is changing in schools.

How do new tools and materials affect teaching, or change how we learn to teach? The study began with two propositions: first, that tools and materials are important components of teaching and learning; and second, that studying tools and materials in actual learning ecologies, such as schools, can catalyze new ideas about how teachers learn to teach with those tools. As you might already suspect, in this book, digital tools and materials—for example, computers, smartphones, the internet; and peripherals such as laser cutters and 3D printers; and the microelectronics found in makerspaces, such as circuits with sensors and lights that blink or buzzers that buzz—are considered a subset of a vastly broader suite of technologies that weave through teaching and learning. In the words of a third-grade teacher who participated in the study, “That pair of scissors is a technology…and your pencil sharpener is a type of technology, [too].”

In this book I explore these questions by focusing on a particular school in a particular setting. To be clear, this is a local study. That’s not to say that what I’ve learned won’t be relevant to other schools, libraries, or makerspaces— I hope it will be!—but rather to suggest that the way it is relevant rests on holding practice as an emergent phenomenon rather than a generalizable set of rules. In saying this, I’m following qualitative, sociomaterial research traditions that come from ethnography, science and technology studies (STS), and emerging scholarship in new materialisms. In these traditions, data collection and analysis is a recursive and entangled enterprise. That is, instead of deploying numbers and statistics to measure or prove cause-and-effect correlations, ← xvi | xvii → I gather stories and impressions and overlap them with metaphor to report what I’ve observed; in asking how a particular group of teachers began to understand the place of digital tools and materials in their teaching, I did not try to standardize what they told me according to benchmarks established ahead of time, but rather to describe what they did, and how and where they did it. In this, I am trusting that the value of the work will be in how what I’ve learned might inform teaching in classrooms, or in a teacher education curriculum.

Organization of the Book

This book is comprised of twelve chapters, a bibliography, and an index. Additionally, distributed between the chapters are narrative snapshots of some of the projects and activities I observed during the study. These “Field Notes,” as I call them, are meant to immerse you in the kind of teaching and learning that I encountered.

This begs a question: Who is the “you” who is reading this? A teacher or administrator who wants to learn about project-based, making-infused teaching? A researcher or graduate student who wants to explore the methodology? A teacher educator who wants to bring making into a preservice or professional development program? In fact, whether you’re one of these or someone else, I’ve tried to make the book accessible to a broad audience of educators and education researchers, even if some of the specifics (about maker education, digital technology, school reform) are unfamiliar in form, content, or language. To that effect, I invite you to dip into and out of these chapters based on your interests, and to use this map to plan your route through the stories and conversations I’ve collected.

In the first chapter I’ll trace the story of the thinking that led to the questions that launched the study. To ground the book on both accounts—the thinking and the approach—I’ll describe my background as a teacher, artist, and researcher. In the conclusion of Chapter 1 I’ll talk about what I hope to achieve in writing this book.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 discuss the shape and conduct of the study, both the theory that informed it and the dispositions that guided me in implementing it. Specifically, Chapter 2 looks at pedagogical traditions that undergird maker education, such as constructionism, artistic development, and interest-driven, or connected, learning. These traditions are compared and contrasted with ← xvii | xviii → each other in order to construct a maker-oriented teaching framework to help analyze observations and interviews. Chapter 3 introduces and describes digital materiality, a ubiquitous material affordance of contemporary learning ecologies. Chapter 4 describes the design of the study—the methods and practices I employed in conducting interviews, observations, and data analysis. Chapter 4 also traces the development of the inquiry questions by describing two dispositional frameworks that guided me: sociomaterialism and actor-network theory.

Chapters 5 through 10 report the major findings of the study, including empirical material collected from interviews and observations, as well as interpretative analyses. Chapter 5 introduces the school where the study was situated, and the individual teachers and administrators who shared their practices with me. Chapters 6 and 7 assemble and discuss interactions between traditional and project-based, or making-infused, teaching practices. These interactions, which I think of as contact points, are collected in the Ways and Challenges, a typology of practice-based interactions. Chapter 8 puts the typology to use by building and then interpreting several integrated narratives based on specific teachers. Chapters 9 and 10 extend this narrative analysis by looking in more detail at one teaching practice, that of a high school humanities and history teacher.

Chapters 11 and 12 conclude the study with a summary of what I think I have learned about learning to teach in the digital age. It begins with a summary of how participants enacted teaching practices that were informed by and entangled with digital making and learning. Then, by way of addressing the inquiry questions that guided the study, I discuss the Ways and Challenges as a heuristic for identifying and assessing pedagogical goals. Finally, I draw out some implications for teaching and teacher education by considering practice itself as an enactment of knowing and learning.

Biographical notes

Sean Justice (Author)

Sean Justice (Ed.D.C.T., Teachers College, Columbia University) teaches and writes about maker education, material inquiry pedagogy, and teacher education in the digital age, and exhibits his artwork internationally. He is Assistant Professor of Art Education in the School of Art & Design at Texas State University.


Title: Learning to Teach in the Digital Age