Connecting Making, Designing and Composing

In her closing keynote at FabLearn a couple years ago, Leah Buechley turned a critical eye on the maker movement. If you don’t know Buechley’s work, she is arguably one of the maker movement’s central players, founding the former High-Low Tech group at the MIT Media Lab and inventing the LilyPad Arduino, among many other contributions. She is a champion of making, which makes her all the more thoughtful in her critiques. Buechley asks us to consider who gets to make and who is represented in the maker movement. I thought about her keynote a lot this fall as I moved through a range of conferences focused on digital literacies, design thinking, and making.

As someone who thinks about the teaching of writing and its connections to making and design, what I hope to offer below are some provocations, and perhaps even a cautionary tale, as design thinking and the maker movement move to a more central place in formal education. Two conferences in particular this fall, the Digital Media & Learning Conference and FabLearn 2017, are the inspiration for the series of questions and provocations that follow.

I start with a cautionary tale from my own discipline of composition studies. I do so because the conversations surrounding the implementation of design thinking and making in education resemble conversations about literacy, particularly the teaching of writing, in ways that make me, honestly, a bit nervous. In composition studies, we would say “writing is not writing is not writing”; you cannot teach writing “in general,” no matter how much we wish for this to be true. I explore this argument from writing studies more fully below, but as a preview, my concern is that we are about to follow the same path with design and making as we have with the teaching of writing: we talk about introducing “design thinking” and “making” to students in general, instead of asking what it means to design like an engineer or use design like a graphic designer or ask what design problems look like to a physicist, all of whom talk about design, and the role of design in meaning making, differently in their respective fields.

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To extend this argument, the commonplace belief, both in the public perception and in education, is that writing is a skill that is learned once, put in a person’s pocket, and taken out when there is a need “to write.” In fact, many faculty outside the field of composition expect that the ubiquitous “freshman comp” course will solve the writing problems found in students’ texts, teach students “to write,” and prepare students with “the basics” so they are ready to write in any discipline. The “disciplinary” instructor, in such folk theories of writing, teaches “content” that populates students’ well-written essays; the writing skills, it is imagined, are taught elsewhere. Historically, the approach, at most universities, has been to delegate the responsibility for teaching “academic writing” to English or Composition departments. An instructor in another discipline, then, may assign tasks that require writing but often does not provide any explicit attention to teaching writing.

Unfortunately, years of research in composition and literacy lead us to an understanding that learning to write is simply not that tidy. Learning “to write” means understanding the ways in which a particular community uses inscriptions to make meaning. Therefore, “learning to write” is not a generic skill, widely applicable in a range of disciplines and settings, but 1) must be taught within the community of practice that uses writing, and 2) is an ongoing process, learned over and over again as people encounter and solve problems that call for writing. A student can successfully complete a first-year writing course, but the practices learned in that course are not easily transferred to other contexts. David Russell in “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction,” uses the analogy of teaching a course on ball-using skills to our traditional approach to teaching writing in the university:

To try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a [general writing skills course] is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball-using. Such a course would of necessity have a problem of content. What kinds of games (and therefore ball-use skills) should one teach? And how can one teach ball-using skills unless one also teaches students the games, since the skills have their motive and meaning only in terms of a particular game or games that use them?

For Russell, and many other literacy and composition scholars, the purpose and goals associated with writing in a discipline only make sense within the activity system of that discipline. Again, as Russell argues in relation to evaluation of writing, “…ways of using a ball that worked well in one game (volleyball, for example) would bring disaster in another (such as soccer).” Similarly, what worked well in a composition course (the kinds of statements that require support; what support “counts;” how sources are embedded within an argument, etc.) would “bring disaster” to another discipline, such as science, with its own ways of crafting an argument with claims, data, citations, and models. Teaching students to write well in other disciplines is, then, something that can only be taught in those disciplines. Thinking that writing can be taught in general also means that faculty become “grumpy” about student writing, believing students should have learned to write somewhere else instead of supporting students as these nascent writers learn to write in their respective fields.

If you sit with this argument like I do, then you start to wonder what it would mean when universities start to require an introductory course on “design thinking” or “making,” as I heard discussed throughout the many conferences I attended this year. Can we teach a course, in general, about design thinking apart from the disciplinary design problems we are trying to solve? Who teaches such a course? What would we imagine transfers? What will other faculty expect students to learn in these intro courses that will be useful in their disciplines? In my more cynical moments, I fear that we will create an introductory course — the equivalent of first-year composition — that quizzes students on the order of design thinking, as in: “please place these phrases in the correct order: empathize, design, ideate, prototype, test.” We already do this with writing — brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, edit — and in doing so, we create an imaginary and unrealistic world in which writing becomes tidy, removed from the challenging, recursive process we know writing to be. As we move to a focus on design and making in education, we should consider how design or making is woven throughout the disciplines and consider how making and design emerge from disciplinary problems. We could learn a lot from the years of research in writing across the disciplines that could inform more thoughtful infusion of design thinking and making across our curriculum.

Another puzzle I am trying to sort out is what we mean when we talk about making in educational settings. At the FabLearn conference, I was particularly surprised by questions posed by the audience at many of the featured sessions. Throughout the weekend, I found myself jotting down questions and statements from presenters and participants who spoke about “bringing the maker movement to the disciplines.” As an example, one of the last questions of the weekend was from someone who asked “How do we bring artists and art faculty to the maker movement?” I need others to help me sort out what this question implies. My husband is an artist and my daughter is a graphic designer: their entire college careers were situated in studios where they made things. That’s what artists do: they create things all day. So what does it mean to “bring making” to artists? As maker spaces take their place in schools, perhaps we should turn to artists, poets, engineers, scientists, and so on and ask them to describe what it means to make in their communities. We might turn a critical eye to the ways in which making emerges from communities instead of thinking that we bring making to their communities of practice. One of my colleagues wondered if perhaps some of the educators in the maker movement mean to say that they’re “about producing artifacts with novel technologies” and not that  “they’re interested in making.”

It seems to me that sorting out this puzzle will be important as we invest in tools, materials, people, and spaces with a focus on making. I heard many references to maker spaces as “the new shop class,” but I never heard anyone say that maker spaces are the new “home economics” class. Indeed: what counts as making and whose making counts?

Like many of you, I will continue to be a champion for doing, making, tinkering, and composing ideas and artifacts. At the end of the day, design and making could be exactly the trojan horse we need to infuse constructivist pedagogies in teaching and learning. An affordance of a maker space is also its potential for breaking down disciplinary silos: a maker space can bring together a variety of disciplines and make explicit the kinds of problems various disciplines can solve, and more importantly, highlight the interdisciplinary approaches to meaning making and problem solving. As we take this step toward design and making in schools, my hope is that we keep an eye on the messy, recursive, and disciplinary ways we make and design.