Thinking about the relationship between makerspaces and refugee child development
calendar_today 9th June 2020
UNESCO technology and refugee development map
Makerspaces have grown in popularity, introducing people to a hands-on approach to
learning as they tinker, invent and play. However, there is little evidence documenting the
design and impact of makerspaces for refugee children. This work seeks to explore the ways
in which makerspaces can serve refugee child development. It recommends the importance of
measuring predefined impact goals, mapping impact according to a child’s development stage
and studying outcomes of specific maker activities.
The Maker Movement is a growing do-it-yourself movement encouraging a hands-on
approach to learning (Halverson et al., 2014). Where the individual becomes the ‘maker’
versus consumer, the movement democratises access to STEM (Science, Technology,
Engineering and Math). Meritocratic by nature, maker culture is built upon the premise that
anyone can make anything, based on MIT Gershenfeld’s ‘How to make (almost) anything’
course from which FabLabs (fabrication labs) and maker culture grew (Gershenfeld, 2008).
The Maker Movement builds upon Piaget’s constructivist approach to education, where a
child’s learning grows from experience and observation (Piaget, 1945). Where Piaget viewed
play as a sole activity, as the child constructs their own learning, a Piagetian approach alone
neglects socio-cultural influences on cognitive development (Ibid). To contrast, Vygotsky
valued the role of play in cognitive processes and the social nature of problem-solving
(Vygotsky, 1978). A Vygotskian perspective compliments traditional constructivism, as play
is viewed as expressing socio-cultural elements. Seymour Papert further developed
constructivism into constructionism, emphasising the importance of interacting with media
and physical objects such as computational materials (Papert, 1980). This project-based
approach suggests the learner experience is most effective when constructing a physical
product, ideals the Maker Movement is built upon.
Role of the teacher
In a Vygotskian approach, a child’s development is dependent on the interaction of a more
knowledgeable other, valuing the role of a teacher or facilitator in an in/formal setting
(Vygotsky, 1978). Lee and Worself (2019) argue that makerspaces succeed only when the
role of the teacher is considered and there is an acknowledgement of pedagogical skills to
facilitate learners. The researchers designed maker culture activities for refugees and found
that debrief lessons for facilitators allowed for planning and an articulation of goals. As well
as an opportunity to discuss pedagogy, debrief sessions also allow facilitators to become
accustomed to tools, as studies show the more confident teachers are with the technology, the
greater their ability to inspire children (Sentance et al., 2017).
Makerspaces for refugee children
UNICEF estimates there are 31 million children forcibly displaced and in an attempt to
support a bottom-up design (from aid to empowering people to create their solutions) a small
but growing number makerspaces have been established for refugee children (Betts et al.,
2015; UNICEF, 2020). Nonetheless, there is little understanding of both design and impact of
these makerspaces (Corsini and Moultrie, 2019).
Troxler and Maxigas (2014) outline four interpretations of the Maker Movement culture as a
‘1) bourgeois pass-time 2) innovation in education on technology 3) new renaissance
reconciling liberal arts with science and engineering... 4) a new industrial revolution’. The
first definition brings attention to the exclusivity of makerspaces. Waldman-Brown et al.
(2016) question the inclusive nature of the Maker Movement in the West, which are attended
by ‘privileged participants [..] usually white male, upper or middle-class’ with the time and
luxury to experiment. The same researchers found that in Kenya, people working long hours
at or below the poverty line were less inclined to visit if they do not see any immediate
benefits (Waldman-Brown et al., 2013). The emphasis that perceived benefits must be
translated is further supported by Chu et al. (2017) who explain that parents themselves must
value makerspace learning to enrol and support their child.
The remaining three definitions can be deemed as overly optimistic. Tan & Calabrese-Barton
(2018) recommend that teachers must avoid a ‘keychain syndrome’, a reference to children
learning only how to 3-D print a keychain in maker culture. The researchers argue children
should avoid makerspaces which are trivial and recommend youth engage in social justice
orientated STEM endeavours, in order to become agentic makers.
An example of what Tan & Calabrese-Barton (2018) might be referring to in the context of
encouraging refugee youth to build projects in response to their surroundings, is perhaps
MIT’s Rethink Relief. Rethink Relief, a two-week design summit gathered researchers in
Uganda to develop short-term relief exercises for refugee youth (MIT News D-Lab, 2014).
This included building low-cost technologies such as a ‘Make Your Own Light’ kit or a
method for medical recording in refugee camps. This echoes Lee and Worself’s suggestion
that ‘Cultural contexts cannot be divorced from the design of informal learning environments
and making because learning is a deeply socially and culturally situated activity’ (Lee and
Worself, 2019: 6).
It can be argued that makerspaces built for refugees will cater to very different concerns.
UNESCO’s 2018 ‘A lifeline to learning’ report calls for this shift from a ‘technocentric to a
need-centric or resource restructuring model’ explaining that differing refugee needs vary
from stage of development (UNESCO, 2018). For children who would be in primary
education, learning should focus on improving literacy and language skills and cognitive
development. For children who would be in higher education, learning should cater to
employment or self-esteem. This supports Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which
suggests makerspace activity must meet children at their approach stage (Piaget, 1977).
Design, not tool
At institutional levels, technology can be irresponsibly viewed as the tool to solve all issues
in education (Burch and Miglani, 2018). Technocentrism, coined by Papert (1987), considers
technology as the inherently good agent of change. Often the conversation amidst
technology-enhanced learning, specifically within developing countries, centres on which
technology/tool itself. Researchers recommend we reject this neo-colonialist imposition of
technology, citing an example where the burden of training for teachers to use One Laptop
Per Child in Peru resulted in ‘amplifying unequal divides’ (Waldman-Brown et al., 2014: 16).
This is supported by Corsini and Moultrie (2019) who likewise call for a need to
acknowledge design versus tool, concluding that ‘design in humanitarian makerspaces is a
key trigger for facilitating a broad range of impacts’ (Corsini and Moultrie, 2019: 10).
Value of design
On the other hand, what about making for the sake of making? The maker movement and
maker identity promote collaboration, innovation and tinkering versus instruction; Papert
(1993) argues that ‘love is a better master of duty’. In this light, maker activities must be
engaging enough to encourage participation and adhering to UNESCO’s framework can be
limiting. Maker activity must also be flexible enough to meet any student's ability, for
example Papert (1993) adapts a task of writing reports to students with low-literacy levels,
instructing them to instead take and share photos of their work as documentation. Ultimately,
where Tan & Calabrese-Barton (2018) caution the risk of building ‘trivial’ items, it is
important to note that what may be considered valuable to make may be different for every
child (and parent, if acknowledged as a stakeholder in the child’s participation).
It might not be too presumptuous to then suggest we ask users what they want to make, as
offering choice can promote a sense of autonomy (Deci, 1992). Navigating the fine line of
responding to needs to facilitate meaningful experiences, whilst also maintaining interest and
excitement can be difficult. Leaving children open for options can also create negative
confusing emotions without scaffolding (Hidi and Renninger, 2006). Corsini and Moultrie
(2019) utilise a maturity grid tool, mapping maturity (development) against predefined
impact goals (such as access, improved living conditions, psychosocial empowerment and
education). Outlining goals with clear-defined levels, allows us to better measure impact but
further research mapping specific maker activities. Chu et al. (2017) highlight this gap in
research concerning the effects of maker activities and calls for research regarding the
development of the maker themselves versus the transfer of technical skills. Making a clear
distinction of the intended outcome will benefit here.
In a call for an inclusive science of child development, it would be beneficial to see more
research mapping specific maker activities according to development and defined impact
goals. Understanding user needs by involving children in the design process is fundamental to
creating a clearly defined mission that better serves users.
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