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The Maker Movement: Tinkering With the Idea That College Is for Everyone

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Posted on May 15, 2014

By Mike Rose

(Page 3)

It comes as no surprise, given the place of high-technology in the culture at large, that there is real excitement in CTE about the educational possibilities provided by the high-tech nexus of computers, engineering and design. This is similar to the excitement one finds in making and tinkering circles. I visited the lab in a design program at a local community college, and there amid various computers and computer-design equipment, robotics kits, laser cutters and 3-D printers were students working on projects, talking about design principles, aesthetics and marketing. This isn’t your father’s shop class.

The big question that will determine the future development of career and technical education will be whether we can truly bridge the hundred-year-old divide between the academic and vocational curriculum. This separation limits the ways that academic content can be brought to life through tasks and simulations drawn from the world of work, and it has diminished the considerable intellectual content of occupations. There has been a lot done to narrow this curricular gap, from career academies to the emphasizing in some programs of the intellectual content of work. And there are new approaches that affect CTE. Linked Learning advocates that all children get a uniform education in mathematics and English, arts and sciences, and only then branch off to a college or career oriented course of study. And as I mentioned, the advocates for making and tinkering in education see it as transcending this divide, for it blends hands-on play, creativity and learning in a range of subject areas. For Linked Learning or any revision of CTE to be truly effective, however, we will need to take the young people who pursue an occupational education seriously as thinkers and their engagement in work as an opportunity to explore topics typically found only in the academic curriculum, from aesthetics and ethics to history and politics.

Fortunately there are programs and schools that have this kind of engagement as their central mission. Big Picture Schools, a network of 50-plus schools across the country, is one such effort; High-Tech High, a Southern California network of 12 elementary, middle and high schools is another. Both of these organizations, in different ways, have created courses of study that blend occupational and academic learning from the ground up, are heavily driven by student projects more than a fixed curriculum, and recruit students from all income levels, with concentration on the less advantaged. I have sat in on a meeting of Big Picture principals, and in addition to being impressed with their creativity and zeal, I was also struck by just how hard their work is, trying to push against so many established ways of doing things and of thinking about ability and learning. But the payoffs are powerful, with strong rates of graduation and postsecondary study. And there is the intense fulfillment of watching your students develop into competent, thoughtful people. The founder of the other organization, High-Tech High, tells me this story. A visitor asks a ninth-grader about her homework, and she says she doesn’t have any. Surprised, the visitor then asks what she does at night, and she replies that she works on her projects.

Teachers pray for that kind of involvement.


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The preceding was adapted from the new preface to “The Mind at Work,” a modern classic about education and labor.

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