Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools

(ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Virginia) – Albemarle County Public Schools will be part of a highly unusual study over the next 18 months as a team of university researchers investigate how students and teachers are impacted when confronted with obstacles in a maker-centered learning environment. The study is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Similar to project-based learning, the maker approach emphasizes the values of hands-on, collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. One important difference, however, is that in a maker environment, work often is designed around a student’s ideas and interests and includes a trial-and-error process to turn ideas into a prototype. Failures are inevitable in such a process, and the university research will provide a better understanding of this critical component of learning.

The school division is a natural choice for the study based upon the increasingly important role that maker-centered learning has in its curricula for all students, grades K-12. In recent years, the division has invested increasingly more resources in this approach, in which students use their creativity, their analytical thinking, their teamwork, and their communication skills to complete assignments they often design themselves.

“Content knowledge always will be important, but in the current increasingly complex and competitive marketplace, the ability to apply knowledge, to add value to your work, and to be inventive will be in high demand,” said Chad Ratliff, the division’s Director of Instructional Programs.

Examples, Ratliff said, are when students use tools and components (that they may produce themselves on a 3D printer) to recreate artifacts when studying history, or students who collaborate on the writing, acting and production of a play, or even students who invent and prototype new products that interest them.

Not all goes right the first time; the study will seek to understand how students and teachers deal with initial mishaps. “Failure can be a critical step in the process toward deeper learning,” says Indiana University professors Adam Maltese and Amber Simpson.

“By investigating how youth and educators attend to moments of failure, how they interpret what this means, and how they respond, we will be better able to understand the dynamics of each part of the experience and can disentangle moments of failure from how individuals respond,” Maltese said.

The research team, which also includes Alice Anderson with the Science Museum of Minnesota, said it “expects research on failure will have a broad impact on students and educators across a range of backgrounds.” Maltese said the team hopes to learn about failure and how it can be framed to be more about ‘learning from mistakes’ or ‘response to obstacles,’ rather than an end state. “We realize major learning potential rests in analyzing why a certain approach didn’t work and moving forward to try something else,” he said.

Ratliff agreed with Simpson that an important part of the team’s research is considering the learning potential of failure from the viewpoint of students, because adults may perceive and respond to failure differently. “We look forward to enhancing our instruction model based upon what we learn from this research,” he said.

Specifically, the grant, “MAKER: Studying the Role of Failure in Design and Making,” will delve into how failure plays an important role for youth and educators engaging in and facilitating Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) activities.

In a recent report, the World Economic Forum said that 65 percent of today’s elementary school students will someday be employed in jobs that do not exist today.

“That’s why our emphasis on student agency, maker-centered and project-based learning, skills development, and knowledge application is so important,” Ratliff said. “It is our responsibility to help our students prepare themselves for lifelong success regardless of the career path they choose. It’s no longer about using K-12 education to prepare a student for one job or one industry. It is vital that we equip them with capabilities that will help them succeed regardless of job or industry,” he added.

The school division is working with the research team to identify a timeline, schools and programs that will be evaluated as part of the study. The grant is funded through September 2018.