It seems to me, there are a lot of things in common between PBL and maker learning.  But, there are also some significant differences.  PBL often means project-based or problem-based learning. This is a term that usually means that students are working through a concept or issue trying to solve a problem in ways that are non-traditional in terms of academic reporting of knowledge. PBL is often seen as a alternative to the traditional research paper assignment. Essential elements of a PBL assignment include such things as student driven and defined research questions, student proposed solutions, non-traditional presentation of knowledge, and in general, student ownership of the learning.  They are attempts to get students to focus on a particular area of the curriculum in a way that is personally relevant and meaningful.

Maker learning is very much concerned with the physical or virtual production of some sort of object.  As the name suggests, maker learning puts the emphasis on making.  At its best, maker learning can be deep and wrestle with intricate concepts.  Maker learning can also be completely skill based and not deal with abstract concepts at all.  A recent trip to our local Mini-Maker Faire demonstrated both ends of the spectrum.  A number of displays were all about learning how to solder or the completion of a kit of some sort.  Another display transcended the use of specific tools to look at a complete cycle of 3D image manipulation from capture, to digital manipulation, to rendering in a virtual space using goggles that allowed you to walk around the image, to the reproduction of the object back into the physical world.  Yet another display was modelling a moving 4 chamber heart model that glowed multiple colours and was designed to live inside a 70+ foot human form that was being built at Burning Man.

Maker learning requires one to learn the basic surface knowledge of using particular tools and techniques independent of any application but hopefully is on the road to transcending those skills to create something new by combining skills or using tools in ways that they were never originally intended.  This process of maker development is described by Loertscher, Derry and Preddie in their uTEC model where one learns to use a tool or skill, starts to tinker with it, goes deeper with experimentation and then transcends the skill or tool in order to create something completely new.

I’m thinking that PBL and maker learning are pretty much one and the same except, perhaps, in focus.  A great PBL experience is focused on the driving question and assumes that the skills are in place to serve the inquiry required to answer the question.  A great maker experience works on developing the skills in order to create something that satisfies a deep level of inquiry, but get stuck at the skill level.  One focuses on the end product by building skills but may never get to answering the driving question as it struggles with those skills.  The other focuses on the driving question but might, in the end, sacrifice the quality of the end product as the efforts could devalue the skills required to articulate the ideas.  One starts with surface learning and drives down with the hope of getting to the deeper learning while the other aims solidly at the deeper learning, but could, in the end sacrifice the deep learning by not allowing the time to develop the surface skills.

Of course, in an effort to draw a distinction between the two ideas, I am likely putting far more distance between the two than there really is.  In an ideal world, there should be no difference between PBL and maker learning.  A great PBL experience would recognize that skill acquisition will be essential in an effort to articulate one’s learning effectively.  A great maker project has developed skills to a point that the results of deep inquiry can be articulated through an effective and appropriate medium.

Now, I don’t consider myself a maker and I would not consider myself steeped in theory around problem or project based learning.  I would love to throw these ideas around and be told how wrong I really am.  I am deeply invested in figuring this out as I research the possibilities of maker/PBL inquiry in my school and learning commons.  Please, dive into the comments below!

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