As a child, I always enjoyed making and creating things with my hands. I learned to sew at an early age which later led to starting my own interior decorating company. In elementary school, each Christmas I crafted an elaborate gingerbread house from scratch which was always presented to my parents as a coveted gift. My own children inherited this knack for making things. At the age of seven, my youngest son, John, was the grand maker as he created a wagon for his John Deere tractor and later built a “portable dock” he and his brother anchored in the river. In this process of designing, tinkering and putting together materials to make something new, they developed critical thinking and problem solving skills. Over time, however, this art of making has slowly taken a back seat as young learners no longer “fix” or reconstruct items to make them new again. But a new trend is pushing its way into classrooms today: the Maker Movement.
In their book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering the in the Classroom, Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager share the educational argument for bringing making, tinkering and engineering into the classroom. Like constructivist John Dewey, they believe that curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives and that “learning by doing” develops practical life skills along with creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and other 21st century skills. The Maker Movement allows students to employ their creative side while deepening their understanding through hands-on building, creating, and tinkering. Makers, according to Dale Dougherty (Editor of Make Magazine), are driven by the questions, “How does it work?” and “Can it be done?”
So what does making, creating, and tinkering look and sound like in a first grade classroom full of seven year oldboys? Loud, energetic, organized chaos! As an action researcher for the 2014-15 International Boys’ School Coalition (IBSC) Action Research Program, my class of 16 boys was the subject of this year’s research theme: “Boys as Makers.” My guiding research question: How might participation in group maker projects foster the development of empathy in 7-year old boys? The boys participated in three different maker projects over a course of three months from which data was collected from observations of student interactions, small group interviews, student reflections and journal entries, and exit interviews.
Data analysis from the research indicates that the first grade boys became more empathetic and caring towards one another as they worked together on maker projects. When first beginning this research and with the first group of maker projects, most of the boys could more easily show “affective empathy” towards others by not only recognizing how others felt, but also taking on those same feelings. It was far more challenging for them to demonstrate cognitive empathy, or to take on others’ mental perspectives as they all expressed their ideas and desires in the planning and making of the group projects. To help develop empathy among the boys while making projects together, the boys were taught and modeled three essential skills to implement in their working together: (1) Listening to others (2) Recognizing how other people are feeling (both verbal and nonverbal expressions) and (3) Communicating to others that you understand others’ perspectives and/or how they feel. As the boys engaged in more maker projects in small groups and with instruction and practice applying these strategies, their affective and cognitive empathy towards each other took off and the strategies used became more automatic in their responses to each other. The data from my research shows that, with instruction and opportunities to engage in maker projects that allow mental perspective-taking and compassion for others, empathy can be cultivated.
The conclusion provides powerful information for educators of boys that when given the opportunity to work in small, collaborative groups and plan, design, and create projects, they not only are able to convey their learning through the final product, but are able to grow as empathic learners.