It’s nearing the end of summer but we are really in the middle of nowhere, confused by what happened in the Spring and anxious about what will happen in the Fall. It’s clear that things have gotten worse in many places, just over the last month. There is no sense that this crisis is over, even though in May, it seemed like we were making progress.

When schools closed unexpectedly last March, we held on to the promise that the virus would be under control by summer and that schools could re-open in the Fall. Now, the uncertainty and timing of re-opening has school administrators, teachers, and parents running in circles. Most will still rely on virtual or distance learning, even in a hybrid model. But what that means is not really clear. Parents are trying to decide whether to send their children to school or keep them home. Teachers have prepared for one education option, but then a different option is decided upon, and they have to scramble. Or, they are having to prepare for some students taking classes in-person while others are doing school remotely from home, juggling multiple concurrent options.

Aside: Children and COVID-19

There are differing opinions on the susceptibility of children to COVID-19 and the likelihood that they will transmit it. Dr. John Campbell, a UK medical educator whose YouTube channel is my most reliable source for an unbiased, fact-based understanding of COVID-19, reports in “Update and Infection in Children” on an 8/6 summary from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Cumulative Child Cases, based on data from 49 states:

  • 90% increase in cases among children in past four weeks
  • 380,174 total child positive tests
  • 9.1% of all cases
  • 501 cases per 100,000 children in the population

Dr. Campbell also cites a CNN story, “There has been a 90% increase in Covid-19 cases in US children in the last four weeks” which references the AAP study. It also quotes William Haseltine, (former professor at Harvard Medical School) who says that “Children ages zero to five can be highly infectious to other people. It turns out they have a thousand times more virus in their nose than you need to infect, so they’re very, very contagious.” He adds: “There’s every reason to suspect that this virus, even though it can kill you, behaves pretty much like a cold virus, in terms of transmission. Who drives colds? Children drive colds.” Children do not seem to get as sick as adults but they can transmit the virus, just like adults, which should make teachers worried.

Yet, in these confusing Times, Dr. Naomi Bardach, a pediatrician, writes: Kids Aren’t Viral Vectors. Really. She says: “Children and adolescents do not seem to get sick with Covid-19 as frequently as adults. And children, especially elementary school-aged children, do not seem to transmit it effectively to one another, nor to adults.” She cites data from Greece, Switzerland and Australia.

This week, a Georgia school district that re-opened but without requiring masks ordered 925 students and staff into quarantine after students tested positive.

I’d bet that most schools won’t re-open classrooms to begin the fall and those that do will not be open for long. The top priority should always be stopping the spread of the virus in our community.

A Community Response

Schools systems are overwhelmed. Parents don’t know what to do or what will happen. Teachers are caught in the middle, fearful for their own safety and skeptical that real learning will happen. What’s least clear is who is making the decisions behind returning to school and what is the criteria?

Like hospitals during COVID-19, school systems are heavily regulated, slow-moving, bureaucratic systems that cannot respond rapidly nor do they have much flexibility in making decisions. There are 6,200 hospitals and 130,000 schools in the United States. The problem is the density of people in a school; the number of students in an elementary school averages 300 and the number at a high school is 1200-3000. The truth is that the impact of COVID-19 on the education system is affecting more people across society than the impacts on the medical system.

The Maker community responded when they saw that hospitals were not able to keep health care professionals safe by providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Around the world, makers demonstrated how a self-organizing, civic response—what I called Plan C—could share globally a set of solutions and work locally to produce medical supplies. For education, we also need a community-based response for education that concerns itself with the welfare of children and supports parents and teachers. A local civic response can make a big difference, starting here and there at first. There are many good, smart people who have a desire to do something positive to help. With extra effort and support, this rapid response can spread widely throughout our communities.

Connected Learning

COVID-19 presents a big challenge: caring for the children who can’t go to school and are at home. How do we help parents who don’t know what to do? How do we do what’s best for the children? We can turn this crisis into an opportunity by focusing less on school and more on the well-being of children. We can rethink learning. Bianca Forrester, Director of Oakland Charter High School, drawing on the work of Peter Senge, shared this thought with me:

Learning is best done with people, not for them. It is most effective when learners are participants rather than recipients. The central element in promoting learning, therefore, is promoting relationships—teacher-pupil relationships; peer-to-peer relationships; and children’s relationships with siblings, mentors, and role models. All the traditional and high-tech resources of education—from whiteboards to the Internet and even to classrooms themselves—are best understood as different kinds of interfaces for relationships that support learning.

What matters most is the human connection among and between people but especially children. They need to be with people whom they get to know and who know them. Both online learning through computers and the resource-rich Internet have many positive benefits, but they cannot be realized without true human connections.

Let’s not worry what subjects are taught in what periods in school. Forget the bell schedule. Let’s not worry about what apps they can use. What children need most are connections to their peers and caring, supportive adults. They need to be in a safe, nurturing environment that encourages their growth and development.

There are problems with the approaches to virtual or hybrid learning used by schools. One is that it’s not clear that distance learning is real learning, especially for young children. It’s mostly passive. Also, the scope and depth of what children are learning will be narrowed. Teachers are worried that what they are being told to do is not what’s best for their students.

A teacher in California told me that their high school was mandated by the state to provide 240 minutes each day of live instruction for students. Also attendance had to be taken and reported on each period so that the school could report it, as attendance is tied to funding. That kind of seat-time is not good for teachers or students.

If children are not in school, it is certainly a child-care issue for parents who are also working. Children will have no safe place to learn and play with their peers. We should worry about them having unsupervised time online. Letting children have free run of the Internet is almost like dropping a child in the middle of a city that they don’t know and asking them to find their way home. The Internet has the best and the worst of any big city. It’s just not safe for children on their own to learn or play without supervision. The Internet provides the ability to connect but it doesn’t make sure that the connections are useful or productive. Children can be exploited.

Let’s consider “Connected Learning” in place of distance learning or remote learning. It is much the same as maker-centered learning. The National Writing Project defines it as:

Connected learning is when someone is pursuing a personal interest with the support of peers, mentors and caring adults, and in ways that open up opportunities for them. It is a fundamentally different mode of learning than education centered on fixed subjects, one-to-many instruction, and standardized testing. The research is clear. Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments.

To be clear, connected learning is not the idea that children are connected to computers and some magic happens but rather that children can be connected to their peers, and adults who care about them, and that they have the ability to direct their own learning.

PODS

How is it possible within the constraints of the safety protocols to organize children in small groups for connected learning?

The media has stories of wealthy parents organizing “pandemic pods,” seeking to hire teachers away from public schools. One teacher I spoke with said that he and his colleagues are being recruited away, although he himself wasn’t interested. These stories cite the obvious inequity in this practice, but they don’t acknowledge that our normal school system reflects the same inequities, and these same parents send their children to private schools.

Pandemic pods themselves are too good an idea to leave for the wealthy. Let’s create Maker Pods throughout our communities, connecting kids in small groups for learning and play. Ideally schools would help organize pods, but why don’t groups like the PTA take the initiative. Regardless, parents should work together to form pods, as homeschool parents do, connecting parents and connecting kids.

Think of Maker Pods as play groups, teams, or clubs. We already have a lot of people in our communities who organize children in groups. There are sports leagues, for instance, with teams, coaches and leagues. That’s exactly what we need. There are the scouts. There are churches with youth groups and community centers and libraries. There are many non-profits who themselves are struggling but have experience organizing activities for small groups of children. There are many informal educators who are unemployed and could be hired to run pods. College-age students who may not be attending school in person may benefit from having a part-time job that could also be recognized as community service. Let’s not forget retirees who have energy and passion for learning.

Kids should belong to a pod, and perhaps more than one pod. Pods should be networked as well as the people who organize and supervise the pods. (And these adults need training and supervision as well.) Maker pods could be even better than what the elite are able to do — more creative, more fun and more useful. Maker pods could be connected to local makerspaces for access to tools, materials and mentorship. Eventually, as makerspaces re-open, they can also be a place for pods to gather in-person.

Online video sessions can work well for small groups that know each other and when there is ongoing interaction in the group. Zoom works better for pods of 4-5 students interacting than it does for classes of 20-30 students.

PROJECTS

The problem with most online learning is that it is passive. Sitting and listening to a teacher lecturing is not an engaging experience. That’s what the learning science behind connected learning and maker-centered learning tells us.

To compensate for the passive experience that most schools will provide, we can create active learning environments at home that don’t demand students sit at the computer. After all, our goal is not to kill time but to inspire and engage children so that they love learning, expand their interests and have their curiosity be rewarded.

The maker movement has two ways of cultivating these experiences. One is by creating or curating physical space, which could be a makerspace on the kitchen table. Organizing a home micro-makerspace, with its tools and materials, is possible for many but not all. Yet, it can all come out of a box and be put away at the end of a session. Having a personalized space to create, play and work helps to foster creativity and engage students.

Next is having something to do. This can be an activity or exercise, but it can also be a project. (It is most definitely not a test.) Makers create and collaborate on projects, which often starts with an idea based on their interests and can be developed and tested and shared. Projects can be found online, like recipes, suitable for any child’s ability and age. For young children, there are many good projects that can be done with household materials and simple hand tools like scissors and cardboard. There are also many paths leading to more complex projects that require deeper learning.

Kits enable students to do projects by providing tools and materials usually in a convenient box. Kits allows children to explore and create while learning to use a technology or technique that increases the capabilities of what they can do. Kits can be bought from many different sources but they can also be made locally. We can think of these as open-source kits and makerspaces could play a role in developing and distributing them.

PLAY

Let’s change the conversation from “seat time” to “play time.” Making is all about action — described by the verbs in this sign from a Maker Faire in San Diego.

What would happen if we thought differently — that what kids need now is not school but play. Instead of lectures and worksheets, how can they play outside, if possible, or even play online, if that’s all that is possible? How do we enable play? How do we think of learning as play?

In my 2014 article in Make:, “Why The Banana Piano Makes Sense”, I talked about the ideas of Mitch Resnick of MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten:

In a paper, Resnick asks the Sesame Street question: Which of these things is not like the other — computer, television, or finger painting? He believes the nonobvious answer is television. “Until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television,” he writes, “computers will not live up to their full potential.” Neither will our children.

Re-imagining school-time as play-time could be transformative for all learners. Play is creative, actIve, social, expressive, stimulating, and engaging. It is also good for our well-being, relieving stress and anxiety and replacing it with joy and contentment.

Children need to play (as do adults, perhaps even more so now.) Play is so important and so many good things happen as a result of playing that we do well to value it more. After all, we have well-organized forms of play such as sports programs in our communities. They are in all parts of the communities, not just the well-to-do areas. Facilities, coaching and teams are likely available to any child, interested or not. It wasn’t always that way. Look at how widespread soccer is as an example — something that wasn’t available when I was a child but is available everywhere now, for girls as well as boys. This community-based infrastructure and the people who organize it can be leveraged and re-purposed.

The basic question is can we organize similarly around learning in our communities? How do we engage more families? What facilities can be used for practice? How do we identify and train coaches, remembering that most coaches of young kids in sports are parents? How do we bring children together to belong to teams or pods, so they have peers to learn from and a coach to guide them. How do we organize leagues? We can have both organized, formal play and unorganized informal play. All of this provides a context for a child to learn and grow.

Also, getting children outside is important as well. Why do we close playgrounds and parks? Can’t we figure out how to keep them safe, even if it requires volunteers to wipe down jungle gyms and slides? Can’t we put up tents in the parks for small groups to meet? We can use space in new ways because learning is not confined to classrooms and schools.

Schools that are reopening plan to eliminate recess. I think we have it wrong — put 20-30 kids inside a classroom all day but close the playground outside? Why not increase the amount of time children get to play outside with adult supervision. Give kids more time outside, even those who must go to school at home. Kids should get outside and they need to be physically as well as mentally active.

Funding

Is there money to support this important effort? Probably not initially but there should be.

Let’s be clear – the government should provide direct funding but it is unlikely to do so. It does not adequately fund child-care. Philanthropic funding could go to local nonprofits who are willing to set up and manage Maker Pods. Another way is to provide a specific educational stimulus grant to all parents that they can apply to qualified programs, as a kind of educational refund.

Why not ask businesses to create an educational fund for their employees with children at home. It’s an employee benefit that allows an employee to hold down a job and be productive. Perhaps some companies could offer such a benefit to other parents in the communities they serve. Think of it like sponsoring a Little League team, only more important.

So, for funding, Plan A would be the government steps up and Plan B would be that industry steps in. However, given that neither is likely, we have Plan C, a civic response. Somehow, some way people have to self-organize and make it happen in their community because no one else will.

Let’s take on this challenge of engaging children in learning and play. Let’s understand the difficulty of dealing with this challenge for many parents and realize how vulnerable children are. The maker community has shown how to mobilize a uniquely decentralized response in a crisis. You do what you can and you do even more. The civic response involving maker pods, projects and play are countermeasures, and not meant to be complete solutions. Quite simply, they are better than what is available but given that we can’t do everything, we need to focus on what’s most important. But they also show us that changes can be made.

Not Impossible

If we can imagine it, we can make it happen. In many ways, the self-organizing civic response is happening but in bits and pieces, fits and starts. It’s hard to see all of it. That’s how self-organizing works with many small independent efforts but those groups begin connecting together over time.

In the past few weeks on the Plan C Live program, we’ve interviewed librarians, informal educators, K-12 teachers as well as kit developers in the maker community to learn more about what they are doing in response to COVID-19:

  • Curt Gabrielson at the Greenfield Community Science Workshop in Greenfield, California in the Salinas Valley, is producing kits and distributing them to families. (The photo at the top of this article is from Curt bringing kits to a Oaxacan family in the community.) He is finding that many parents aren’t home with kids, as both are working and an older sibling is in charge of the children at home. In a recent email, Curt said they have “6 snap together car ports going up in our parking lot, each with a table or two, and when the covid numbers ease back down – hopefully soon, but not at all a sure thing – we’ll “open the doors” to our new open air Science Workshop.”
  • Jay Margulas at DePaul University is developing a program in Innovative Making for students who are taking a gap year. He is providing them with a kit of supplies and tools.
  • In the East Bay, MakerEd has developed maker kits that are distributed to Oakland students through the school lunch program. It has created a downloadable PDF on “How to Assemble and Distribute Home Make Kits.” These kits are tied to their weekly live stream called Learning in the Making LIVE! and supports hands-in learning at home.
  • Our Family Maker Camp has invited many people to share projects and inspire children to engage in making. We have a collection of projects on makercamp.com.
  • Gever Tulley of Tinkering School has been offering a virtual summer camp called Mars Missions that is a Mars robotics simulation. Campers can “remotely operate real-life “Burly” robots on our Mars site as they take on engineering challenges to save the astronauts heading towards Mars.”
  • Kelsey Derringer and Matt Chilbert of CodeJoy have created online project-based classes featuring cardboard robots and pop-up cards.
  • Ryan Jenkins is developing and sharing projects at the Wonderful Idea Company.

There are many more resources, many more talented people in the maker community that are developing and offering creative solutions, which can be good alternatives to what schools are able to provide and which children will enjoy. If we can organize these resources, we can make them accessible to even more people, even those that don’t know the maker community.

Connecting Students to Learning Options

Rather than trying to imitate school as we’ve known it for a hundred years, let’s look at pioneering new models for the next hundred years. Let the education system and our government follow and learn from the pioneers. What would education look like as an open innovation ecosystem which, as it increases options and alternatives, helps to achieve greater equity and opportunity?

Here are five ideas for maker-centered Connected Learning, which I think the maker community could get started. The basic challenge is to connect more people, more resources and services to create a better situation for more and more children.

    1. Organize students into groups or teams (maker pods) and create connections between pods.
      • Recruit coaches/facilitators.
      • Provide training for coaches and connect them to each other.
      • Provide resource guides for coaches and project ideas.
      • Research and develop protocols for meeting safely in small groups in person and online.
    2. Use open-source designs to develop hands-on interactive kits for different age and skill levels.
      • Develop a catalog of kits, including free kits and kits for sale.
      • Distribute those kits to homes in the community.
    3. Encourage parents to create learning spaces at home and groups of parents to develop small-scale hyperlocal learning spaces.
      • Share ideas for creating spaces and how to use them.
      • Share tools among homes and local spaces.
      • Create lending libraries for tools and kits
      • Explore open spaces in the community.
    4. Create a directory of online courses or workshops, free or fee-based, that are available synchronously or asynchronously through a network of participating makerspaces.
    5. Exchange project ideas and share projects so that students can get feedback and recognition for their work. (See makeprojects.com, for example.)
      • Identify real-world projects that students can work on to develop their skills and use their imagination.

Foremost, all children need positive, affirming relationships with others in the community. People are the most critical resource and making the connections among people is the most important thing we can do. To address the needs of children, we need more people involved, many of whom are not part of the education system. We are all teachers and learners, and learning can be found everywhere in our community.

In my book, Free to Make, I wrote about a “Smart Grid for Learning” in which I compared school campuses to coal-burning power plants. Just as an energy grid could connect our homes to alternative power sources, a smart grid for education would help students of all ages connect to alternative sources of learning. It could keep track of a student’s use of distributed resources and recommend those that seem best for the learner. The point is that no student should be limited to the educational opportunities offered by a single school when they can be connected to many alternative sources.

In a world of connected learning, children have more choice. If they don’t like Zoom-based learning, they won’t do it. Better that they have more options beyond the class that is offered them. Students and their parents should demand that they have options that children do like.

The Educational World Turned Upside Down

This pandemic has turned the education system upside down, and that’s a good thing in many ways. It is breaking a broken system. The people in charge of the system can’t fix it themselves. Change needs to come from the bottom up, driven by an open, creative, participatory process.

There is no better time than now to rebuild our education system and start by reducing its reliance on a physical classroom and rebuilding around the best learning experiences for children. A robust system of connections to many sources of learning can expand the number of people involved as teachers and coaches. We can reach more children regardless of where they live. By doing so, we can strengthen our communities and help them become resilient because good learners are people who can adapt to slow and sudden change. Why waste time thinking about returning to normal when we can imagine what’s possible and do what’s necessary now to support the children in our community.

Please let me know if you have ideas, stories or projects related to Connected Learning and Pods, Projects and Play. If you’d like to help make this future happen a little sooner, I’d like to hear from you. Dale at make.co