Authentic Learning and Making

Students excited about a heart that they made

Michael Stone is an educator who led efforts to create 34 Fab Labs in K-12 schools in Hamilton County, Tennessee, despite not thinking of himself as having any skills or interest in making. He was a basketball coach with a degree in computer science. Now, as Vice President of Innovative Learning for the Public Education Foundation. a nonprofit in southeast Tennessee, he’s an educational leader who has embraced maker education to help students develop technical skills but also to learn about creative problem solving and collaboration. He talks about making as authentic learning, involving real problems and solutions, and which leads to authentic assessment. 

This transcript of this interview is also published in the MakerEd newsletter, along with a video of the conversation on the MakerEd YouTube channel.

00:00 Authentic Learning and Making

02:09 Michael’s Background

03:54 Stumbling into Fab Labs

05:46 From Master Teacher to Master Learner

07:57 Coaching

12:06 Authentic Assessment

18:44 Expanding from one school to many

20:21 Pioneers and Settlers

26:37 Blending Personalized Fabrication and Personalized Learning


  • We’ve been working with Volkswagen Group of America and the State of Tennessee to open what is now considered the largest network of school-based FabLabs. We have 34 FabLabs in schools. We call them Volkswagen eLabs, and that will be opening another nine this summer. So we’ll have 43 in K-12 public schools in our community by this time next year.
  • In full transparency, I got into teaching because I wanted to coach basketball. I’m 6’9″ and here, you can’t coach boys basketball if you’re not a teacher. So I got my degree, became a teacher. Turned out I loved it. I loved teaching at least as much as I loved coaching. Nine years into my career had an opportunity to make a change. Went over to a local STEM school and they were looking for someone to open a Fab Lab. I didn’t know what a Fab Lab was.
  • What I was excited about was the principal said– his name is Dr. Tony Donan– he said, “I know what we won’t do is we won’t spend all day teaching kids lecture style or, didactically how to use 3D printers and laser cutters and the tools. We are about putting kids into the most authentic situations as possible and packing rich learning into those situations.”
  • Really it is about helping schools reimagine what’s possible. How do we really train kids for the future? A piece of that we think, and I’m sure we’ll get into this, but a piece of that is, they have to develop the ability to quickly learn new technical skills and apply them in a given context.
  • I told the principal like, I don’t have these skills. He changed my life with his response to that observation. I was basically pulling my name out of the hat for the job. And he looked across very somber and he said, honestly, I don’t care that you don’t know what a CNC router is. My only question is, are you willing to learn it? And would you learn how to do that in front of kids? Would you be willing to learn it with kids beside you? 
  • I think the competition in sports so often, like a school level or higher level, it’s an authentic assessment of your skill level. It’s an authentic assessment of how you’ve developed both individually and as a team if it’s a team sport. In this context Maker Faire, public exhibition, public displays, engaging in a community, even just bringing my idea to fruition, right?
  • I’m getting to see, did my idea work? Was I able to build the thing I thought was possible to build? Could I bring this thing to reality? To me, it’s way less about the competitive element. Is my thing better or prettier, fancier, right? There’s so much self-discovery and intuitive learning that happens instinctively, organically in that process of going from idea to conception that you really have these are life-changing moments that happen regularly that are unpredictable.
  • We said, okay, what if we focused on collaboration through the lens of personality diversity in freshman year? I’m competitive. You’re sensitive. How do we work together? This is the world we’re about to enter. We need to be prepared for this. And then what if that looked like pure accountability sophomore year and looked like building a professional network junior year. All of these different layers of collaboration. 
  • We went from one (teacher) to nine in a 12-month span. Those first eight that we expanded to, all eight of them, identified teachers that we now call like pioneers. So we used “pioneer” and “settler” language. They were the ones that were like Lewis and Clark. Like just tell me there’s a West and I want to go. Tell me there’s something new. You don’t have to hold my hand. If it’s out there, I’m chasing it. It’s great. So we grabbed those super early adopters, those pioneers, and gave them just enough.
  • We started running out of pioneers and we started getting some settlers who they needed the path carved before them. They wanted guardrails, but they didn’t want to be told exactly what to do. They were willing to go build the town and settle, but they needed a path ahead of them. So we started articulating like, what are those guardrails? What are the pieces that we can provide support? 
  • If the point of the lab is not to leave having mastered every tool but is instead to leave, having cultivated the ability to learn, like I’ve learned how to learn. I’ve learned how to apply what I learned to actually solve problems, like actually make real solutions. If those are the things that I’m really driving at, then there’s no existing curriculum that drives at those things. Curriculum are designed to drive at discreet skillsets.
  • Like when Dr. Gershenfeld was starting some of the Fab Lab work and the how to make almost anything stuff in the late nineties, and he wrote a paper, I don’t know, 97, 98, something like that, on, on personalized fabrication and a future look at the idea of personalized fabrication.
  • And certainly isn’t my terminology, but the idea of like personalized learning comes along a few decades later. I’m thinking like we have the technology now to do personalized fabrication. This is a thing. We are thinking philosophically about personalized learning, but systemically we keep letting barriers pop up. Locally, that’s what I’ve been excited about is that the idea of blending the two, like what if you leveraged the ability to do personalized fabrication and married that with the idea of personalized learning and ignored the efficiency models of education. 

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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