Leadership and Maker Learning: A Conversation With Pam Moran and Ira Socol

Education Maker News
Leadership and Maker Learning: A Conversation With Pam Moran and Ira Socol

“Kids today need the chance to design, create, and communicate, all highly desirable competencies in this century. Our study of how children learn has led us to create maker opportunities as a pathway to contemporary experiential learning.…We see kids all the time who find learning becomes important to them through their maker work and that content suddenly starts to make sense. In doing so, they naturally experience social-emotional learning through empathic design and collaboration with peers and experts.”

From Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools, co-authored by Pam Moran, Ira Socol, Chad Ratliff

Editor’s Note: This is an extended article from the monthly Make: Education Newsletter. Get the latest from thought leaders in maker education in your inbox by signing up at makezine.com/join.

This month we’re speaking with two giants in maker learning and progressive education: Dr. Pam Moran, educator and former superintendent at Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, and her colleague Ira Socol, the former CTO and Innovation Officer at ACPS.

Pam began working at ACPS in 1986 and led the district from 2006–2018. Ira joined the district as a member of the leadership team in 2013. It’s notable that Pam’s first year as superintendent coincided with the launch of the first Maker Faire during a period in which federal education policy was defined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and teaching to the test. By the end of Pam’s tenure in 2018 makerspaces were ascendant in the national conversation and increasingly recognized as a way to once again elevate hands-on, interest driven learning and connections to community.

Traditional conceptions of school and institutional education do not typically align with a maker learning practice. Much has been written about the factory model of education, and the inequities and economic expectations that underpinned its tracking systems, but for the maker-minded, Pam and Ira’s book, Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools, is an exciting work. Along with their colleague Chad Ratliff, an entrepreneur, district leader, and Lab Schools principal, Pam, Ira, and ACPS leadership team worked creatively and iteratively in service of kids, teachers, and communities to push back on this precedent, developing new systems and examples for delivering education.

As they outline in their book, they began as listeners and observers, guided by these key questions:

  • What do you see when you look at your school?
  • What do you see when you look in a classroom?
  • What do you see when you watch children in the playground, or on a street, or in a park? What does learning look like? What does growing up look like?

The results of this approach led them to a powerful conclusion: “Once we are able to see clearly what is happening with children in our schools and outside of our schools, we will then be on the path to learn how to take rapid, yet deeply considered actions to change the educational system we have inherited.”

Maker learning figures prominently in the priorities and design work Pam, Ira, their colleague and co-author Chad Ratlif put in place in ACPS. Read what Pam and Ira have to say about big picture thinking, letting teachers and learners lead, and the spread of maker work.

Photos courtesy of Pam Moran

Make: Equity is a big, important word. You use the phrase “All Means All” in the opening of your book and you describe how you and your team took this idea to heart listening, watching, and trying new things. How have making practices helped you and your team develop a vision and plan for implementing equitable values-based learning and education?

Pam Moran: We decided along with a number of other educators in our district who were invested early on in creating maker education as a learning path that we could not let maker education become a focus reserved for just some learners. Instead, it became a design imperative that all learners be afforded maker experiences in our schools. This did not occur without growing the expertise of educators, providing resources to develop spaces and stock them with tools, and supporting strategies to ensure equity in participation by children of color, girls, and children with economically disadvantaged homes.

We began by creating spaces that were accessible to any learners in our schools who had an interest in learning to make something that they wanted to make. We also wanted to ensure that those spaces were not destinations that few educators would use with classes or allow individual learners to use. That’s why we built mechatronics labs in middle and high schools and music construction studios, maker spaces, and design labs in high school libraries.

We also worked to add maker spaces into middle and elementary school libraries and their multipurpose spaces. By locating our maker spaces near educators who could become champions of maker education, we found that there were teacher-makers everywhere. It didn’t take them long to start engaging children in maker work who traditionally were in intervention classes or under-presented groups such as females. Our initial team members valued that maker work enriched the lives and learning of all children and that led to changes in how our libraries ran, the kinds of opportunities students enrolled in career and technical education experienced, and shifts in classes from arts to history.

Photos courtesy of Pam Moran

Make: Women as Maker Educators is another slice of the equity conversation. How do gender and identity relate to maker education and the ambition of learning systems (within school systems)?

PM: We have been fortunate to have incredible women in schools all over the school district who helped lead implementation of our maker education pathway. In many cases, they were makers in their personal lives and willingly helped us create test bed and prototype maker spaces and opportunities. Early on the librarians in one high school became champions of the maker movement in their school and the library to the point of having to address kids who were skipping class to be in the library where there were multiple maker spaces — a hacker space, design lab, music construction studio, game design area, and help desk where teens were able to assist with some of the maker tools available for use there.

The librarians in that school worked with teachers to figure out maker project focus for everything from math to history. Their work spread almost virally across the district to other librarians who began to add a variety of maker materials and tools from glue guns to 3D printers to sewing machines, and so much more into their libraries including maker resources that could be checked out to classes or even students for use with maker-infused work.

In many ways, women led the way in Albemarle from teachers who worked in the STEM wheelhouse to art teachers who morphed into STEAM educators. One of our favorite stories of a female role model was a French teacher whose father was a career shop teacher. She had learned to use shop tools literally at his knee. She turned two adjoining classrooms (we took down a wall of course) into a makerspace extraordinaire and it became one of the most popular classes for any student to take in that middle school. I can’t think of one school who didn’t have a female educator step up to and actively help us build out maker learning in every one of our schools. Because we didn’t attach maker work to any particular program but made it part of every and any class, we were able to provide multiple opportunities to build what we described as a maker mindset across all our schools. And, we never saw gender or identity as a barrier to making. Another favorite story is about one of our young high school teen makers working in a summer credit recovery program, “Design, Build, Launch.” She designed a suspended swing seat with a writing surface to use in classrooms so that kids could swing and work.

From left: Pam Moran, Ira Socol, Chad Ratliff

Make: Ira, you title Chapter 8 in your book with the word “Timeless” and include a comment from your colleague Chad Ratliff about makerspaces: “These learning labs must exist outside of any bell schedule, if they are going to really respond to kid’s learning patterns.”

It’s a wonderful challenge: situate the materials and the tools, things that require a lot of time-bound logistics and attention, outside of an eight period framework in a school day. It’s a mindset comment. What does it mean to you?

Ira Socol: One thing I’m sure of: makers don’t work well on schedules whether it’s in a home garage, a corporate design center, or in a school. Making is invention and invention isn’t scheduled. Because of that we made sure that making didn’t become a class that limited kids’ time to make. We certainly had classes that were grounded in making but one of the reasons we added makerspaces in libraries and other areas was so that kids could enter those spaces and be able to reasonably work on their own time.

In most cases, especially in middle and high schools, maker areas were opened before school and after school and teachers often said they had to chase kids out of school at the end of the day. We also built out summer makerspaces in community spaces such as a local fire department community space, in an apartment complex, and at a barrio. This allowed parents and children of different ages to come together and learn to use tools, some of which they would otherwise never be able to access. We also used our CoderDojo summer model as well as summer school programs to infuse making and those also supported students to work on projects with less pressure from class schedules.

Multiage space at ACPS Agnor-Hurt Elementary. Photo courtesy of Pam Moran

Make: What can we learn from words and phrases like: Pop-up Maker Space Projects, Learning Labs, Prototyping, Leveraging Resources. One can find them clustered in certain points in your book. How and why do they belong together?

IS: I have a strong conviction that certain that words matter so we worked hard to change the vocabulary in our schools, introducing terms that would not evoke antique paradigms. It’s also important to remember that anything we do in a learning environment requires changes everywhere if it is to be an actual change, and not window dressing.

The concept of “pop-ups,” pulled from the arts and from retail, is one example. We believe that education — whether formal or informal — should exist in an environment that changes with and responds to the needs of the community. If three classes in an elementary school need a makerspace this week, the makerspace should get to them. One essential piece of furniture we bought a lot of was a $400 rolling workbench/toolcart from a discount store. That way our tools were not tied to one location. If a community needed a makerspace in the summer, we put that in the community… a church-owned doublewide, a firehouse, an empty apartment.

Now those pop-ups were not just makerspaces, they became learning labs. Learning labs, for us, describe places of learning and invention. Learner-centered, they are not oriented toward a teaching wall, not based in the idea of mass instruction, not “owned” by a teacher, not worried about noise or the possibility of creating a mess.

We found our way to learning labs through prototyping — at first music studios, radically changed libraries, hackerspaces, and by studying those that already existed — art studios, drama spaces, music spaces, CTE spaces.

Finally, we could not do that without leveraging resources. To create K–12 makerspaces and then learning labs we needed support from our technology department, our building services department, our innovation team, our principals, our custodians, our CTE programs, our professional development staff, and our librarians. We needed time, energy, and funding from all.

Photos courtesy of Pam Moran

Make: You go into some detail in your book about “micro-immersion” and the way to have professional learning transfer into personal practice for an educator. This kind of confidence in acquiring new knowledge, having the motivation and confidence to share it with others, is exactly what one hopes children will experience.

Can you share some observations on effective PD design that increases the likelihood that educators will be motivated to bring practices in the classroom and have new confidence in their ability to support work with materials to explore ideas and demonstrate understanding?

IS: We used a variety of paths to support teachers and principals to see making, to understand contemporary natural learning  as a way to empower learners in their learning. For example, we ran a summer leadership maker camp for our building and central leaders. We encouraged peer-to-peer teaching whether during faculty meeting time or as stand-alone workshops in our professional development offerings. We often found teachers pairing with our librarians, learning tech integrators, instructional coaches, and other teachers to learn how to use tools and plan strategies to integrate making across the curriculum. The goal was to give both teachers and administrators the time, again, fluid time, to re-discover both childhood and human rhythms. That can’t happen in a 40 or even 90 minute “lecture.”

As I visited schools I would find more and more learners in classes engaged in maker work. I never knew exactly how maker learning had spread to a new class or space in a school but it was evident over time that the concept was developing a footprint in every school. Teachers who felt comfortable taking risks were key because they were our early explorers, pathfinders, pioneers, and experimenters who were willing to make mistakes and figure out how to make making an integral part of their work. They, in turn, helped others with learning to use tools and developing ideas of how to support relevant maker work. In one such class, I walked in on students sharing objects they had made and why. One child noted that his grandmother kept losing her cell phone in the house because she was on a cane. He created a velcro pocket for her phone that he attached to her cane — what a perfect marriage I thought of making something to meet the needs of another person. Other kids, in a high school library, worked for six months to develop a spoon to allow a classmate to feed herself for the first time. They 3D printed numerous prototypes until they found a solution.

What’s important is that educators see these events and see kids functioning in this mode. That’s an immersive school environment that showcases what learning can be.

So we tried to put differentiated spaces — makerspaces — up front, central to the school. For example, we set up a “genius bar” — like one finds in Apple Stores — at the library entrance. We wanted foreground, literally, the notion that learning spaces thrive when people share their understanding and their questions, openly, as a standard operating procedure.

Photos courtesy of Pam Moran

We never mandated that teachers become makers. We felt it would have been inconsistent with the basic tenets of maker communities. However, over a period of six years, visitors eventually could find making everywhere. We hosted 8 teams from school districts across the country a couple of years ago to come in the summer for a maker camp. This was cosponsored by Maker Ed and Digital Promise. One participant commented how natural that making seemed in the context of our learners’ work in school. We also hosted a group of thirty mostly central office educators who visited during the year a few years ago. They rode on a school bus with Dale Dougherty and me. We drove around to schools looking for evidence of making. Whether it was the student building a go-cart for a class science project or another who was making a historical map using copper tape and LED lights, Dale thought it was extraordinary that making was occurring during school time, something we had discussed years before as not seeming possible.

One important way we accomplished the spread of maker work across the district has been through “micro-immersion.”  We encourage our educators to seek to develop their skill-sets and expertise by getting outside of school for professional learning experiences. We’ve had teachers work with local makers in community-based maker spaces — it’s where some of them became real users of micro-computing devices. We’ve also taken 20–30 educators on the train to the World Maker Faire to experience that environment as an immersive space for learning. Others have gone to the Children’s Museum in Chicago and we’ve even had some go to Maker Faire Bay Area. Each year, we’ve had staff present at the Congressional Maker Faire in DC as well as it the Bay Area and World Maker Faires. Someone walked up to me one time and said, “Oh, you are the school district of makers.”

Developing professional learning opportunities for staff: building leaders, classroom teachers, arts educators, librarians, CTE educators, and specialists was critical to their to learn how to use tools as well as help others learn to use tools. This was the most critical part of our work to make making accessible so that young people could both learn to make for their own interests and also make to learn as a integrated path to using content specified in our standards.

Photos courtesy of Pam Moran

Make: Speaking of standards, the Achilles heel of project- and problem-based learning, and by these precedents maker learning as well, has been the ability to manage formative and summative assessments and competency-based demonstrations. You and Pam went at this issue structurally, systemically, in terms of program design, facilities, seat-time, resources. For you it was an opportunity, not a barrier.

Can you talk about the research project “Beyond Rubrics: Assessment in Making” unfolding with Maker Ed and the MIT Teaching Systems Lab? Edsurge did some nice pieces recently on the scope of the collaboration.

What can you share about the nuts and bolts of that research and what you think its impact will be?

PM: We have worked for years with Maker Ed’s Stephanie Chang on how to appropriately assess the impact of making on learners. In fact, our early connections with Dr. Kylie Peppler of Indiana State University and Director of its Creativity Lab as well with others in higher education led us to consider how to look for impact of maker work on learning through performance vs selected response tests. Stephanie came and worked initially with two schools to focus on documenting the decision-making process as kids were creating in our maker spaces. I remember watching teens using their cell phones to grab images at decision points as they were constructing airplanes. This allowed us to gain insights into how students actually determine what they will do next when confronted with challenges or barriers in their maker work.

In the latest iteration of this work, Chad in his new role as principal of the K-12 Albemarle Lab schools and his staff have been engaged for two years in an NSF grant with MIT and Maker Ed to deeply study and research the impact of making on learning and the resultant outcomes. This work will, I’m sure, inform where maker work makes a difference for learners and what the research may contribute to a balanced assessment system inside public schools that engage in making as a learning path.

We want to acknowledge MakerEd.org, Dale Dougherty, and Stephanie Chang as significant partners in the work to build a platform of making in the school division. Their work at the national level to support maker education has been critical in our former district to shape direction and offer guidance to implementing maker morning.

We also want to acknowledge our co-author Chad Ratliff who is a principal of the K-12 Lab schools in Albemarle. Chad is one of the truly innovative, entrepreneurial educators working in public education.


Pam and Ira’s work has been widely documented. Follow them on Twitter @pammoran and @irasocol. Here are a few of the resources, projects, and statements of purpose that reflect their thinking:



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David Cole

I'm an educator and manager of an educational non-profit.

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