Traditional vs. Participatory Learning


Some years ago, my husband, knowing how much I loved Americana/Old Time music, gave me a chance to experience it from a new perspective by giving me three months of violin/fiddle lessons. I began practicing in earnest, and met with my instructor twice each week where I learned how to make the instrument sound less like a tortured cat and more like simple music.

As my skills progressed over the next few months and I signed up for more lessons, I really enjoyed being able to play the songs I had long appreciated, but then things got even better. My instructor encouraged me to join the community orchestra, and there I found a small group of folks with musical tastes similar to mine with whom I formed a fiddle (plus banjo and guitar) group.

Playing music alone or with an instructor is certainly necessary to build foundational knowledge and abilities, but when people gather together and pool their individual efforts to make something collectively, there is a good chance that amazingly beautiful creative moments will occur. In the orchestra and fiddle group, I’d be playing away, concentrating completely on keeping time and being in tune, but then suddenly and simultaneously I would become aware of the music being made around me and simply marvel that I was a part of it all.

Listening to music, either recorded or live, can be an enriching experience, as symphony goers or rock concert attendees can attest to. Likewise, traditional lectures about composers or music theory can offer a great deal of educational content. However, I would suggest that by participating in the act of making the music, an even greater connection to the other musicians, the audience, and the songs themselves can be obtained.

My journey from appreciative listener to jubilant fiddler perfectly illustrates the audience involvement spectrum presented in this week’s lecture. Regardless of the medium or activity, beginning as a receptive spectator, and evolving into a full-fledged participant in the artistic or inventive process can allow an individual to learn, create, and experience a shared interaction at a much richer level.

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Concluding reflections

What was the most interesting thing you learned from a class colleague this semester? 

The weekly discussion board conversations were tremendously beneficial to my learning experience this semester, and I truly enjoyed the perspectives and ideas that everyone shared about the readings and reflection questions. My favorite “aha!” moment came during Molly’s Week 3 post about play-based programming. Tying the importance of participation to the movement and imagination encouraged in her “Books and Boxes” and “Jumping” programs clearly demonstrated how active learning can be fostered for any age group.

Was the content of this course what you were expecting it to be? What would you like to have spent more time learning?

I had originally expected that this course would be focused more on specific examples or case studies of makerspaces, and be less theoretical than it turned out to be, but I’m far from disappointed about this difference. It turns out that by being broad in scope, what I’ve learned can be applied in all kinds of settings, as well as over time as what constitutes a makerspace evolves.

As with other courses I’ve taken during the summer semester, I do wish there had been more time to explore the course material more deeply. We really covered a lot of ground during the past ten weeks, and it seemed like I was often scrambling madly to keep up as the time flew by.

What was your favorite project or reading you worked on this semester?

My absolute favorite reading this semester was A New Culture of Learning by Thomas & Brown. It made so much sense to me, and I wanted to share a copy of the book with every teacher I know. Before this semester, I hadn’t had much experience with the theories of learning and teaching, and I felt that this work, along with Invent to Learn by Martinez & Stager, provided a solid overview of historic educational theory, as well as the need to adapt traditional instruction methods to keep pace with our rapidly changing world.

Making a Marble Maze

(Please follow these links for a stop motion video of the maze building process, and a video of the testing of the completed maze.)


For this Maker Faire project I decided to create a low-cost marble maze maker project featuring recycled materials, hands-on construction, collaborative cooperation, and a large dose of fun. I enlisted the help of my seven-year-old son in constructing the maze, in order to gain insight into the process of maze-building as experienced by a child within the age range of the target audience, as well as to resolve any unforeseen difficulties in advance of actually launching a program like this at my public library.

We began by covering a large sheet of plywood with wide strips of white butcher paper, and then examined the maze-building supplies that I had collected. We had paper towel and toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, heavy cardboard corners from a shipping box, and cardboard rings to choose from, along with scissors and a plentiful supply of packing tape.

With the plywood propped up at an angle, we began at the top and worked our way to the bottom, adding one maze section at a time, and testing it frequently with marbles to troubleshoot any roadblocks as we built. Once our main path was nearly finished, we decided to make things more interesting by adding an alternate tube system that connected with the original at the halfway point. When the maze was complete, we added some paint to the background paper to highlight the path that the marbles would take, and to increase the visual appeal of the maze through color and pattern.

Testing this maze building activity revealed that packing tape is not the best option for securing the maze materials to the background, as it is extremely sticky and rather difficult to reposition. I lost count of the number of times that the tape stuck to itself before we could even attach it to the maze! Masking tape or duct tape would be a better choice when holding this event at the library. Additionally, this initial run-through established that folding tables would be preferable to sheets of plywood. Even when propped up on two sturdy chairs, the plywood shifted easily and was a slight impediment to the construction process. Folding tables, with one set of legs left folded underneath, would provide a much more stable surface for building.

A marble maze program would be relatively simple to organize and implement. Even in a small library system with limited resources and staffing, an event such as this would be a practical first step towards the realization of more technical STEM programming or Maker events. I really enjoyed creating this Maker Faire project with my son, and he had a blast racing marbles through it both during construction, and when the maze was finished. I would imagine that a room full of children all working (and learning!) together to build marble runs would be abuzz with excitement over the creative possibilities that are present in a project like this. Now that I’ve got this test run under my belt, I can’t wait to offer this maze project to the young makers in my library community!

P.S. This was really a maker project within a maker project for me: I learned how to use a stop motion app to create the first of the two videos listed at the top of this post. Hooray for new know-how!

Failure is actually success in progress

success in progress

We’ve previously discussed the importance of providing ‘Failure culture’ when Invent to Learn says we should focus on Constructionist education. What makes more sense to you?

Based on constructivist learning theory, which puts forth the idea that learning occurs when an individual constructs a new understanding of a concept based on prior knowledge and experience, Papert’s constructionism suggests that this learning is more powerful if the student is simultaneously engaged in a hands-on, real-world activity that is significant to that individual.

The authors of Invent to Learn assert that constructionism is the ideal method of teaching to support the maker movement. While I am in strong favor of utilizing constructionist principles in educational settings, without the provision of a supportive environment that recognizes the truly beneficial nature of failure, children will not feel empowered to take chances, solve problems, and learn deeply.

“When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves. They begin to see themselves as learners who have good ideas and can transform their own ideas into reality. When we acknowledge that there may be many right answers to a question, it gives children permission to feel safe while thinking and problem solving, not just when they answer correctly. When we honor different kinds of learning styles it becomes acceptable to solve problems without fear” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 36).

In addition to welcoming failure, as Syed (2015) points out in his article about creativity, it is important to communicate the truth about innovative discoveries. Breakthroughs and inventions are not the products of instantaneous, lightning strike types of brilliant ideas, but rather the products of a rambling and often thorny path full of false starts, reconfigurings, flops, and gradual progress made through a succession of design cycles.

When failure is recognized as an essential part of making and learning, children will be more willing to expand their thinking, welcome imaginative ideas, and engage fully with the idea of multiple paths to success. Syed (2015) notes, “youngsters who are taught to think about failure in a more positive light not only become more creative, but more resilient, too. They regard their mess-ups not as reasons to give up, but as intriguing and educative. They engage with these failures, learn from them, and, by implication, develop new insights, and ever deeper curiosity” (para. 12).

The creativity, tenacity, and curiosity that can develop in children who inhabit a culture of learning that embraces failure will result in strong critical thinkers who are ready to seize all of the benefits of not only constructionist education methods, but any learning opportunity that they encounter.

Martinez, S. L. & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Syed, M. (2015, November 14). Viewpoint: How creativity is helped by failure. BBC News Magazine. Retrieved from

Learning initiatives – Levels of Participation and the Key to Success


“What types of participation are happening at Chicago’s YouMedia Digital Media Lab? What struck you from the report about its first year in action?”

The Chicago YOUMedia learning center offers teens the ability to grow in their knowledge of and engagement with digital media. What is unique about the design of YOUMedia’s educational environment is the simultaneous existence of activities that range from completely unstructured socializing, to absolutely structured, staff-led projects.

The center places importance on allowing teens complete choice in regards to their attendance, their participation, and their learning (or not) experience. Because of this flexibility, five types of participation practice have been observed in the young people who visit, as described in the UChicago CCSR Research Report, Teens, Digital Media and the Chicago Public Library.

At the most unstructured end of the participation spectrum are the Socializers, who utilize the YOUMedia lab as a gathering place where they spend time with friends. Readers/Studiers use the more traditional library resources of YOUMedia, and do schoolwork or check out materials. At the middle of the spectrum are the Floaters, who participate in many of the activities available at YOUMedia, but not at a heavily focused level.

In contrast, Experimenters do engage more intensively with the digital media equipment to develop a personal interest, but tend to work alone or with peers, rather than with library staff. Finally, at the most structured level of participation are the Creators, who are the most active participants at YOUMedia. These self-driven teens develop strong relationships with staff mentors, and collaborate with them to advance their digital media skills.

The various levels of participation demonstrated by the YOUMedia teens closely follow the genres of interaction as defined by Ito, et al.: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Whether a teen’s behavior is classified using labels coined by Ito or the CCSR, the conclusions reached by both demonstrate that the geeked out Creators benefit the most from their exposure to digital media, and develop confidence, competence, and marketable skills.

The YOUMedia lab is truly an amazing project that has markedly improved the lives and learning of hundreds of Chicago teens. What struck me about this project (besides wishing we had something similar at my library) was that despite the abundance of digital resources and cutting-edge technology, the most important factor for achieving success in an initiative of this type is the positive and supportive relationships between teens and the staff.

YOUMedia staff engage with the young people who visit the lab by recognizing and encouraging further development of the teen’s interests. These staff mentors design workshops and events based their understanding of what would appeal to students with varying levels of skill, and fully support participants who want to delve into a particular project more intensively.

YOUMedia staff genuinely relate to the students, and build connections that extend beyond the daily activities of the lab. While only a small number of digital media labs like YOUMedia exist in the country, similar personal connections between teens and staff can occur in any learning environment, and are definitely worth replicating in youth services programs everywhere.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Tripp, L. … (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

University of Chicago Constortium on Chicago School Research. (2013). Teens, digital media, and the Chicago Public Library. Retrieved from

A Broader Definition of Maker Culture


Chachra’s (2015) article, “Why I Am Not a Maker”, defines maker culture as a social value system that continues to place importance on creating artifacts in a capitalistically-driven economy, and reinforces the dominance of men. Chachra argues that traditionally female roles, such as caregivers, educators, and healthcare providers, are further diminished when maker culture is promoted and advanced.

While this perspective may have some legitimacy in the engineering circles that Chachra inhabits, I would argue that maker culture consists of a much larger swath of applications than the coding and technological fields that the author mentions. Making can be highly technical, but it can also be extremely traditional, utilizing such skills as woodworking or welding. Makers are learning how to can food, sew, and knit, all skills that were conventionally in the realm of women’s work.

Chachra asserts that maker culture creates items that “you can put in a box and sell”, but I would propose that it actually is founded on the principle of “do-it-yourself”, which enables the maker to not only learn how to create and customize things, but also to bypass the typical need to purchase goods and services. There is a self-sufficient resiliency at the heart of making that often blossoms into a sharing of knowledge with others.

Because of this knowledge sharing, I believe that maker culture encompasses the exact caregiving roles that Chachra suggests that it devalues. As people communicate the information and skills they have gained through making with their peers, valuable and beneficial knowledge is conveyed, which can then be utilized by the recipients to create and build upon for themselves. This closely resembles education, and by extension, caregiving.

Maker culture is broad, it is creative, and it is collaborative. Rather than denigrating those who are caregivers, I believe that making celebrates many of the time-honored tasks of caregiving, and puts many lost skills, and the ability to manufacture needed or desired objects, back in the hands of everyday people.

Chachra, D. (2015, January/February). Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic, 315(1). Retrieved from

The roots of organizational loyalty

Organizational loyalty and personalization are huge goals when trying to gain audience support. How can you see those concepts playing out in a library setting?

Two years ago, the library where I work had requested funding from our county government to construct a much needed larger and up to date facility. The county leaders voted to send it to referendum, and let the people decide. While this might sound like democracy in action, in a cash-strapped county like ours, any cause, no matter how worthy, is doomed to fail in a referendum vote because it could lead to a much-dreaded tax increase.

Our library enlisted the help of John Kraska of EveryLibrary, a non-profit PAC that guides libraries through the political process of local referendums and vote yes campaigns. Mr. Kraska emphasized the importance of the personal connections forged between our public services staff and our patrons. He pointed out that our circulation and reference staff were on the front lines of everyday operations, as well as the political campaign for funding support, and stressed that they were the “face of the library”.

When attempting to gain support from the community, a feeling of social engagement or loyalty to the organization is essential. In local political campaigns, people tend to vote with their pocketbooks in mind, and unless a connection has been developed that demonstrates the personal relevance and usefulness of an institution, individuals often decline to extend financial support.

In this week’s reading from Simon’s The Participatory Museum, the author highlights the importance of a personalized experience for visitors and supporters of museums. In both museums and libraries, excellent customer service skills, and a friendly and responsive style of interaction between public services staff and customers can lay the foundation for engaged connectivity. Once this basic relationship has been established, staff can better assist customers in finding the information, services, and programs that are of most interest to them.

Personalizing the library experience is not just limited to public services staff, as technical services staff and ILS providers can work to provide a customizable OPAC experience that offers suggested titles based on the search terms entered by the customer, or other customers with similar reading habits, as well as the ability to save lists of titles for future reference. In the physical space of the library, well-designed displays and signs can not only allow browsing patrons to strike up conversations with other customers or staff members, but can also direct customers to portions of the collection they might not have otherwise discovered.

By utilizing brief surveys, marketing and outreach staff can create customized newsletters that call attention to upcoming programs or services that are in line with what library patrons have indicated that they would be interested in. Furthermore, by offering relevant and inspiring programs with a participatory element, the library can facilitate connections between itself and its customers, and also between patrons who share a similar interest.

Building loyalty and support from community members must be an ongoing process, and cannot occur only during political campaigns. My local library lost the referendum, but only by a narrow margin (52% no, 48% yes), and after much effort to demonstrate our relevance, have finally received approval for partial funding for a new facility from the county. We are continuing to develop relationships in our community, and are constantly evaluating ways to improve the services and programs we offer. I am optimistic that this will lead to “an environment in which everyone will feel confident and energized about participating in your institution and with each other” (Simon, p. 34).

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0.

Keeping up with Change


“We know that technology and culture is changing faster than the current workplace model can keep up supporting. Have you ever experienced this in work or school?”

In 1995, (I’m giving away my age here!) I was nearing completion of my undergraduate degree in Geography and Geosciences and enrolled in a strongly recommended course, Cartography. This was old school map-making, with vellum and calligraphy-style pens that were challenging to use well. Over the course of the semester, I wrangled with those pens and created map after map of countries and lands, real and imagined. I learned a great deal about graphic layout and design, as well as the fundamentals of map-making.

When school reconvened for the next semester, the Geography Department announced an abrupt shift away from the traditional paper-based map systems towards the new digital form of mapping known as GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. Before I graduated, I took one of the new courses that covered the basic foundational principles of the new mapping technology, but the department did not yet offer any hands-on GIS classes.

After college, I soon found myself working for an environmental consulting company where GIS skills were recognized as highly valuable, and when I applied for a position with the local planning commission the following year, in-depth GIS expertise was absolutely required. In less than three years, map-making completely transformed from the way it had been done for thousands of years, to a cutting-edge, layered digital representation that could be easily modified and expertly analyzed.

This swift and absolute alteration in traditional methodologies was not atypical during this time period as the rate of technological change began to ramp up significantly. There was a sense in the field of physical sciences of scrambling to catch up, but when compared to today’s breakneck pace of innovation and technical evolution, even the recent past seems grounded in stability and set to a more leisurely tempo.  Thomas and Brown describe the modern world as in “near-constant flux” (p. 48) and our information environment as “constantly being changed and reshaped” (p. 42).

I was a witness to the digital mapping revolution, and the map-making skills that I acquired in college turned out to be a few steps behind what I actually needed in my career. As technology and information resources continue to transform at increasingly higher speeds, collective and constant forward-thinking is essential. A culture of learning based on unlimited information and a bounded, yet free environment, such as that described by Thomas and Brown, will be necessary to allow innovation and imagination to flourish, and will make it more likely that we can keep pace with the constant change.

Thomas, D. & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Self-published via CreateSpace, Middletown, DE.


Learning spaces for all

When creating nontraditional learning spaces, is it more valuable for libraries to focus on offering opportunities for a “geeking out” behaviors or more mainstream interests? Why?

The public library system that I work in serves two of the poorest counties in Virginia, and since much of our financial support comes from the local government, our budget has never been plentiful. We have always tried to utilize our funding optimally by offering materials, programs, and services that will be beneficial to the widest possible segment of our local population.

In thinking about the above question this week, at first I decided that it would be best to offer services for the mainstream, so that the largest possible number of patrons might take advantage of the learning space. Then I began to think about the positive outcomes of supporting “geeking out” activities, since these, while more specialized, are also “most likely to be pathways into technical expertise and other forms of interest-driven learning” (Ito et al., 2010, p. 240). In the end, I determined that the best strategy of all would be to create space and opportunity for every type of learning ecology.

Through the careful creation of a participatory learning space that includes flexible workspaces, reconfigurable tables and chairs, essential making equipment, and high-speed digital connectivity, the widest possible range of learners could be accommodated. By considering the requirements of different levels of learning from the very earliest stages of design, the space could be created in a cost-effective manner, and learning opportunities tailored for those participants who are looking to “hang out”, “mess around”, or “geek out” could be offered for little to no additional expense.

Such a space would encourage the development of social relationships and connections that are a large part of “hanging out” and “messing around” behaviors. Consequently, some of the participants in these more mainstream programs would want to continue to explore their interests in a more serious, “geeked out” way, and the flexible learning space could offer a place for this kind of “continued, intensive, and sophisticated interaction” (Ito et al, 2010, p. 66) to flourish.

The differing levels of interest and expertise for any type of learning occur on a continuum and vary over time and across individuals. If libraries can offer a welcoming and inspiring space where people of all ages can experiment with technology and hands-on making activities, at whatever interest level they currently occupy, all while reaping the benefits of social connection and collaboration, the resulting innovation and creativity will be nothing short of spectacular. Instead of creating a space for one modality of learning, I suggest creating an adaptable space for all, which will be flexible enough to support an ecology of experimentation and technical knowledge. Ultimately, this would be the most economical way of meeting the highly varied needs of the people we serve, especially for cash-strapped libraries like mine.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B.,… Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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