Making and Learning with Instructables

May 27, 2014

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Out-of-School Learning

Welding using cheap materials. Playing piano. Learning to sew. These are but a few of the varied skills that kids can develop by visiting Instructables, an online community for makers of all ages to document their original work, connect with others, and gain new inspiration. At first glance, Instructables might seem like a repository of eclectic activities disconnected from high-quality learning goals, but if you look more closely, there are many ways the site can be used for learning.

Engaging in Learning by Doing
Kids can learn a lot by browsing, getting inspired, and starting to make something -- anything, really! One of my favorite quotes by John Dewey states, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” Here, he points out that learning actually happens in the doing or in the making.

In our everyday experiences, we see kids learn through doing all the time. Why do we give young children blocks, board games, and other tools for play at early ages even before they start formal schooling? It’s because we know that play and exploration can lead to deep learning. The kinds of play, activities, and making found on Instructables connect to many advanced learning outcomes important to future careers in STEM fields and other areas. Though we’re only just now beginning to understand and articulate these outcomes, what’s important is that we start by engaging learners in the process of doing.

Personally Meaningful Learning
Nearly everyone is bound to find something on Instructables that intrigues them or solves a problem they have. In a prior course, I asked my graduate students to either make something that they found on the site or to contribute a new post. What resulted was incredible; not only was it the first course assignment completed weeks in advance, but students engaged in a range of activities that made their everyday lives better. One person learned to trim her (previously neglected) apple orchard. Another made his own DIY dog biscuits. A few others built robots for the first time.

What these activities all had in common was that students pushed themselves to learn something new (and often challenging) in an area in which they were personally invested. The assignment also connected students to their friends and families (and canine companions, in some cases). At its heart, learning by making starts to solve some of the most challenging educational problems of our time:

  • How do we engage a diverse body of learners?
  • How do we make learning motivational for all?
  • How do we adapt our teaching to meet the social and cultural contexts of today’s learners?
  • How do we inspire our students to be lifelong learners and more actively engage in the world around us?

Cycles of Feedback and Reflection
When kids begin making something from their first Instructable, they’ll discover that they have a lot that they want to share. They’ll have feedback on how to describe the steps more clearly. They’ll connect to other helpful resources. And, of course, they’ll have what they created, which won’t be a carbon copy of what was described in the Instructable. This leads to a natural cycle of recurring feedback and reflection between the Instructables audience and the writers themselves.

Encouraging learners to leave comments, create a new post, or otherwise share feedback is critical to the learning process but is often shortchanged in classroom contexts. By contrast, the public commenting on Instructables becomes a natural context to ask questions like “There seems to be something missing in Step 4. What did you mean when you said X?” These questions become a model for providing feedback and reflection in other forms of writing. Many Instructables writers take the feedback seriously and refine their Instructables based on comments from the community. Furthermore, it’s easy enough for even the youngest of readers to participate.

Ties to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
The kind of informational writing found in Instructables is a crucial component of all STEM fields and critical 21st-century literacy skills. The Common Core State Standards for writing in science, for example, require students to write informative texts, including procedurals, and to use the Internet to produce and publish writing. Standards for grades 6–10 also state that in science and technical subjects, "students must be able to write precise enough descriptions of the step-by-step procedures they use in their investigations or technical work that others can replicate them and (possibly) reach the same results." The act of written reflection is important because it enables kids to spend time exploring why they acted the way they did in the process of making something, making the learning outcomes more salient.

Youth Reflections on Learning by Making
Within my research group, we're engaged in finding out more about what kids are learning in the process of making. As part of these activities, we turned to a group of young makers on to hear from them firsthand. If you're interested in what youth are learning in the process of making, you can explore what young learners had to say about their own learning-through-making as part of the 2013 Make-to-Learn Youth Contest. What you find just might surprise you!