Learning about Computational Thinking in an Aotearoa New Zealand Makerspace

Victoria Macann and Associate Professor Lucila Carvalho, Massey University

Makerspaces (either in schools or public libraries) are spaces where teachers and students can create, invent, design and explore ideas. A makerspace can be seen as an effective innovative learning environment (ILE) where shared reflections and inquiries unfold – promoting problem-solving and higher-order thinking, as well as offering opportunities for children to directly link concepts from computational thinking (CT) to hands-on activities. Makerspace learning activities can be designed in alignment with the revised technology learning area of the NZ curriculum.

In a recent article, we discussed teachers’ use of a public makerspace to support students’ development of digital technology competencies. Our study investigated the perspectives of 5 teachers, as we explored

  • their prior understanding of CT
  • how they connected problem-solving and CT
  • what tools and tasks they found valuable for encouraging their students’ understanding of CT.

In the interviews, teachers spoke about their uncertainties around the revised technology learning area of the NZ curriculum, and the need for all teachers to upskill in the new technological area of CT.

What is CT?

CT relates to thought processes like finding abstractions (focusing on the relevant information), designing algorithms for a particular task and decomposing problems (breaking a task into smaller pieces) (Rich, Yadav, & Schwarz, 2019). The development of CT skills is closely related to the need to prepare students for a fast-moving digital world where they will need to develop the confidence and skills to not only use digital technologies, but also actively design and create digital systems. When referring to CT, educators may be including both ‘plugged’ activities (such as coding) and ‘unplugged’ activities (such as following a set of instructions in a sequence), which can be taught and applied in the context of other learning areas. An approach that is contextualized and connected to other areas of the curriculum is viewed as a more valuable way to engage people (both teachers and students) in CT (Grover, 2021).

Makerspaces as places for teaching and learning CT skills

In a makerspace, children may engage with CT skills on activities that involve robotics and coding, however, for deeper learning to occur the learning activity needs to be contextualized, so that learners can understand how these skills are related to real-life. Makerspaces may provide the ideal place, with access to relevant tools, but learning tasks still need to be carefully crafted to offer learners opportunities that simulate (and connect to) real world problems, to engage them in purposeful learning on how to solve practical issues.

Educational design plays an important role here. In order to create productive learning tasks, it is important that educators align these tasks to core competencies in the curriculum whilst considering how these can be practical, hands-on, fun and connected to real-life. And importantly, learning tasks also should show continuity between the CT work teachers are doing in the school and the experiences the makerspace offers. 

The teachers who participated in our study were keen to learn more about CT and how it could be incorporated into their teaching practices both formally and informally. Teachers valued how makerspaces create opportunities for learning-by-doing, where students can experience something fun and interactive, but also how it encourages students to work together. They saw the makerspace as a place for learning about particular tools/robotics that their schools were planning to obtain in the future, and as a place for their own learning on how to facilitate sessions for their students to learn CT skills.

Other educators, who might be searching for similar experiences as the ones reported by the teachers in our study, might also use makerspaces to learn themselves about how to teach CT skills. As educators gain a better understanding about teaching CT, key questions often arise, such as how to best incorporate CT into mainstream teaching and learning practices – when and how should students learn these skills, what tools could teachers and students use or what tasks could teachers create to facilitate the learning of CT.

Where to next? 

Makerspaces can be seen as ideal learning hubs, where both educators and young people can try out innovations in education, particularly in relation to CT. Over time, and with adequate support from makerspace facilitators, teachers may use this environment to learn about key CT concepts, and to experiment with ways for how these can be implemented across curriculum areas. Makerspaces also offer a different venue to increase students’ exposure to CT, beyond their primary and secondary school settings.

Learning about CT as part of the NZ curriculum can be complex and it may require a multi-layered approach – one that encourages a systemic change, promoting teachers’ engagement, and creating opportunities so that everyone can experience hands-on activities that will support the development of skills for both students and teachers. So let’s create and/or use makerspaces to explore ideas and experiment with ways of teaching and learning about computational thinking!

Victoria Macann is a PhD candidate in digital education at Massey University. Victoria’s research focuses on the relationships between efficacy beliefs and the teaching of CT in primary/elementary education. Victoria is a Fulbright scholar at Michigan State University where she is conducting research on teacher professional learning and its impact on CT classroom implementation.

Lucila Carvalho is an associate professor in digital education at Massey University (Auckland). Lucila’s research interests are in networked learning, design for learning and learning spaces. Her research explores how knowledge and social structures shape the design and use of technology, and how technology influences social and educational experiences. She has published and presented her work at various international conferences in the fields of education, sociology, and design.

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