On Constructionism, Makerspaces, and Music Education

Burton Hable imagines the role of makerspaces supported by constructionist pedagogy in music education as a way to expand and enrich the standard model for students.


12 min read
On Constructionism, Makerspaces, and Music Education

At the end of March, I recorded an episode with my good friend, Nick Covington, for his podcast with the Human Restoration Project. Nick and I were students together at Ankeny High School, and we later ended up teaching together in that same district! We have had frequent conversations over the past dozen-or-so years about progressive education, and Nick wanted to talk to me about my research interests in constructionism and makerspaces and how I see them intersecting with music education. I would love it if you gave the episode a listen on your podcast player of choice (I am a big fan of Overcast).

This blog post is an expansion/dissection of my thoughts. Nick sent me a list of questions ahead of time, and I created a mind spill in a Google Doc for the two of us to use as a guide through our conversation. I used that same Google Doc to structure this blog post. Here are Nick's questions and my (now better-collected) thoughts:


Tell us about yourself and your experiences & interests in education! What values do/did you center in your work with students and schools as a music educator?

My name is Burton Hable, and I have been a music educator for the past 12 years. For the first 8 years of my career, I taught 5–12th grade band at a few different schools in Iowa. In 2018, I moved to just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, when my wife took a position as a Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia.

I originally went to Iowa State University to major in electrical engineering and came out with a Bachelors in Music Ed! My first few years of teaching involved 5th grade and high school band in Waterloo, Iowa.

In 2013, I helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, Iowa, where we had a unique way of offering band to 6–12th grade students. We had 5 (eventually 6) teachers for 6–12 band. Our schedule was setup so that none of us were rehearsing at the same time; all six of us could be in every single rehearsal! Each one of us had at least 1 rehearsal where we were "on the podium." For rehearsals we weren't leading, the remaining teachers either pushed in or pulled out individuals or small groups to provide differentiated (instrument-specific) instruction.

After a few years of teaching, I decided to pursue a Masters program that would "fill in the gaps" from my undergraduate degree. I completed a summer and online program through VanderCook College of Music, and my "thesis" designed a curriculum for improvisation using small combos from within the large jazz ensemble.

As a music educator, it is my goal to help musicians develop the skills to independently understand and communicate emotion through music. I believe the best way to do that is to use music that speaks to students on an emotional level. Their music can be the gateway to the traditional canon or to other genres and styles. Traditional ensembles (band/orchestra/choir) can serve as vehicles for creating experiences for performers and listeners in both their historic repertoire and more diverse music. One of the ways I worked to do this was an end-of-year ensemble project, where our students would form small ensembles, select and prepare literature of their own, and perform it for their peers. We had students performing Disney medleys, songs by Panic! At the Disco, original compositions, video game music, layered tracks, and more!

My first forays into progressive education came from my relationship with Nick. He introduced me to standards-based grading when the Ankeny Community Schools were beginning to incorporate those practices. Later, as Nick began his work with the Human Restoration Project, we were frequently sharing articles and research.

When my wife and I moved to Virginia, I was wrestling with the next path my education career should take. While substitute teaching in the local schools and playing & working for local ensembles, I started a doctoral program in music education remotely through Boston University.

I became interested in makerspaces and maker-centered learning through reading Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools by Ira Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff. Makerspaces are places where tools and technologies are available for people of varying ages and skill levels to engage in the construction and sharing of tangible artifacts (Sheridan et al., 2014). Little did I know, I was living in a hotbed of school makerspaces! Ira was the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for Albemarle County Public Schools. Pam Moran was the Superintendent of ACPS, and Chad Ratliff is still the principal at Community Lab School in Albemarle County. I also had the opportunity to sub frequently in the Sigma Lab—an engineering-focused makerspace at Charlottesville High School.

I am fascinated by the potential makerspaces could provide for music education. Personally, I think our traditional paradigm of band/orchestra/choir limits the exposure of secondary students to music education. We know that less than 25% of students enroll in at least one of those courses during their 4 years of high school (Elpus & Abril, 2019). Those other 75% of high school students are likely engaged in music in some other way—listening or making music outside of school. How can the field of music education reach them? There are examples of maker-centered activities that engage music concepts like the cigar box guitar (Clapp & Jimenez, 2016), acoustic and electric guitars (Stager, 2006; Center I), or music albums and videos (Socol et al., 2016).

So many of our conversations in the last couple of years have revolved around a man, Seymour Papert (/ˈpæpərt/), and his idea, constructionism, easily confused in name with constructivism—which is ubiquitous in progressive educational thought. Who was Papert? What’s going on with constructionism? What’s your interest in exploring & applying that idea in your own work & study?

Seymour Papert was a mathematician, computer scientist, and educator from South Africa. His two most notable positions are the work he did with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva and his leadership of the Epistemology and Learning Research Group at the MIT Architecture Machine Group, which is now known as the MIT Media Lab.

From his work at MIT, Papert developed his learning theory of constructionism, which finds its roots in Piaget's theory of constructivism. The two words are, unfortunately, used interchangeably for a wide variety of different learning theories and epistemologies. For the sake of brevity, let's say this:

  • Constructivism as an epistemology (theory of knowledge) says that we construct our own knowledge through experience. There isn't "one truth" out there to be discovered. Rather, by experiencing the world around us, our mind makes meaning out of those experiences. You and I might have the same experience but each construct very different meanings and knowledge from them.
  • Jean Piaget's version of constructivism attempted to identify how and when we were able to build these mental structures, called schema. Learners assimilate or accommodate new knowledge into their existing schema (Piaget, 1952).
  • Lev Vygotsky built on Piaget's theories, adding that people construct and situate knowledge within social structures. Part of my construction of knowledge of a shared experience is a result of us sharing that experience. My construction would be different if you weren't a part of that experience. This is where the concepts of scaffolding and the more knowledgeable other come into play. The situation of the experience shapes our mental constructions (Vygotsky, 1978).

Seymour Papert went one step further to say that the process of knowledge construction happens best when people create a physical or digital artifact to serve as a representation of their mental construction. Artifacts are "objects to think with" and allow us to engage in syntonic learning—personalized understandings of how our knowledge is applied and situated in the world.

  • Learners appropriate knowledge by making it their own and beginning to identify with it, a process called syntonic learning.
  • Learning cultures are communities of learners comprised of people with different levels of experience and knowledge, working together towards a common goal (e.g. Brazilian samba schools)
  • Microworlds are "a computer-based interactive learning environment where the prerequisites are built into the system and where learners can become the active, constructing architects of their own learning” (Papert, 1980/2020).

You can see why people refer to Seymour Papert as the "father of the maker movement"—his learning theory of constructionism says we learn best by making (Martinez & Stager, 2013). The Epistemology and Learning Research Group published a plethora of research detailing how they used constructionism as a framework to design learning experiences for students (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai, 1995; Kafai & Resnick, 1996; Holbert et al., 2020). Their work focused primarily on how computers could open up a whole new world for students to construct knowledge by teaching (programming) the computer. They developed a new programming language (Logo) for this purpose and documented their research with students using it to program turtles (mathematics and physics), circuits (electricity and textiles), and video games (teaching others mathematical concepts).

Seymour Papert (WikiMedia Commons)

Near the end of his life, Seymour Papert and Gary Stager developed a makerspace in the Maine Youth Center (Stager, 2006). The Constructionist Learning Laboratory was a progressive education experiment in a juvenile detention center. As Stager noted, in the three years they were working in the CLL, they never once had a behavior issue with any of their students. Rather, because students were able to pursue projects in which they were interested and provided with the tools, technology, and expertise to do so, they were fully engaged in the process of making.

For me, constructionism lies at the heart of what I want to study—how do students construct music knowledge in a school makerspace? My hypothesis is if students make music artifacts in a makerspace, they will construct music knowledge. At this proposal stage of my dissertation, prior to any research, I am using a constructivist/constructionist definition of music knowledge: meaning derived from an experience with aural phenomena (Shively, 1995). A music artifact would be a representation of this constructed music knowledge through performance, creation, or description (Shively, 1995; Wiggins, 2015).

Where could we find constructionism in practice?

Constructionism is being practiced anywhere where people are making artifacts to represent their knowledge constructions. There is a lot of crossover between project-based, discovery-based, or inquiry-based learning and constructionist practices. Most of the empirical research for constructionist practices is happening in STEM fields. While not intentionally constructionist, our ensemble project is a good example: students created a performance on their own representing their understanding of musical concepts like tone, rhythm, pitch, balance, blend, etc.

How are you pursuing this in your doctoral work? What literature are you connecting with? What hurdles have you run into in this part of the field?

I would love to embed myself in a school makerspace for a year or more to observe students. What tools and technology do they choose to engage? What artifacts are they making? What knowledge are they constructing as they do so? How are they engaging with music?

In terms of literature, this is both a blessing and a curse. STEM fields have really begun to engage with maker-centered learning, so the literature is growing more abundant in these fields. There is a dearth of makerspace and constructionist literature in the field of music education; hence the need and my desire for this study.

What has been the most frustrating to me has been the lack of literature that says "because Nick did X, they learned Y," but this this an issue in all learning sciences literature. If we are going to state something like that, we have to determine how to measure that knowledge, and that brings up a whole host of issues. Constructionism does not prescribe a way to say specifically how people construct knowledge, just that the process happens best by making representations of that knowledge.

What does your ideal music instruction look like?

To go back to my philosophy as a music educator, I want to help musicians develop the skills to independently understand and communicate emotion through music. I believe the best way to do that is to use music that speaks to students on an emotional level, which may or may not be the music we traditionally see in band/orchestra/choir. We can use music in which our students are interested, to help them better understand how artists communicate emotion through music and how they can do the same.

I want us to have more options for students than just band/orchestra/choir. There are different pushes in music education to try and broaden the field to incorporate music technology, music from specific cultures (e.g., mariachi), modern band, and more. This means that pre-service music educators need to be broadening their knowledge of the field to be able to reach more students.

Are there practical steps to take to get there?

Yes and no. Pre-service music education traditionally focuses on deep knowledge within your specific sub-field: band, orchestra, choir, or general music. If you're lucky, your program supplements from other sub-fields and/or music technology. This is usually controlled by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), our certifying body. It is also affected by the expertise and philosophies of the faculty, curricula determined by state and local boards of education, and the culture of the surrounding school districts.

Music educators need broader training, and there are programs out there to help. The difficult part is incorporating the broader training into the norm of music education.

Who is leading in this area? What work is motivating you? What media would you recommend to listeners who want to learn more?

Let's start broadly with makerspaces and constructionism. The MIT Media Lab continues to do groundbreaking work. Specifically, check out the work of Mitch Resnick and the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Edward Clapp and Harvard's Project Zero have been doing similar work, pushing into STEAM through arts integration. Their was also a recent book published, Designing Constructionist Futures: The Art, Theory, and Practice of Learning Designs, that is a modern discussion of how to design constructionist learning environments. Many of the authors were students of Papert's, and the book is framed as a continuation of the work of the Epistemology and Learning Group.

Within the arts, I am very interested in the work of Erica Halverson,a theatre artist and professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Halverson took part in a consortium entitled Learning in the Making which looked at how makerspaces are being used in education. She just recently published a book entitled How the Arts can Save Education: Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Instruction. I am currently branching out from Dr. Halverson into the work of Kimberly Sheridan at George Mason University and Kylie Peppler at the University of California-Irvine.

Within music, this becomes more difficult. As far as I know, no one is publishing work related to makerspaces and music. The constructivist/constructionist music scholars I follow include Joseph Shively, Jackie Wiggins, Sheila Scott, and Janet Barrett. Shively's (1995) dissertation unpacks several versions of constructivism to develop a framework for teaching beginning band. He later published a literature review on constructivism in music education (Shively, 2015). Wiggins published a treatise on music education that advocates for a social constructivist view of teaching. Her book is entitled Teaching for Musical Understanding. Both Scott and Barrett have published a wide variety of literature advocating for and discussing how to implement constructivist practices in music education.

There is a potential crossover between makerspaces and music technology. Leaders in the music tech field include Adam Patrick Bell, S. Alex Ruthmann, and Evan Tobias.

As an aside from our previous discussion about the future of music education, the concept of modern band (or rock band)—using guitar, bass, piano, drums, and computer—is rapidly growing in popularity. Check out Little Kids Rock and the work of Martina Vasil.

Lastly, in my pursuit of his dissertation on the Constructionist Learning Laboratory, I've become immersed in the work of Gary Stager, a student of Seymour Papert's. Gary recently published a new book, 20 Things to Do with a Computer Forward 50: Future Visions of Education Inspired by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s Seminal Work, which pulls together essays from researchers, educators, and thought leaders on how Papert and Solomon's 1971 essay (20 Things to Do With a Computer) has been realized. For the past month, I've been part of a book study with Gary and several of the authors as they unpack the implications for education. Gary also has another website, The Daily Papert, where he continues to publish Papert's work.

How can listeners find and connect with you and your work?

My website is burtonhable.com, and I'm on Twitter as @BurtonHable and Facebook as well.


References

Clapp, E. P., & Jimenez, R. L. (2016). Implementing STEAM in maker-centered learning. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(4), 481–491. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000066

Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2019). Who enrolls in high school music? A national profile of U.S. students, 2009-2013. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(3), 323–338. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429419862837

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. M. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495–504. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.84.4.34j1g68140382063

Harel, I., & Papert, S. (Eds.). (1991). Constructionism: Research reports and essays, 1985–1990. Ablex.

Holbert, N., Berland, M., & Kafai, Y. B. (Eds.). (2020). Designing constructionist futures: The art, theory, and practice of learning designs. MIT Press.

Kafai, Y. B. (1995). Minds in play: Computer game design as a context for children's learning. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kafai, Y. & Resnick, M. (Eds.). (1996). Constructionism in Practice: Designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom (2nd ed.). Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Papert, S. A. (2020). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (Rev. ed.). Basic Books. (Original work published 1980)

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (M. Cook, Trans.). International Universities Press.

Sheridan, K. M., Halverson, E. R., Litts, B., Brahms, L., Jacobs-Priebe, L., & Owens, T. (2014). Learning in the making: A comparative case study of three makerspaces. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 505–531. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.84.4.brr34733723j648u

Shively, J. (1995). A framework for the development and implementation of constructivist learning environments for beginning band classes [Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/20660

Socol, I., Moran, P., & Ratliff, C. (2018). Timeless learning: How imagination, observation, and zero-based thinking change schools. Jossey-Bass.

Stager, G. S. (2006). An investigation of constructionism in the Maine Youth Center [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Melbourne.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Harvard University Press.

Wiggins, J. (2015). Teaching for musical understanding (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

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