The Spontaneous Emergence of Maker Dispositions in Schools: A Case Example from Singapore

The Spontaneous Emergence of Maker Dispositions in Schools: A Case Example from Singapore

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Spontaneous Emergence of Maker Dispositions in Schools: A Case Example from Singapore

 (by Kenneth Lim, Research Scientist, the National Institute of Education, Singapore)


© Flickr/Maker Festival Toronto

Kenneth Y T Lim is a Research Scientist at the National Institute of Education, Singapore. He is presently editing a book entitled Maker Culture and Makerspaces: landscapes of participatory making, modding and hacking. The book is scheduled for publication in 2016/2017 and will use case examples from Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia to describe maker culture as it is manifested in a diversity of socio-cultural contexts. 

Since the Industrial Revolution, the development of civil societies in the West was initially characterized by periods of steady growth and relative stability. From the latter half of the twentieth century – precipitated by the forces of globalization and the imperatives of networked social and economic architectures – societies are now characterised as being in a continual and dynamic state of change. These shifts hold far-reaching implications for social practices and genres of socio-economic participation; including those pertaining to how children learn, the nature of disciplinary understanding (Lim, 2015), and the social co-negotiation of structures of authority and trust.

Schooling systems have historically been designed largely based on an industrial model and mass-production of skills.  The structured nature of schooling today can be complemented by more emergent and unstructured forms of informal learning, including networks of practice existing in social media and online worlds. There is an increasing recognition – since Brown’s (2008) seminal paper in the Harvard Business Review – that such milieux are of critical value to ensuring the nimbleness and adaptivity of societies in the 21st century.

The recent phenomena of Maker Movements are very good examples of the increasingly participatory culture of learning that characterizes a lot of learning opportunities in authentic contexts outside of the formal spatial and temporal bounds of schooling. Maker Movements recognize that understanding is socially constructed. The learnings that accrue from defining ourselves as social beings – in relation to social others – are very different from those which arise from an understanding of self as a standalone construct; the latter reinforces a notion of the acquisition of knowledge as stock, the former foregrounds an understanding of the negotiation of knowledge as flow.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, makerspaces have emerged and / or attempted to be nurtured in countries such as South Korea, Thailand and Singapore (Endgadget, 2004). With regards to the study introduced in this paper, the makerspace and its supporting maker culture was situated within a state-funded school in Singapore. It operated in a way which transcended the boundaries of both the formal and non-formal curricula. Specifically, schools in Singapore oblige students to participate in at least one so-called Co-Curricular Activity (CCA). The CCAs organize after-school activities, with the aim of building character and leadership qualities among the students.

One example of a CCA uniformed group is the National Cadet Corps (Air) (NCC (Air)). The NCC (Air) curriculum has two main components: Footdrills and Aeromodelling. To build a healthy sense of competition and esprit de corps across the various NCC (Air) units emplaced within schools in Singapore, annual Aeromodelling competitions are organized on an inter-school basis.

A corollary of the training as student-cadets prepare for such tournaments is that their remotely-controlled scale-model aircraft will crash and will need to be repaired or replaced. Each school-based NCC (Air) unit is given autonomy with regards to crafting the curricular enactments in order to best prepare the cadets to fly the aircraft skillfully. As the school described in this study, the NCC (Air) student-cadets designed a scaffolded curriculum spanning the four years of secondary school. The novice trainees (typically aged twelve to thirteen) are introduced to the principles and concepts of flight through flight simulation software. They then progress to practicing on remote-controlled powered-kites, and finally to the scale-model aircraft.

What distinguished the student-cadets at the school from their counterparts from other schools in Singapore is that they had developed a strong ‘can do’ / improvisational spirit within themselves, and this was primarily evident in how they approached the repair and tinkering of the design of the stock, off-the-shelf kites and model-aircraft which they flew. Of equal interest is how some of the more senior student-members within the team went beyond just tinkering with the design of flying models, and cannibalized parts to diversify into land-based, and even prototype water-based craft.

The students shared that during the course of their iterative attempts, they appropriated – with the permission and supervision of teachers – parts, materials, and machining tools from the school’s metalworking workshop managed by the Design and Technology Department, even when they were not necessarily taking Design and Technology as an academic subject.

In fact, they went even further, as in some cases they found the soldering tools “not precise enough”. In these cases, they leveraged their social capital with the proprietor of the local kite-supplier, to gain access to the more well-maintained and up-to-date tools found in the proprietor’s personal workshop, even though the latter entailed a half-hour bus-journey beyond their local estate.

Of particular interest was that – as they continued iterating the design, and because they were personally invested in a task which was both authentic and meaningful – the student-cadets gradually appropriated the epistemic frame (Shaffer, 2007) of the designer and the engineer; thus, for example, they were able to describe a subsequent iteration of the go-kart:

“The RC Car V3 reuses the same wooden car body used by RC Car V2. However, a major design alteration involves wheels connected by carbon rods are used instead of the Cessna landing gear. This alteration was made to lower the centre of gravity so that the car would be more stable. A Karbonite servo was used to turn the wheels instead of a plastic servo as the plastic servo will vibrate the moment the wheels are attached”.

In these and other ways, the maker culture that has spontaneously emerged within the NCC (Air) at the school found enactions through seamlessly negotiating formal and non-formal structures of time and space within and without the schooling curriculum of Singapore.

The study described in this article suggests that the student-cadets were successfully able to negotiate both formalized, regimental protocols as well as leverage – often informally through their own social networks – seemingly peripheral actors and structures such as kite-sellers, metal-working workshops and tools. They were able to operate fluently across what might initially come across as hard boundaries because they derived meaning and authenticity from their membership and participation in interest-driven communities – no one needed to tell them to persevere and improve, instead they engaged in a complex series of performances encompassing goal-setting, resource-evaluation and self- and peer-assessment according to both personal and socially moderated standards.

In such performative environments, the traditionally binary distinctions between success and failure are rendered meaningless, as the learners realize for themselves they have the ability to create their own contexts for personally meaningful experiences of learning.

Learners engage in the creation and curation of contexts, through deliberate participation in play. By ‘play’, we refer not only to situations in which the learners are actively participating in the structured activities of games, but also to the dispositional approach of the learner to attempting to understand whatever is presently holding his / her attention as a system to be analysed, de- and reconstructed. Play is therefore an extremely intentional activity (Huizinga, 1955), and it is also a disposition which is increasingly defined in negotiation with one’s social others.

Framing learning through the disposition of play is important, because it has the corollary that ‘failure’ (as traditionally defined) is an option – to the extent that it is understood as a learning opportunity. Personal worth is understood as a developmental process (‘flow’), as in “I am getting better at this” / “I am understanding better how this works”.

Fabricating using funds initially pooled from their own savings, and using scrap materials and tools from the metal- and woodworking workshop in the school, the go-karts and subsequent craft represent authentic examples of remix and thinkering which reflect the kinds of students that societies will have to increasingly depend upon in order to stay relevant, adaptive and responsive in the 21st century. Going forward, it would do well for state-funded initiatives to consider how passion-driven street-craft communities might be encouraged through the provision of infrastructure, and access to shared resources, tools, and expertise.

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Source: UNESCO Bangkok,

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