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Definitions & Approaches

Educational Theory


A theory of learning that says people learn best when they build physical, sharable objects. Constructionism and constructivism are related theories. Both emphasize active, experiential learning.


A theory of learning according to which people build knowledge through experience and reflection, incorporating what they learn from each new experience into what they already know.


To meet students’ diverse needs, educators use a variety of instructional approaches in any project or lesson. One way to differentiate instruction is by appealing simultaneously to multiple learning modalities.

Legitimate peripheral participation:

Novices learn by interacting with more knowledgeable others, such as teachers, in a meaningful way. Over time, the more knowledgeable others invite novices to become full participants in the activity.  

Maker-Based Instruction (MBI):

A way to teach skills and content by engaging students in designing and creating tangible, sharable objects. It’s much more than technical know-how. MBI can be used to teach any educational content, from STEM to social studies to literacy. MBI also builds problem-solving abilities, creativity, and affective skills like persistence and empathy.


Students’ reflection on their own thinking during the learning process. For example, during Maker-Based Instruction, students might cognitively “step back” from making in order to think through a challenging problem or a place where they are stuck.


The different ways people can learn something. Educators speak of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile modalities. In other words, people can learn through seeing, hearing, moving around, and touching. Maker-Based Instruction engages each learner through multiple modalities.


The actions and dispositions of teachers and students during any learning experience. Postures may be active, passive, collaborative, instructing, receiving, modeling, and so on. Maker-Based Instruction pays attention to the postures that are appropriate to adopt at the different stages of teaching and learning. Postures necessarily change throughout any learning experience.


Instructional design that sets the learner up to expand upon their existing knowledge. Learners get structured guidance with new tasks before trying them without an instructor’s help. Like the scaffolding around a building under construction, pedagogical scaffolding is temporary. It helps learners build confidence and independence to use their skills to solve problems on their own.

Zone of proximal development (ZPD):

The space just beyond a learner’s current knowledge. It’s where a learner is ready to acquire and integrate new knowledge, with the help of a guide and appropriate scaffolding.

Maker Terminology

Computer numerical controlled (CNC):

CNC machines like 3-D printers or laser cutters are controlled by software rather than by hand. The patterns they follow are represented by mathematical points and curves. 

Digital prototyping:

Creating a prototype through software that communicates with computer numerical controlled tools like vinyl cutters, 3-D printers, and routers. 


Failure is essential to progress in Maker-Based Instruction. In fact, makers are encouraged to “fail faster” and “fail forward” on their way to learning new skills and creating new objects. Trying and failing at something new means you’re challenging yourself. Failure is thus an opportunity to learn both about concepts and about yourself. It doesn’t feel good to fail all the time, but learning requires pushing yourself beyond your present capacity and into the zone of proximal development, where failure is more likely at first.

Iteration/rapid iteration:

Going through the steps of a process successive times, aiming to make gradual improvement in the product. In Maker-Based Instruction, learners gather data from testing a prototype that informs how they build their next prototype, which they then test and gather data on, and so on. Iteration enables makers to build increasingly higher-resolution prototypes and products.

Low-resolution vs. high-resolution:

Low-resolution prototypes allow makers to build and test a product rapidly by making a version of it with inexpensive materials and intentionally imprecise processes. After collecting data on the low-resolution prototype, they can change their design and eventually make a higher-resolution prototype or product with greater precision.

Low-tech vs. high-tech:

Maker-Based Instruction works with all sorts of technology, from scissors to saws to laser cutters. Low-tech refers to hand tools and the physical process of making. High-tech usually involves a combination of digital and physical processes: software and hardware. High-tech tools offer great capabilities, but Maker-Based Instruction doesn’t require them. For young students, learning to use something as simple as glue will greatly expand what they can make.

Physical prototyping:

Using materials and not software to build a prototype. Physical prototype materials include cardboard, clay, popsicle sticks, etc.

Productive struggle:

The effortful experience of real learning: discovering, failing, trying new approaches, and figuring things out. The opposite experience, unproductive struggle, is about difficulty that doesn’t result in learning. Unproductive struggle may result from learners being taken beyond their zone of proximal development. The SMU Maker Education Project’s approach is to help educators develop intuition for differentiating between productive and unproductive struggle. When educators sense that their students are in an unproductive struggle on a project, they intervene.


Testing a prototype involves looking for what works as well as what doesn’t. Finding problems with a prototype will generate data that a maker can use in the iterative process of redesigning the product and building the next prototype.

Maker-based Instruction Terminology

Proficiency & purpose:

In Maker-Based Instruction, proficiency and purpose always go together. Students need to use their skills for a purpose, to make something. Proficiency without purpose is too abstract. That is, students may be proficient with a tool, but they may not be able to channel their proficiency into creating an object. Along the same lines, assigning students a goal (purpose) without building their proficiency sets them up for unproductive struggle and frustration. 

Tinkering vs. Maker-Based Instruction:

Tinkering is when you are playing with and exploring a tool or material with no specific, deliverable goal. Tinkering is using materials just to see what happens. Maker-Based Instruction, by contrast, always includes building a product or completing a project. Its goal is to give students a purpose and for students to build proficiency with specific tools and in specific skills.   

Process-Driven Learning Frameworks

Design thinking:

Anything you make needs a design. Design thinking is the cognitive approach to creating innovative solutions to problems. Design thinking puts an emphasis on divergent thinking (generating as many ideas as possible) and a bias toward action (putting ideas to practical use quickly, to test them out). 

Human-centered design (HCD):

An approach to solving problems and creating products and systems that puts users’ experience at the center. The goal of HCD is to improve users’ experience in whatever way possible. HCD has been used by some of the most innovative companies and institutions in the world to create consumer products, healthcare systems, retail spaces, fundraising events, curricula, and much more. The foundation of HCD is a firsthand understanding of the human needs and behaviors in the system you’re designing. HCD relies heavily on collaboration, participation from users and stakeholders, a willingness to learn your way toward the right solution, and a bias toward action over planning.

Project-based learning:

A pedagogical approach where students work on real-world problems, guided by the teacher as a coach. Projects have defined goals, but the process of exploring and working toward a solution is where students make big gains in their learning.

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