Beyond Power Tools: How Maker Learning Can Improve Social Dynamics

In September, my seventh grade students gave me a quick social snapshot of their class. As their new school counselor, I had asked them to submit their thoughts anonymously in a box, and they didn’t hold back. Their comments and questions ranged from the philosophical to the practical: “Why do people spread lies? If someone’s really rude to you, can you be rude back? How come people don’t realize it’s obnoxious to talk about grades all the time?”

Thirteen-year-olds must learn how to handle uncomfortable emotions and interactions, whether they get teased about a crush, feel slighted during a team project, or misinterpret a facial expression. Tamping down all that drama and building a cohesive community can take creativity. At my school, we’ve introduced separate boys and girls groups, held weekly counselor-led discussions and student-run meetings with the whole class, skyped with an expert on teen friendship, counseled kids individually, and met with parents. Even with significant student buy-in, it can be tough to broker peace among seventh graders.

In the end, our most successful intervention came as a surprise. We signed up the whole grade for a year-long, hands-on design experience at KID Museum, a local makerspace. After learning skills such as circuitry and fabrication, the kids were tasked with identifying real problems in our school community. They worked in small groups to brainstorm solutions and flesh out designs. As a culminating activity, they translated their vision into prototypes using their new STEAM skills.

A year ago, I would have been skeptical of any climate-building strategy that involved seventh graders and power tools. I was initially drawn to maker learning for a different set of reasons, including its ability to level the playing field for non-traditional learners and challenge advanced students. I valued how the design process fosters problem-solving and innovation, skills that will be increasingly critical as technology advances and more jobs disappear.

I also knew that hands-on learning would foster kids’ individual growth. Throughout the year, we used the maker experience to capitalize on opportunities to strengthen character traits such as grit and patience. We asked students to come up with goals and group norms, to keep reflection journals, and to engage in class discussions about triumphs and unexpected challenges. We encouraged them to weigh different perspectives, self-advocate, and work effectively in teams.

But while I expected each child to develop social-emotional skills, I hadn’t considered the cumulative effect of their personal gains. The unexpected payoff was a stronger, more cohesive seventh grade community.

Here are several things they did that improved seventh-grade harmony:

  • Collaborated and resolved conflict: Working in groups can be bumpy, but practice makes perfect. When you have a deadline and limited materials, you’re forced to compromise and confront your own limitations. One student commented that “it’s frustrating when you’re slower than you want to be, and others are working faster. We realized we could have done a better job dividing the work evenly.” Another pointed out how difficult it was to work with people who constantly complain. As students became more self-aware, some recognized that they were hindering progress. One said, “I had no idea I was so stubborn!” They also became aware of others’ weaknesses. Everyone was motivated to keep moving forward, so they had to figure out how to brush off minor annoyances. It’s a skill that lessens social turmoil. When kids learn to keep conflicts in perspective, they don’t hold grudges. Problems resolve much faster.
  • Honed problem-solving techniques: One girl said, “The people at KID Museum worked with us, not for us. They guided us so we didn’t blow anything up, but in the end we had to figure it out.” Their aha moment was the realization that they needed to take ownership. To make their product, they would need to figure out how to handle roadblocks. This has applicability beyond any maker program. Teachers, parents, and counselors can mentor and guide, but they can’t singlehandedly change group dynamics. Kids have to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Developed self-awareness and empathy: You can’t factor in someone else’s perspective if you don’t understand your own point of view. It’s also difficult to accept someone else’s weaknesses if you don’t have a sense of your own. Kids learned different things about themselves. One girl realized she likes to “think big and extravagant, and that doesn’t always end well.” She noted that she’s a bit of a pessimist, and that she found a team member’s chronic optimism grating. Another realized he had difficulty trusting other people, and he was a lot less patient than he thought. Back in the classroom and out in the world, it’s easier to cut people slack and let the small stuff go when you recognize that others will need to do the same for you.
  • Learned to trust and communicate: It’s hard to share your vulnerabilities with a group when you’re discussing personal experiences. But when you’re talking about making circuits or powering LED lights, it’s much easier to admit you easily get frustrated or tend to be bossy. By processing the maker experience as a class, we opened the lines of communication. Kids were authentic and listened respectfully, and that built trust. When the discussion is centered on loaded topics, conversation can shut down. But if you ask children what was most frustrating about that time the plexiglass broke, you may end up with powerful nuggets about misunderstandings or the perils of perfectionism.

In the fall, the current seventh graders will mentor the next class to go through the program. One boy told me he’s excited to share how much you can accomplish if you work as a team, stay open to others’ ideas, and don’t get sidetracked by dumb arguments. “We discovered that with cooperation, we could build a whole door,” he said. “We did it together, and we all felt so proud of that door.”

I won’t drop my traditional counseling approaches, but I hope to continue incorporating hands-on learning. After all, how many counselors can say they use power tools to teach kids about kindness?