Sunday, August 29, 2021

Thoughts on reading Paulo Blikstein (the founder of the Fab Learn Schools Movement)

This article then is not a summary but thoughts arising from a 2013 article by Paulo Blikstein. First, a couple of starting assertions:

(1) We, humans, are homo faber (Latin for Man the Maker), the concept that human beings are able to control their fate and their environment as a result of the use of tools.

Making and the ability to make is a good thing. Although bad things can be made and most things can be used in a bad way, there is a general link between progress and making. I’m simply asserting this here as true. I have argued the case in the past (see reference) and am happy to continue the argument for those who want to argue.

It follows on from this (a corollary) that an enhanced ability for individuals or small groups to make can transform or at least complement commercial consumption. You may want to tweak the commercial design in a way that suits your needs, functional or aesthetic. You might think of a new design that hasn’t been produced yet. Or there may be local shortages or special needs or delays in a world ravaged by a pandemic.

(2) The other starting point is that new things replace or transform old things. We have known this for a while now. I grew up in a world without the internet or smart phones. They represent the first two digital revolutions: (i) Following Moore’s law computers shrank from house size to pocket size (ii) Internet revolutionised communication, cost and abundance of information and storage. Those revolutions continue. Most people want to jump onto those revolutions. They are overwhelmingly seen as a good thing.

The third digital revolution is the Fab Lab. This was developed by Neil Gershenfeld (from 2003) and then brought into schools by Paulo Blikstein (from 2008). Since then Fab Labs have been growing exponentially. Some might argue that this is a wrong reading of recent history and the future. There might be other legitimate candidates for the next digital revolution. Once again, argument is welcome.

So, why was the Fab Lab born? Because these things are desirables for self directed making:
  • Design skills
  • Powerful, multifunctional machines at reduced cost. There are 5 main types of machines involved: Vinyl cutter, 3D Printer, Digital Embroidery, Laser cutter and CNC machines
  • Open source hardware and software

Blikstein’s article is worth reading for the discussion of the rocky path of the birth and evolution of Fab Labs in more detail.


If schools value an activity then they build a space for it: Science labs, PE spaces, computer labs etc. A Fab Learn lab doesn’t have to have all the capabilities of a full Fab Lab, but needs to have enough to put students onto that pathway. The space needs to be created. Then we can argue about the detail of what goes in there, what training is required etc.

Paulo Blikstein provides a theoretical base for this movement. He links Dewey (experiential learning) to Friere (cultural based learning) to Papert (constructionism). I’m well read in Papert but only know a little about Dewey and Friere. I plan to read another Blikstein article where he discusses Friere in more detail. See references.

Some good points made by Blikstein about the potential and dangers of introducing Fab Learn Labs to schools are summarised below. Read his article for much more detail.

Everyone has some experience in making. Hence, the Fab Learn approach augments existing skills and hence provides a solid starting point for nearly all students.

The new machines mean that to a large extent digital work replaces manual work in the making process. This creates opportunities to transform the “toys for boys” situation which prevails in most maker spaces.

You can make things with cardboard, true. The new machines mean you are making a more professional, durable, aesthetic and satisfying product

It is highly desirable that school curriculum be transformed (project based learning and a merging of subject domains) and that longer time slots be introduced to allow for completion of complex projects. Existing time slots (eg. 60 minute lessons) can be seen as more efficient but force the teacher to provide lots of scaffolding to get the job done. Learning new skills, some of them complex, properly always involves error correction and this takes more time.

The process of designing and making something you want to make provides a great boon for motivation and involvement. It also introduces the risk of despair when things go wrong. This does represent a transformation of a common school practice where things are sometimes (often?) dumbed down to a point where failure is rare.

In any school process there is always the danger of trivialisation. This can arise from both students and teachers, eg. Keep making keychains on the 3D printer rather than a more challenging task. The role of the teacher is to steer learners towards complexity.

Digital Fabrication and ‘Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention (2013) by Paulo Blikstein

Travels in Troy with Friere: Technology as an agent in emancipation (2008) by Paulo Blikstein (I’ve promised myself to read that)

Meaningful Making Books 1 & 2 (free to download!)

Some old articles I wrote about technology and progress:
Technology and indigenous progress
Technology as Trickster, revisited