The Role of Co-Teachers in a Maker Classroom


by Christa Flores -

Making can be a highly differentiated learning process for students. At times, the adult in the room may feel pulled in 10-20 different directions, if instruction needs to be one-on-one. Rather than viewing the individual learning needs and passions of my students as too daunting of a task to undertake in my curriculum, or an obstacle to a “successful” learning environment, I began to see maker projects for their potential for serious and effective co-teaching.

7th grade mentor spends his study halls as a teaching assistant in the iLab troubleshooting with 5th graders on programming bugs, 3-D printing and laser cutting projects


Shift learning from a teacher centered focus, to a more student centered experience, and a more progressive and democratic form of learning emerges. Technology is now able to support this in part due to access and 1:1 programs.  For instance, the resources to progress in any given project can be found free on the internet or in the collective intelligence of your whole class. As such, the definition of expert or teacher is necessarily redefined in a Maker program or project.

an Ad-Hoc Soldering Clinic offered for students by students

In the Hillbrook iLab, knowing how to solder, program an arduino, sew, use Lego robotics or CAD (computer aided design) software for the 3-D printer and laser cutter, are highly sought after skills. Furthermore, new kid-friendly technology for constructivist learning is growing by the day, just check out Kickstarter for examples. Rather than spend days to weeks using direct teacher instruction to teach these skills to every student, we use a mentoring and certification process. Those in need of a new skill or knowledge can participate in a clinic to learn the above skills when they become relevant to a project at hand. Learning in this manner ensures that new skills are applied in context and with meaning, hopefully solidifying the knowledge for students. Rather than wait for the teacher to get professional development in every new technology before students get a chance to experience it, we leverage student experts that are passionate and ready to share their knowledge. A great example of this came this summer.

Last summer, the Hillbrook iLab, hosted students of the Breakthrough summer program. This pilot collaboration sought to achieve two goals with two populations, the young Breakthrough teachers (typically seniors in highschool or college students themselves) and the students in grades 7 and 8.  First we sought to outreach to young educators on the tools of digital fabrication and the pedagogy of a maker classroom.  As a result of this training, and a six week applied experience, teachers could have a more diverse and competitive resume. Students from public schools gained access to tools of the iLab, not available to them at their public schools, through a creativity fostering elective course. This exposure could give students more comfort with and viability within the competitive nature of the college application process. At the same time, I was being trained on how to use the 3-D printer by a student who had spent the past few months getting to know it.  Current 6th grader Brian, showed me the basics and then created a user guide for TinkerCAD, the design software that we use for the 3-D printer.  When the Breakthrough students arrived, Brian also spent several hours in the iLab during his summer vacation teaching eight visiting students how to 3-D print.  

Rising 6th grader working to create a user guide for the 3-D printer

When asked to reflect on the experience, Brian wrote, “I am very happy that I was able to share my strength with teaching breakthrough students. Tinkercad is easy to me because I have patience working on long projects and I am a visual learner. I have had loads of fun working with the students on Tinkercad and the 3D printer. I think the students were able to learn a lot and I hope they use 3D printing in the future.”

More recently, I have been blessed with a 7th grade teaching assistant who has been programming in HTML for years. Two hours a week, I have a second set of eyes and questions to help kids problem solve. Seeing this young man mentoring hard skills in diagnosing coding errors, as well as gently talking 5th graders through the emotionally charged issues that arise during the design process, has been an inspiration to me. Furthermore, all my co-teachers have not been students; I am learning to reach out to our grand parent population, as well. Watching a retired electrical engineer struggle through an electrical circuit with ten and eleven years olds is a powerful scene reminding us that learning is a human trait and not a consequence of schooling or age.  

In a Maker classroom, the adult no longer fills the role of sage on the stage, but rather acts more like a librarian, coach, maker in residence or mentor, pointing students in the direction of knowledge. Sometimes that direction is a book, a youtube how-to or Brainpop video, and sometimes it is peer. In the world of making, children are celebrated for their expertise and ability to share that with others. The most famous example of a child expert comes from YouTube superstar, come author, Super Awesome Sylvia. In a world increasingly marked by self-publishing and democratic access to online education, age and gender begin to become less relevant, debunking old stereotypes about who is an authority in any given topic.  

After teaching lab-based science for ten years in subjects ranging from robotics to puberty, and now needing to know the severity of missing a } in a line of code, I am proud to still be a learner myself. These are exciting times to be a learner to be sure, and I for one am glad that I can share these experiences with my co-teachers of all ages.  




Anonymous's picture

Thank you Christa for this inspiring post.  I smiled when I read you say that being the teacher/mentor in a maker education session can feel overwhelming as you are pulled in 10-20 directions.  Last night when our new eek! electronics explorers klub were in the Fab Lab developing and making things to sell at our upcoming Pop Up store, I felt that way!!!

Our participatory research at Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn has found that co-teaching among youth is one of the most powerful practices that helps our youth of color (who often come from families living with low incomes) to develop self-efficacy.  Do you know Chris Emdin from Columbia U?  He has developed an approach called Reality Pedagogy that engages urban youth in science and is based on hip hop culture.  Hip hop culture involves cooperating to learn and building knowledge through a group process, so one of the main features of Reality Pedagogy is co-teaching.  If you turn this blogpost into an article, he might be an excellent person to cite in support of your observations.

Susanna Tesconi's picture

Great post Christa, thanks for share!

I think It is very important to reflect on how making is fostering a change in teaching/learning practice. It is very powerful and it is something more than changing the organization of the class or curriculum. It is about the way we  think about power management and control in our educational relationship with the kids. It is about leave the stage and flow in a real learning process involving a complex set of humans and machines. Also I guess that the kids who are experiencing have the chance to see the knowledge  as a collective copyleft construction and not as the property of a few.