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How We Learn in Makerspaces

In this article, we'll provide you with an overview of the educational theories that explain how learning takes place in makerspaces.
A model of a row of shops, including a makerspace
© The University of Sheffield

Studies have shown that participating in makerspaces can develop a wide range of skills and dispositions. But is this always guaranteed? And under what conditions can these skills and dispositions be developed?

In this article, we’ll provide you with an overview of the educational theories that explain how learning takes place in makerspaces.

Experiential Learning

One of the key ways people can learn in makerspaces is by ‘doing’ – hands on, minds on engagement with the resources available.

The educational philosopher John Dewey was a key proponent of ‘experiential learning’. This is the concept that we learn by experiencing the world around us – exploring it, trying things out, experimenting and then reflecting on these experiences.

David Kolb proposed that experiential learning has four stages:

  1. Concrete experience – this refers to experiencing something new, or experiencing something familiar in a new way
  2. Reflective observation – thinking about one’s experience, or watching others and reflecting on what is going on
  3. Abstract conceptualisation – making sense of what one has experienced and thought about
  4. Active experimentation – testing out ideas in new contexts

Makerspaces enable all four elements to occur, but sometimes participants may need prompts to move from the concrete experience to reflective observation and abstract thinking.

This is where the role of the educator and makerspace facilitator is key, as they can ask makers key questions at significant points in the making process to support their learning.

Once participants have grasped a concept or learned a skill, they can then apply it to other contexts at the active experimentation stage.

Enactive Learning

The concept of learning by doing is closely related to the concept of enactive learning.

Bruner proposed that there are three main types of thinking:

  1. Enactive (action-based)
  2. Iconic (image-based)
  3. Symbolic (language-based)


Bruner suggested that in a constructivist approach to learning, we create knowledge through our everyday interactions with these modes of thinking, or representation. In constructivism, the individual internalises external actions and this leads to new constructs being developed in the mind.


Enactivism is a branch of psychology that developed from this idea that actions are directly linked to cognition. Enactivism has influenced other theories of learning, such as embodied learning.

Embodied Learning

In recent years, there has been an increased interest in embodied learning. This is the idea that cognition can be related through our actions to our senses and bodies. Through touch, sight, smell, movement and so on, our brains develop knowledge about the world.

All of these learning theories are relevant to makerspaces, where participants are actively engaged in making.


Seymour Papert was a computer scientist based at MIT in the USA. He suggested that learning in makerspaces was better conceptualised as constructionism (with an N) rather than constructivism (with a V, as in the work of Bruner).

Constructionism shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.
Constructionism, Papert and Harel (1991)
In other words, in constructivism, the learning is an internal, cognitive act. In constructionism, learning can take place in a social environment in which others can see and reflect on what is made and/ or the process of making the artefact.
Papert’s work has been central to the development of a vision for makerspace education.


In this article, we have reviewed different learning theories: experiential learning, enactive learning, constructivism, embodied learning and constructionism. Each of these theories has relevance for learning in makerspaces.
What do you think?
You might wish to reflect on which of these theories makes the most sense to you to consider in relation to making, or perhaps you are aware of other ways of thinking about learning that would be relevant to share.


Papert, S. and Harel, I. (1991) Constructionism. New York: Ablex Publishing.

© The University of Sheffield
This article is from the free online

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