Harvard Educational Review
  1. Designing Constructionist Futures

    The Art, Theory, and Practice of Learning Designs

    edited by Nathan Holbert, Matthew Berland, and Yasmin B. Kafai

    Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020. 384 pp. $50 (paper).

    In Mindstorms, Seymour Papert (1980), who worked closely with Jean Piaget, argued that children could learn to use computers to suit their own needs and that “learning to use computers can change the way they learn everything else” (p. 8). This early idea that young children could construct artifacts with technological tools, through which they were able to have powerful ideas of their own, shaped conceptions of constructionism, a framework for understanding learning that was transformative for many scholars and practitioners. While early conversations about constructionism focused on LOGO, a programming language designed specifically for children to learn to program, constructionism has always been about more than computers. In Designing Constructionist Futures: The Art, Theory, and Practice of Learning Designs, editors Nathan Holbert, Matthew Berland, and Yasmin B. Kafai note that constructionism’s core goal has been “to respect children as creators, to enable them to engage in making meaning for themselves through construction, and to do this by democratizing access to the world’s most creative and powerful tools” (p. 1).

    More than fifty years later, Designing Constructionist Futures brings together 38 chapters by more than 50 contributors that extend ideas connected to constructionism for today’s learners and today’s tools. The book is divided into five related sections: “Increasing Scale,” “Supporting Equity,” “Expanding the Social,” “Developing the Creative,” and “The Future of Constructionism.” While there seem to be an overwhelming number of chapters and contributors in this volume, the editors write in their introduction that they “asked these authors to be brief in their writing” (p. 10), suggesting that interested readers dive into citation rabbit-holes as needed. In this sense, this volume can be understood more as a guide, a map to the vast lands of constructionism, rather than as the exhaustive arbiter of what is—and is not—constructionism.

    As the editors note, constructionism has also been seen as something that might only happen within rarefied settings, far away from mainstream preK–12 classrooms. In the first two sections, scholars seek to address perceptions of constructionism as a “boutique theory” for “individual learners and small classrooms [that] would not scale up to districts and massive communities” (p. 17) and critiques of constructionism as associated with the maker movement, which “can lead to problematic assumptions about the critical values of making” (p. 113), such as a failure to consider who is able to make and what they are able to make. One of the ways that constructionism has been taken up is through the maker movement, commonly associated in mainstream discourse with expensive hardware and leisure time spent in distinct physical spaces (3D printers, robots, makerspaces). This particular form of the maker movement, which often fails to consider the ways marginalized populations have made things for their own survival, has become widely criticized for being predominantly privileged, white, male, and corporatized (Barton, Tan, & Greenberg, 2016; Vossoughi, Hooper, & Escudé, 2016).

    In the first section, a number of chapters focus on the expanse of possibilities related to Scratch, a widely used children’s programming language, while other chapters focus on stories of constructionism in non-US contexts, such as Thailand and Greece. In the second section, Kylie Peppler, Anna Keune, and Naomi Thompson provide descriptive examples of how traditionally feminine practices and materials (e.g., fiber crafts like weaving and sewing) can support STEM learning within the maker movement, and Kristin A. Searle, Brenne K. Litts, Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, Yasmin B. Kafai, Teresa Casort, Stephanie Benson, and Sequoia L. Dance tell a story of Indigenous youth working with a community artist to create digital tours that map community stories. In the third and fourth sections, contributors extend constructionist theories, with Joshua A. Danish and Noel Enyedy arguing for the importance of considering embodied cognition, the role of the body in constructionist learning, and the range of syntonic resources available in learning environments (p. 245) and Jianwei Zhang naming four interrelated pillars of creative learning that account for creativity as sustained social practices. The final section consists of a series of interviews with prominent constructionist thinkers such as Mitchel Resnick, R. Benjamin Shapiro, and Michael Eisenberg who reflect on where constructionism might be headed in the next ten to twenty years.

    In considering where constructionism is today, the editors have effectively realized their ambitious vision of creating a volume that highlights the different ways constructionism can manifest. This collection includes many voices and examples of constructionism in practice, from individual classrooms to community settings, in both international and US contexts. For those who may be skeptical of or unfamiliar with constructionism, these stories of creative and joyful learning offer a vision of what is possible for learners to experience in a wide range of learning environments. Through examples of student work, photographs of learners engaging in constructing artifacts, and rich narratives, readers gain a wide range of thickly descriptive examples of constructionism in practice.

    Many of the stories in Designing Constructionist Futures are connected primarily to mathematics and computing education, and scholars such as Paulo Blikstein, in “Cheesemaking Emancipation,” argue for the importance of teaching all young people to be able to harness the power of new tools and technology.

    Still others, such as Kimberly M. Sheridan in “Constructionism in Art Studios,” point to the way constructionist learning is deeply connected to studio arts practices of envisioning, or “imagining what is not there and picturing what is possible” (p. 325). As Leah Buechley notes in her interview:

    Constructionism wants to be a universal educational philosophy, but it’s deeply anchored in mathematics education and computing education . . . Constructionism can and should play a larger role in education, but it needs to grapple with its own legacy of elevating mathematics and computation and being mostly oblivious to other disciplines. (p. 385)

    While the number of stories in this volume provides opportunities for a wide range of readers to find examples of constructionist learning that may be applicable for their own uses, this diversity may also pose a challenge for a reader unfamiliar with constructionism. In the introduction, the editors note that the term constructionism has had many definitions, in part because Papert was “somewhat cagey” about a definition: if a reader “believed that constructionism is something worth understanding, the reader would have to construct his or her own understanding of the term rather than only read a definition” (p. 3). Throughout the volume, authors use terms such as cultural making, radical constructivism, and creative learning. While all of these terms are certainly connected to constructionism, they are not interchangeable, and chapters are often too short to fully unpack these definitional differences for unfamiliar readers. Although a list of ways these various terms can be understood to be related to constructionism might run counter to Papert’s desire to let the reader develop their own understandings, a set of guiding questions at the end of the volume might have offered the reader some suggestions for how to begin to think about these conceptual relationships.

    Papert often said that “you can’t think seriously about thinking without thinking about thinking about something” (1980, p. 10). In Designing Constructionist Futures, Holbert, Berland, and Kafai have brought together many “things” for scholars, teachers, and designers to think with in considering future possibilities for constructionist learning across disciplines that are more creative and equitable. Ultimately, this volume offers readers opportunities to have powerful ideas of their own.

    Paulina Haduong


    Barton, A. C., Tan, E., & Greenberg, D. (2016). The makerspace movement: Sites of possibilities for equitable opportunities to engage underrepresented youth in STEM. Teachers College Record, 119(6), 11–44.

    Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

    Vossoughi, S., Hooper, P. K., & Escudé, M. (2016). Making through the lens of culture and power: Toward transformative visions for educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 86(2), 206–232. doi:10.17763/0017-8055.86.2.206
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