Putting the Makar in the Maker Movement


The makar has been an exalted component of Scottish literature and culture for more than 600 years. The makars were the makers of poems, the ancient poets and bards of Scotland. It is a term still in use here today.

Skilled poets, we know, do not simply write poetry: they build and shape and rebuild and reshape poems, carefully constructing every syllable, every word, every line, searching out every ounce and layer of meaning, every nuance. The Greek poiētēs means both maker and poet. From the likes of Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, all the way down to the Scots Makars of today appointed by the Scottish Parliament as our country’s poets (the first was Edwin Morgan, succeeded by Liz Lochhead and, most recently, Jackie Kay). Many Scottish cities now appoint their own makars too.

It is interesting to juxtapose this particular meaning given to makar or maker in Scottish culture with the burgeoning Maker Movement that we see happening across education worldwide, and at its most vibrant probably in the USA. The concept of maker in the latter context, with a few brave and notable exceptions (to whom we shall return), tends to focus on making things with the hands and with tools. As such it is a movement that has become largely enmeshed with the push by Governments across the leading economies to promote STEM teaching in our schools: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

This is a pity. STEM is of course a critical part of the curriculum, but in the context of the Maker Movement, it is important to shape and nurture Makerspaces that are not STEM-only enclaves.

Here in Scotland, a country with a rich and proud history of making things – Clyde-built ships, for example, once numbered more than half the steamships plying the world’s lakes, seas and oceans – the makar is also a hewer of ideas, a creator of images in words, a provoker of thoughts and arguments, a producer of meaning and reflection, through the medium of poetry. A typically Scottish contradiction. Or rather, a more complete and rounded view of what making can and ought to be about.

If in our schools we can widen the concept of the makar from the poet to the creator of ideas, to the writer in general, to the artist, to the musician and singer, to the coder and scripter of digital applications, as well as to the accepted meaning of making objects and artefacts with hands and tools – indeed to the full gamut of what it means to make – we should be able to think of the Makerspace as so much more than merely a temple to STEM. Some, again primarily in the USA, have added ‘A’ for Arts to STEM, giving us STEAM. This is fine so far as it goes (the pleasing acronym has helped it along), but of course, to have the Arts as just one minor component nestled amongst Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is not enough. Making should be, and can be, envisaged as covering the whole of the curriculum.

My own liking for the Maker Movement though brings me back to those few brave souls who are already pushing the boundaries of Makerspaces, not only beyond STEM, but also beyond traditional classroom teaching and classroom instruction. They encourage the teacher and the school to create the conditions for open and free making, and then allow the natural curiosity and creativity of children and young people to flourish in that environment. They promote tinkering, open-ended exploration and creative freedom as an alternative to teacher-led lessons and top-down challenges, and as an insertion point for a freer, more enlightened pedagogy than is still to be found in so many classrooms around the world.

So, the Scottish makars, ancient and modern, are renowned as poets. But the makar of today ought to be able to create in any field using hands, tools, words, imagination, the whole breadth of human creativity. And if the young makar of today can also be set free in Makerspaces, on occasions at least, from the strictures of teacher-led lessons and the reductionist and constant measuring of a narrow concept of attainment, so that they are free to make, to play, to tinker, to try, to fail, to try again – to direct their own learning! – then they truly will be makars in ways that even those old Scottish poets might have appreciated.