Since 2013 two researchers from Brock University’s Faculty of Education and three classroom teachers from schools in the Halton Region have engaged in a Collaborative Teacher Inquiry into the use of digital technology in primary classrooms. When we began our study, iPads were new to schools and the teachers wanted to learn about effective use of apps for their language arts classes. 

Instructional Resource Centre, Brock University, Hamilton
Instructional Resource Centre, Brock University

As we experimented with apps and reflected on our practice, new topics of inquiry arose such as fostering self-regulated learning in technology-enhanced classrooms and the place of digital technology in inquiry-based learning. By 2016 another innovation was becoming popular in schools – Makerspace. We decided that learning more about Makerspace in primary classrooms would be our next goal.

Collaborative Teacher Inquiry

Collaborative Teacher Inquiry is a form of professional practice that allows teachers to integrate new knowledge and understanding of student learning with the teachers’ own experiences in the classroom. A monograph in the Capacity Building series from the Ontario Ministry of Education identifies seven key features of Collaborative Teacher Inquiry:

  1. Relevant to student learning.

In our Makerspace inquiry we wanted to explore how Makerspace activities could enhance student engagement and learning, especially in the areas of science, technology, and mathematics.

  1. A shared process involving collaboration

The Brock instructors and classroom teachers met during planning times to discuss our goals, and the Brock researchers often visited the classrooms to observe, make notes for feedback, and interact with students. Frequent emails and text messages helped maintain contact and allowed for ongoing sharing of new resources and experiences.

Two of the teachers taught the same grade in adjacent classrooms, so there was daily collaboration and planning. They often shared photos and text messages of classroom activities with the Brock members and the third teacher (who taught in a different school) as they occurred. When the Brock researchers visited the two schools, they frequently reported on what teachers in each school were doing with Makerspace.

  1. Reflective: Actions are informed by reflection

Reflection was key to our inquiry. Teachers would try a Makerspace activity they had seen modeled in the field trip provided by Brock (as described below) and Brock members would give feedback as critical friends. Conversations often happened during classroom observations and continued during recess. These reflections then provided direction for subsequent Makerspace activities.

  1. Iterative: Understanding grows from cycles of inquiry

In traditional professional development activities teachers attend a workshop, take notes, and hopefully try to implement a few of the ideas in their own classrooms, often in isolation from colleagues. It is a one-way process, with the “experts” delivering predetermined information to the teacher recipients. In a Collaborative Teacher Inquiry, members set common learning goals, seek out multiple sources of information, and connect the new understandings to their professional experiences. Each discovery leads to further questions, and the inquiry cycle continues.

  1. Reasoned: Analysis drives deep learning

In our exploration of Makerspace, we began by simply trying to understand the key features of this innovation. Then we asked what Makerspace implementation might look like in primary classrooms. As the teachers experimented with Makerspace activities, they began to pose deeper questions, such as how this approach connects to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), how they could determine what students were learning through the open-ended experiences, and how Makerspace could further the development of learning skills and work habits.

A special issue of Educational Leadership (October 2017, volume 75) led us to a closer examination of problem solving and sensitivity to design within the Makerspace experience. Each step in our analysis led us to ask increasingly challenging questions.

  1. Adaptive: Inquiry shapes practice and practice shapes inquiry

The teachers in our Collaborative Teacher Inquiry were willing to risk activities that were often messy, open-ended, and noisy. While it was clear that students loved Makerspace and were totally engaged, it would have been much easier for the instructors to stay with their more structured practices. They took the plunge, constantly reflected on their practice with team members, refined their approaches, and moved forward. The process was dynamic and energizing.

  1. Reciprocal: Theory and practice connect dynamically

It is important in a Collaborative Teacher Inquiry to provide a balance between wide exploration of resources and strategic selection geared to the focus. The classroom teachers were busy dealing with the multiple demands of their jobs, so the Brock researchers were careful to share educational blog posts, online videos, and academic articles that addressed the specific questions the team was asking. All team members sought out further insights through educational communities on Twitter and email groups.

The university researchers took the same approach to providing personnel support. When the teachers expressed a wish for some concrete examples of Makerspace in action, the Brock members mentioned that their own Instructional Resource Centre (IRC) was experimenting with Makerspace. At the suggestion of one of the teachers, the IRC developed two full-day field trips for the classes. The teachers were able to participate with their students and observe their reactions to the activities. The Brock IRC staff also pointed them to websites and kits they could access in their own classrooms.

Collaborative Teacher Inquiry and Knowledge Mobilization

Collaborative Teacher Inquiry as an approach to professional learning promotes effective Knowledge Mobilization. As can be seen in our current five-year collaboration, the process supports a long-term commitment based on trust and respect. Clear goal setting that is nevertheless open to change is fundamental to the inquiry. Because the needs arise from the group rather than being pre-determined by external researchers, the theory-practice connections are relevant and dynamic.

Reciprocity is also built into Collaborative Teacher Inquiry. It was not only the classroom teachers who benefitted from the interaction. The researchers, who are also Pre-service instructors, were able to bring real-world examples of Makerspace, learning skills, assessment, and cross-curricular connections into their own classrooms of teacher candidates. The IRC staff was delighted to test the Makerspace activities and field trip format with actual third grade students. As a result of the initial field trip and a second one the next year, they have now provided this experience to classrooms throughout the Brock University catchment area.

Transfer to the Classroom

We began our inquiry by investigating Makerspace as an approach to learning. In general terms, we discovered that Makerspace involves a collaborative workspace where students (makers) can design products that may or may not require technology. Makerspaces usually have a wide range of materials available, including building supplies (wood, Lego bricks, cardboard), art materials, 3D printers, robotics, sewing machines, glue guns, and so forth. The activities may be open-ended, so that students can freely decide what they will build, or they may be based on a challenge, such as building the tallest structure using only popsicle sticks and glue.

Once our Collaborative Inquiry group experienced the field trip to Brock’s Instructional Resource Centre, the teachers were eager to try these activities in their own classrooms. The Makerspace challenge described below occurred after some experimentation with activities following the field trips. By this point, the teachers were not satisfied with leaving the experience totally open-ended. They wanted to build on the students’ prior knowledge of design, encourage design thinking, and emphasize problem solving.

Makerspace and the Winter Olympics
Picture2 2
Toy figures for ski jump

The teachers were careful to provide a balance between instructional support and the freedom to be creative. They showed a short video of the Olympic event, provided by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation , and asked students to recall what they had learned in science about concepts such as gravity, force, friction, slope, and angles. Would two people on a bobsled move faster than one? What had their experiences with tobogganing taught them about friction?Two classes of third grade students were presented with a Makerspace challenge during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics of 2018. One class was to create bobsleds that could carry a toy figure down a track; students in the other built ski jumps for characters wearing popsicle sticks for skis.

Plan for bobsled
Plan for bobsled

The students were then given time to plan their bobsleds or ski jumps. For several minutes they created sketches or notes about key points. A wide assortment of everyday supplies was provided and the students got busy. The teachers circulated, posing questions, noting collaborative skills, but not directing the students. When the challenge was finished each team competed in an Olympic event. There was much discussion about design decisions and why certain features led to better results.

Example of a completed bobseld
a completed bobsled

Everyone was delighted with the engagement of the students and the depth achieved by stressing design thinking. Our next identified goal is to examine how the teachers can assess student learning effectively in the midst of the often-chaotic makerspace activities. To date they have made many observations about the application of learning from math and science, the growth of learning skills, and the appeal to diverse learners; now they will look for ways to record and report these assessments more systematically. The university partners will share their own expertise in these areas (one teaches an assessment course) and in turn acquire real-life examples for their own pre-service classes.

Tips for University-School Collaborations

  1. Identify everyone in the collaboration, regardless of role, as a researcher. Acknowledge that each member brings unique skills and perspectives to the project.
  2. Determine explicit goals collaboratively at the beginning of the inquiry, realizing that as the project progresses the goals will likely evolve to meet emerging needs and understandings.
  3. Take the time to develop trust and a climate of mutual respect. Collaborative Inquiries often require that we leave our comfort zones and be open to learning from mistakes. Encourage reflection, honest feedback, and experimentation

Final Words

One of the classroom teachers in the study made the following observation about our Collaborative Inquiry:

Once the word “Makerspace” came up in our conversations, everyone naturally gravitated to the idea of trying it in the classroom… lots of great articles came our way, names of people to follow on twitter, websites, Makerspace [fieldtrips] at Brock University, etc. All of a sudden, it went from a word “Makerspace” to putting it in action all because of conversations between educators.

We believe this encapsulates the essence of Knowledge Mobilization.


Ruth McQuirter Scott, Ed.D. OCT: Professor, Brock University Faculty of Education

Donna Dortmans, B.A., B.Ed., OCT: Sessional Instructor, Brock University Faculty of Education

Jennifer Boin, B.A., B.Ed., M.A., OCT: Classroom teacher – Halton Region

Catherine Rath, B.A., B.Ed., OCT: Classroom teacher – Halton Region

Nancy Meeussen, B.Sc., B.Ed., OCT: Classroom teacher – Halton Region