Innovation from Below: Infrastructure, Design, and Equity in Literacy Classroom Makerspaces


Author: T. Philip Nichols

Published: August 1, 2020

A growing research base has examined the possibilities of makerspaces in education; however, there has been little exploration of how such innovations are folded into formal school structures, like English language arts classrooms. This article addresses this by following the formation of literacy classroom makerspaces in the Innovation School—an urban public high school organized around principles of making. Using ethnographic research conducted over the school’s first two years, it traces how teachers integrated making into literacy instruction and how the contours of classrooms were reshaped by making’s ideals and assumptions. In particular, it focuses on resulting shifts in
the infrastructures of literacy education—the often-invisible mechanisms that support, sustain or undermine reading and writing in classrooms. Findings show how the interoperability of these literacy infrastructures with those of making produced frictions that had uneven consequences for students, at times reproducing forms of deficitization that making education is often purported to ameliorate. These outcomes elucidate possibilities and challenges for educational equity when literacy learning is refashioned in the image of innovations like making. They are also instructive for understanding how educators might imagine “innovation” otherwise, wresting it from experts
and entrepreneurs and relocating it in the lived dynamics of classrooms.
Education is no stranger to innovation. At an early meeting of the American
Institute of Instruction—the first US teaching organization—Hubbard Winslow
convened the gathering, saying, “Innovation seems to be the prevailing spirit of our
age.” That was in 1834—though his words are similar to those of today’s reformers and entrepreneurs. In the years separating us from Winslow, educators have
worked steadily to study and harness “innovation” in education: from researching
the diffusion of pedagogical innovations (Mort & Cornell, 1941) to establishing
district “Innovation Offices” (Resnik, 1970) to leveraging design-based methods
for sustaining innovation in schools (Bereiter, 2002). Even in the pages of Research
in the Teaching of English, editors have reflected on the “continuities and innovations” shaping literacy research over time (Dressman, McCarthey, & Prior, 2012).
Few features, it seems, are more persistent in education than the field’s reflexive
interest in its capacity to innovate—to continue or break from tradition, to change
or be changed.
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Nichols Innovation from Below 57
Recently, making has emerged among education’s latest innovations, finding
uptake in research, policy, and practice—including those associated with literacy
learning. The term resists precise definitions, but making refers generally to practices related to do-it-yourself designing, remixing, and building using physical and
digital tools. Entering wide circulation in 2005 with the launch of Make magazine,
the concept accelerated under the Obama-era Nation of Makers initiative, which
introduced a National Week of Making and opened funding streams for “makerspaces” in underserved communities. Since then, school leaders have continued
investing in such spaces, equipping students with resources for 3D printing, laser
cutting, and robotics—or generally increasing opportunities for hands-on learning
through imaginative tinkering and play (Kim, Edouard, Alderfer, & Smith, 2018).
These practices, advocates argue, hold transformational possibilities for schools,
not just as a curricular add-on but as a way to reimagine disciplinary learning
altogether (Halverson & Sheridan, 2014). In literacy studies, for example, scholars
have examined making in relation to other forms of multimodal composition
(Stornaiuolo & Nichols, 2018), and the National Writing Project (2013) has offered
workshops that conceptualize “writing as making.”
Despite this mounting interest, we know little about how making is integrated
in actual literacy classrooms. Though making entered policy as an innovation for
reshaping schools, research has centered on out-of-school contexts like museums,
libraries, and community makerspaces (Bevan, Gutwill, Petrich, & Wilkinson,
2015). When studies have been grounded in schools, they have been located in
STEM-oriented electives, rather than content-area courses not expressly affiliated
with STEM (Martin, Dixon, & Betser, 2018). Most have also limited the scope
of their inquiry to individual projects—not the longitudinal inflections making
brings to curriculum and instruction over time (Kafai, Fields, & Searle, 2014).
Existing research, then, has been instrumental in mapping the learning opportunities makerspaces afford, but there is need for exploration of what unfolds when
such innovations are grafted onto formal school structures. For literacy educators,
pressing questions remain: What happens when innovations, like making, come
to frame school-based literacy learning? How do their associated practices remake
the work of literacy instruction? What opportunities and obstacles might this yield
for educational equity?
This article attends to these questions by examining the formation of literacy
classroom makerspaces in The Innovation School (a pseudonym)—an urban public
high school organized around principles of making. Using research conducted over
the school’s first two years of operation, I explore how teachers integrated making
into literacy instruction, and how the contours of classrooms were reshaped by the
innovation’s ideals and assumptions. In particular, I focus on resulting shifts in the
infrastructures of literacy education—the often-invisible mechanisms that support,
sustain, or undermine reading and writing in classrooms. Findings examine how
the interoperability of these literacy infrastructures with those of making produced
frictions that had uneven consequences for students, at times reproducing forms
of deficitization that making education is purported to address. These outcomes
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58 Research in the Teaching of English Volume 55 August 2020
elucidate possibilities and challenges for educational equity as literacy learning is
refashioned in the image of innovations like making. Importantly, I argue, these
outcomes are also instructive for understanding how educators might imagine
“innovation” otherwise, wresting it from experts and entrepreneurs and relocating
it in the lived dynamics of classrooms.
Literacy in the Making: Process, Structure, Content
Literacy education also shares an entangled history with innovation. In the 1970s,
educators called for innovations in literacy pedagogy that centered instruction on
“process” rather than “product” (Murray, 1972). In contrast with skill-oriented
approaches to teaching writing, process-advocates emphasized the iterative cycles
of planning, drafting, and revising that constitute written compositions (Flower
& Hayes, 1981). This orientation highlighted the significance of audience and
purpose in writing development, and opened conversations about how curricula
might give students more control over what they read and write (Graves, 1983).
Such discussions prompted subsequent innovations—notably, the integration of
reading/writing workshops into literacy classroom structures (Atwell, 1987). These
spaces decentered teacher-led instruction, offering students time and space for
independent literacy projects and personalizing support through mini-lessons and
conferences (Graham & Perin, 2007). While there is variation in how workshops
have been incorporated in schools, their reach, as an innovation, is widespread
(Cutler & Graham, 2008). Each year, the National Writing Project continues to
provide professional development using principles of process-writing and workshops (Whitney & Friedrich, 2013), and commercial curricula rooted in these
models are widely used in districts and schools (Calkins, 2008).
Innovation in literacy also extends to instructional content. For decades,
educators have argued for more expansive understandings of literacy—those that
include the full range of semiotic modes that underwrite composing and interpretive processes (e.g., speech, writing, gesture, image; Jewitt, 2008; New London
Group, 1996; Rowsell, 2013). As Kress (1999) argues, this orientation is “a linguistic, conceptual, and cultural innovation” (p. 132) that redefines the meaning and
scope of literacy learning. In recent years, such perspectives have not only reshaped
national policies (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority,
2012), but also opened literacy research to forms of meaning-making that have
not historically been recognized in schools: from digital storytelling (Hull & Katz,
2006) and spoken-word poetry (Kinloch, 2005), to comics (Low, 2017) and community activism (Campano, Ghiso, Yee, & Pantoja, 2013). These developments
have inspired inquiry into how an expanded repertoire of semiotic practice might
inform disciplinary literacy learning (Moje, 2009), and have motivated new research
trajectories examining the imbrication of literacy with embodiment (Leander &
Boldt, 2013), affect (Ehret & Hollett, 2014), and mobility (Stornaiuolo, Smith, &
Phillips, 2017).
These innovations in the process, structure, and content of literacy education
help clarify how making—an innovation conventionally associated with STEM
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Nichols Innovation from Below 59
(Honey & Kanter, 2013)—has found resonance in literacy instruction. Making
shares, with many literacy educators, an orientation toward process—foregrounding iterative cycles of prototyping that lead to deliverable products (Thomas,
2014). Makerspaces, likewise, share structural similarities with reading/writing
workshops: both tend to be decentralized—organized into zones for individual
or collaborative activities that students move between as self-directed projects
demand (Stornaiuolo, Nichols, & Vasudevan, 2018). Finally, making’s focus on
aesthetic design aligns with pedagogies that extend the content of literacy beyond
alphabetic text. Indeed, design has been central in theorizations of multiliteracies
(New London Group, 1996), and scholars continue to study its interrelations with
literacy practice (Sheridan & Rowsell, 2010). Given these intersections, it not surprising that many find generative alignments between literacy and making. This
is evinced not only in the National Writing Project’s (2013) “writing as making”
workshops, but also in the growing literature conceptualizing maker literacies as a
frame for research and practice (Marsh, Arnseth, & Kumpulainen, 2018).
Remaking Literacy: Innovation and (In)equity
Amid these convergences, however, questions remain about potential incongruities
between literacy and making, and what these might mean for practice. Sociocultural
literacy studies have long argued that innovations in pedagogy (e.g., new policies,
technologies, or methods) are laden with assumptions that remake the meanings,
purposes, and practices of reading and writing (Street, 1995). Crucially, this can
have implications for educational equity. The remaking of writing during the
process movement, for example, de-emphasized skill-oriented instruction, but it
also produced pedagogies that sometimes failed to make explicit the raced, classed,
and gendered expectations for normatively “effective” composition (Delpit, 1988).
Workshop structures, likewise, have allowed students to bring their identities to
bear in classrooms; however, they can also incentivize students to perform vulnerability or resilience in ways that leave them feeling exposed (Lensmire, 2000). Even
expanded conceptions of literacy—those that encourage multimodal resources for
making and interpreting meaning—can reproduce norms for ranking and sorting students if they are not accompanied by critical reevaluation of the classroom
structures in which they operate (Campano, Nichols, & Player, 2020). Put simply,
innovations are never add-ons to existing practice; they actively reshape it—often
with unanticipated consequences.
This perspective becomes salient with regard to making, as scholars are beginning to interrogate the concept’s underlying assumptions. Some note making’s
ambiguous place in the military-industrial-academic complex, as the maker movement has been substantially underwritten by federal defense spending (Vossoughi
& Vakil, 2018). Nichols and Lui (2019), likewise, show how making advocates often
exploit the slippery language of “innovation” to conflate experiential learning with
more instrumental educational outcomes, like developing human capital in STEM
fields or cultivating private entrepreneurship. Such tensions are only further compounded as they are mapped onto formal educational spaces. Though the making
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concept’s emphasis on self-directed learning is often positioned as democratizing
(Blikstein, 2013), a growing literature shows that existing social strata persist in
places and practices of educational making (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2018; Vossoughi, Hooper, & Escudé, 2016). Nascimento and Pólvora (2018), for instance,
demonstrate how narratives of empowerment and social transformation proliferate in makerspaces, yet their material outcomes rarely engage the conditions that
produce marginalization or systemic injustice. Such incongruities are especially
concerning as making is increasingly introduced in schools and communities that
have, themselves, been conditioned by these same systems of domination.
There is need, then, to examine the interplay between literacy and innovations
like making—not just their synergies, but their discontinuities and contradictions.
While both involve design and production, for example, it is not evident that their
purposes for each are aligned. As the New London Group (1996) cautions, such
terms are easily co-opted for competing ends: “Innovation,” they warn, “may fit
well with a pedagogy that views language and other modes of representation as
dynamic”; however, it can also be used to reinforce market-driven reforms that
are incompatible with meaningful success for all (p. 67). For literacy educators
especially, there is reason to be wary of such conflations. While making’s spread
into literacy studies can be viewed as an inroad for interdisciplinary learning, it
can also be seen as part of a wider encroachment of STEM into other disciplines.
Just as scholars in the 1990s recognized an emerging “new work order” reorienting literacy toward the demands of global capitalism (Gee, Hull, & Lankshear,
1996), we can find in the present a similar realignment of the humanities toward
the concerns and methods of resource-rich STEM fields—from the rise of “digital
humanities” (Lynch, 2015) and coding-as-literacy initiatives (Vee, 2013), to the
influence of techno-capitalism in defining twenty-first-century literacies (Williamson, 2016). In this context, examining how innovations like making inflect
literacy education becomes crucial, not just for understanding how the contours
of the field are shifting, but also for making legible the implications of these shifts
for educational equity.
Innovation from Below
I examine these relations here using a theoretical orientation I call innovation
from below. Innovation is a nebulous buzzword in education. At times, it signals
policies for bolstering economic growth through cultivation of human capital in
“innovative” sectors (National Economic Council, Council of Economic Advisers,
& Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2011). At others, innovation refers to
novel technologies and strategies intended either to optimize internal processes
of schooling, or to help education keep pace with external demands of a changing
world (Selwyn, 2016). In practice, these competing purposes often blur together.
Making, for instance, is regularly invoked as both a means to develop STEM labor
and a resource for student-driven inquiry (Nichols & Lui, 2019). Such contradictions might tempt scholars to avoid the term innovation altogether. Doing so,
however, elides the work the concept does for those who use it, and those who
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Nichols Innovation from Below 61
bear its consequences. Innovation from below, then, aims to take innovation seriously by examining the situated meanings, uses, and impacts the concept carries
into educational contexts. It considers its subject from below by attending both to
the underlying infrastructures that animate and extend from innovations, and to
their downstream implications for educational equity.
This orientation draws from science and technology studies (STS; Dear &
Jasanoff, 2010)—a field interested in the contingent processes through which innovations are constructed and applied. As Latour (1987) argues, innovations that
appear “ready-made” are actually held together by precarious constellations of
materials, procedures, and institutions that grant them legitimacy and facilitate
their spread. Exploring such constellations is a focus of the STS subfield of infrastructure studies (Edwards, Jackson, Bowker, & Williams, 2009), which works to
surface the interdependent substrates that support, sustain, or undermine innovations. While early contributions to this domain centered on large sociotechnical
systems like electric power grids (Hughes, 1983), recent studies have interrogated
the mutual conditioning of infrastructures and human activities (Russell & Vinsel,
2018). Susan Leigh Star (1999), for example, describes how an innovation like a
city water system is, at once, a physical infrastructure designed and maintained by
urban planners and engineers, yet also a working infrastructure for other organizational practices—from domestic hygiene and commercial services to regional
conservation initiatives. From this perspective, infrastructures are characterized
by relationality—both to the practices they delimit or make possible, and to the
other social arrangements in which they are embedded. In the context of this study,
making may arrive in literacy classrooms as a ready-made innovation—even one
ostensibly aligned with established literacy pedagogies—yet, it invariably brings
new infrastructural arrangements that may not be easily reconciled with the residual
infrastructures already at work in schools (e.g., standards, curricula). Innovation
from below, then, extends educational research on innovations’ manifestations in
classroom practices (Cuban, 1986) to include the sociomaterial infrastructures
whose alignments and frictions condition such outcomes.
Crucially, studying innovation from below also means attending to the consequences of innovations and their implications for equity. Feminist and postcolonial
STS scholars have long researched history and science from below to unearth the
subjugated knowledges and experiences papered over as dominant innovations
are tested and scaled (Harding, 2008). Cowan’s (1984) history of “time-saving”
household devices, for example, shows how these innovations compounded
expectations for domestic productivity while further gendering unpaid labor in
the home. Arnold (1993), likewise, traces histories of colonial medicine in India
to show how innovations in Western epidemiology exploited the knowledge and
bodies of indigenous communities—violence erased from Whiggish accounts of
medical progress under empire. The history of education, similarly, brims with
innovative reforms and strategies—many advanced under the auspices of racial
and economic equality—that have reproduced systems of white heteropatriarchy
and imperial underdevelopment (Delpit, 2006; Rodney, 1972). In light of this
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history, studying innovation from below means foregrounding issues of equity in
analysis, rather than weighing them against an innovation’s potential upside in
a cruel cost-benefit calculus. This stance builds on literacy scholarship that calls
for shifts in the location from which innovation is theorized (Ghiso, Campano, &
Simon, 2013), attending to both the material outcomes wrought by innovation,
and the ways the concept might be imagined otherwise.


Comment: This article discusses the scope of literacy learning and how it is taught in education/where the focus is. It touches on the importance of the actual space for learning literacy as well as the individualized focus of the teaching methods.

narratives of empowerment and social transformation proliferate in makerspaces, yet their material outcomes rarely engage the conditions that
produce marginalization or systemic injustice. There is importance in looking into the connections and contradictions between learning/making and literacy to be able to see where those connections cause differences in literacy and learning.


  1. This article and research on a making approach in classrooms is certainly interesting and still possibly unknowns about consequences of this approach in terms of inequities and other things. This definitely applies to understanding literacy better and thinking about the ways that educators are constantly looking to what’s next and testing out different modes of learning.

  2. When comparing my public school’s language arts classroom experience vs my friend who attended a Montessori school, different aspects are emphasized. Their curriculum focuses less on due dates and more on interaction. Even the layout and arguably, makerspace, is more apparent and inviting. There have even been some parents on TikTok who walk you through creating your own makerspace at home for your kids.


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