Hacking Simple Systems: The Tale of an Incomplete Soccer Uniform

All dressed up but not quite ready to go. Tatum's daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

All dressed up but not quite ready to go: Tatum’s daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author

When I used to think about systems redesign, and what would inspire a person to redesign something in the first place, images of super smarties standing next to state of the art tech contraptions immediately came to mind. Now that I’ve had a chance to work with Agency by Design as a member of the Oakland Learning Community, I realize that systems are everywhere. There are high tech systems, such as the parts and pieces that go together to make your car start in the morning, and low tech systems, say the parts and pieces that go together to transform your child into a soccer player. This blog post explores the latter: systems redesign as not just a means to innovate but as a means to make due, be resourceful, and get by as a mom.

The context for this redesign is my daughter’s first official day of practice with the new soccer team she joined with friends at school. The first official day of anything is always a little discombobulating for me as a mom. I tend to be a “fly by the seat of my pants” kinda lady and that doesn’t always work in terms of extra-curricular activities going off without a hitch. In these situations I often anticipate something will go wrong. This time, however, was different. It just so happened that my daughter’s father was making a surprise visit to the Bay Area and, of course, totally wanted to go to her first ever soccer practice.

I knew that my daughter’s father would be expecting some sort of underprepared-mom shenanigans to take place. And so I determined that getting my daughter to soccer practice “without a hitch” was now mandatory. I was on a mission to have a shenanigan-free first day of soccer practice.

“Ok,” I thought, “I can do this.” We successfully dug a pair of shin guards out of a sports gear box and whilst digging through that box another box tipped over on me. That box just happened to have our ski gear in it and—voila—ski socks look almost identical to soccer socks! We didn’t have cleats yet, but the soccer team people said not to worry. Regular tennis shoes would work on the indoor field.

With tennis shoes, shin guards, and ski socks in hand, we were ready for practice—and we still had two more hours until we had to be there! I was feeling so proud of myself as a mom that I decided to take my planning to the next level. My daughter had a birthday party to go to after soccer practice so I formulated the bright idea of having her wear her party gear to practice and having her change into her soccer gear once we got there. Fast forward 10 minutes later and my daughter was dressed and ready to go. I felt so proud. First day of soccer practice and we had got this on lock.

When it was time to leave I strutted out of the house towards the car feeling like Super Mom. Super Prepared Mom! This feeling lasted until we were about a block away from the soccer field. Then… it happened. I heard a gasp from the back seat. I glanced back and saw a panic stricken look on my daughter’s little face. Slowly she began to speak, “Mom, I didn’t mean to, but when we left I accidentally set down my tennis shoes for a minute and forgot to pick them back up.”

The offending flats. They're sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

The offending flats: They’re sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

My heart sank.

“Ok, ok,” I thought, “super prepared moms don’t freak out, right?” Emergency brainstorm: The kid had no tennis shoes and was dressed for a birthday party. The shoes she was wearing: sparkly flats.

“Hmm—maybe these flats are different from most?” I thought, “Maybe she could run in them just like her tennis shoes?” As soon as we got out of the car I had my daughter do a quick sprint and both shoes flew off before she took her third step. That’s when it started. I had a vision of her dad’s response: the slight eye roll followed by the “I totally expected this” head shake of disappointment. I was in for “the look.”

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Agency (and Comedy) by Design

Before attacking it with household tools, Tatum and her colleagues used a Project Zero thinking routine to consider the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects—like this soon-to-be-dismantled doorknob.

Before attacking them with household tools, Tatum and her colleagues in the Oakland Learning Community used a Project Zero thinking routine to consider the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects—like this soon-to-be-dismantled doorknob.

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author 

When I started working with the Agency by Design research project this past September, I had no idea how much it would impact how I moved through the world. The major aim of this initiative is to empower students and give them a sense of agency they can carry with them throughout their lives. As it turns out—doing this work has had the same effect on the teachers partnering with the research team.

During one of our recent AbD workshop sessions the Project Zero research team led us through a PPC (Parts, Purposes, and Complexities) thinking routine wherein we were asked to disassemble simple mechanical devices. My group had the incredible good fortune of getting to take apart a doorknob. The experience was ridiculously exhilarating. Our eyes and brains fixated on this most ordinary of objects. Quickly, our doorknob morphed from being simple and mundane to becoming one of the most interesting and complex objects ever. We had totally underestimated this household masterpiece!

I can still remember the crescendo of our voices as we finally figured out how to use our tiny tools to get the darn thing to come apart. It was so exhilarating that a few AbD colleagues and I decided to give an entire PPC exercise later to a group of educators at an arts integration retreat. As you might have guessed, our session was focused completely on doorknobs! One of the most interesting quotes from that day was: “There’s blood, we’ve got blood over here!” Hey, we never said looking deeply at objects wouldn’t be fun… and perhaps a little dangerous.

Coincidentally, about a week after the arts integration retreat I found myself locked out of my house. (Here is where I need to give you a bit of personal back-story: My husband had worked as a locksmith for a brief stint one summer and had mentally run me through the process of breaking through a lock with a drill.) Armed with the memory of my conversation with my husband and my newfound expert knowledge of all things “doorknob,” I just knew this was something I could do by myself. That, and I had another ulterior motive—I had always wanted a cordless drill!

I did the math and I basically had a choice: I could buy a drill for $200.00 and do it myself—or pay someone $200.00 to do it for me. Though the cost was the same, the latter option would leave me without an amazing awesome drill in the end. I really, really wanted that drill. So I embarked on a mission and managed to find a hardware store willing to sell me a cordless drill (that was also charged) and came home and got to work.

I was feeling all sorts of empowered when I sank the drill bit into the metal. I got even more excited as the drill started to push through. Sure, maybe I had no idea where I was supposed to be drilling but I had a good feeling! And then it happened, the drill bit broke off in the door and my face crinkled a bit—like the guy in the bitter beer commercial. I thought quickly to myself “No! I can do this! The drill bit kit came with four bits—I still have three more!”

Fast forward three more broken drill bits—when I finally realized that maybe I needed to learn a bit more about power tools and doorknobs before I could fully claim I had locksmith superpowers… Continue reading

Making in Memphis

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

By Jenny Ernst, Guest Author

As a member of the Oakland Learning Community (OLC), my work with the Agency by Design (AbD) research project has helped me understand that developing a sensitivity to the design of objects is an elemental part of maker education. Co-facilitating an AbD workshop on this theme at a national conference afforded me some of the very best in professional development. A surprising twist to one of our thinking routines made the experience even richer.

Earlier this month my colleague Brooke Toczylowski (Oakland International High School) and I (Park Day School) were welcomed as presenters at the most recent Project Zero Perspectives conference entitled How and Where Does Learning Thrive? The conference was hosted by Presbyterian Day School (PDS) in Memphis, TN. Over the years 85% of PDS teachers have attended the annual Project Zero Classroom summer institute in Cambridge, MA. As a result, every hallway bulletin board displayed student thinking routines and the staff (and even the students) spoke fluent PZ-terminology.

As classroom teachers and OLC members Brooke and I were asked to co-present with our Project Zero research partners Jen Ryan and Edward Clapp. Since Brooke and I have piloted many of the AbD workshop activities in our classrooms/schools, we offered a “teacher perspective” on AbD’s work. With reverence, we also shared the projects that our colleagues in the OLC have been working on when we were asked about real-world applications of AbD’s approach to teaching and learning.

While Brooke and Edward presented a systems-based workshop session, Jen and I presented a session entitled Developing a Sensitivity to Design: How Making and Design Experiences Can Activate Student Agency. For me personally, I wanted the teachers, learning specialists, and administrators in our workshop sessions to understand that as educators, we too develop a natural sensitivity to design alongside our students as we notice the parts, purposes, and relationships within objects and systems. When we are challenged to design our learning environments to include more maker/design thinking activities, we likewise develop the dispositional characteristics associated with AbD’s emergent concept of maker empowerment.

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From Maker Space to Maker Campus

Maker Campus Plans, like this one designed with teachers and students at Oakland International High School, record a school's short- and long-term goals for making their campuses more maker-friendly.

Maker Campus Plans, like this one designed with teachers and students at Oakland International High School, record a school’s short- and long-term goals for making their campuses more maker-friendly.

By David Stephen, Guest Author 

How can schools re-envision their classrooms and campuses to make them more maker-oriented and, in the process, help students and faculty to develop the tools they need to better understand and effect change upon their physical environments?

This is the essential question that we have been asking as we engage a number of Agency by Design’s Oakland Learning Community school sites in the process of redesigning their school campuses using a simple design thinking process for master planning. The beauty of this effort has been the opportunities it affords both students and teachers to interact with, and actively recreate, the learning spaces that they occupy everyday. This is an iterative process that has no particular end state, but that serves to connect people to their environments, foster Maker Empowerment, and positively transform their school campuses in real and ongoing ways.

Various members of the Park Day School's community meet with architect David Stephen to discuss what a space for making may look like on their school's campus.

Members of the Park Day School’s community gather to discuss what a space for making may look like on the school’s campus.

As both an educator and a school architect with a longtime passion for inquiry- and project-based approaches to teaching and learning, I see the design thinking process as providing a perfect vehicle for this exploration. Through a series of workshops with selected groups of teachers and students, during the past nine months each participating AbD school has been working to clarify its learning goals and spatial needs as connected to maker-thinking and doing. This includes generating a list of Guiding Principles and Priorities for Design, identifying specific campus redesign and building projects that support these priorities, and engaging teachers and students in carrying them out.

Signage at Claremont Middle School announces the school's Design Thinking and Making Lab.

Signage at Claremont Middle School announces the school’s Design Thinking and Making Lab.

To help guide this endeavor, each school is creating a “Maker Campus Master Plan” that outlines their short and long-term implementation goals. The process appears to be greatly energizing for those involved, as well as increasing awareness of how spatial adjacencies, design elements, and furniture choices can dramatically influence the ways in which people use space, interact, and collaborate. Although varied, there is considerable overlap in the areas of focus that are being addressed within each school’s master plan. They include:

  1. Articulating a safe, friendly, and clear entry sequence that strives to orient all building inhabitants and visitors to the school and campus as they enter.
  2. Creating consistent and clear branding and messaging platforms that communicate the values, learning goals, and priorities of the school.
  3. Fostering easy navigation and wayfinding to assist students, teachers, and visitors in making their way through the school building and campus.
  4. Showcasing visible learning and engagement through vistas into classroom and meeting spaces, as well as public art projects and installations.
  5. Establishing multiple venues for ongoing display, exhibition, and celebration of student work.
  6. Defining classroom and neighborhood zones that encourage students and teachers to build a sense of ownership, identity, and connection across disciplines.
  7. Designing and developing flexible classroom, gathering, and collaboration spaces that support large group, small group, independent, and project-based work.
  8. Provisioning flexible furniture and equipment that allow students and teachers to quickly transform their learning spaces and empower them as makers and doers.
  9. Developing outdoor learning spaces that promote maker activities and extend learning beyond the classroom.
  10. Initiating the development of maker spaces that support a range of design thinking and maker activities. Continue reading

Maker Empowerment in the Making!

Members of the Oakland Learning Community identified a variety of objects and images to represent their understandings of "maker" and "empowerment."

Members of the Oakland Learning Community identified a variety of objects and images to represent their understandings of “making” and “empowerment.”

By Ilya Pratt, Guest Author

Last month the Agency by Design research team asked the Oakland Learning Community to apply both our personal and educators’ perspectives to exploring the concept of maker empowerment. They requested that we each bring two objects to our October workshop session: one that represented empowerment, and another that represented making. Through a series of sharing and connection activities, we came to understand our various perspectives on empowerment, making, and the concept of maker empowerment. Some comments from our group included the following:

“I brought a book that has knowledge and therefore empowerment. It’s about who I work with and knowledge for when [I am] working with those students.”

I also brought a book. Books give you the feeling that you are related to other people, are like other people—and finding this commonality is confidence-building and therefore empowering.

“[I brought a] hammer. This to me is about power. It’s not exactly about making an object or a thing like furniture. I actually relate it to something like making your to-do list go away. Or hanging a piece of art—I reach for it. It’s more about empowerment than making. It is a very strong tool that is an extension of the hand.”

Members of the Oakland Learning Community develop a "Maker Empowerment" installation during a recent Agency by Design workshop at Oakland International High School.

Members of the Oakland Learning Community develop a “Maker Empowerment” installation during a recent Agency by Design workshop at Oakland International High School.

In the moment our dialogue was very personal and reflective. Now it is actually quite remarkable to look back and consider how easily the concept of maker empowerment became a means to find commonality in the values we have as educators—there were clear themes that we considered important to student success: confidence; supportive environments; a desire to create, be inspired, and space to use one’s imagination; hands-on learning; hard work; a sense of purpose; knowledge as power, and; collaboration.

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Designing and Making with English Language Learners

Students at Oakland International High School get their hands dirty redesigning a corner garden at their school.

Students at Oakland International High School get their hands dirty redesigning a corner garden at their school.

By Thi Bui, Guest Author

I teach art and multimedia at Oakland International High School, a public high school for immigrants students’ where command of the English language is one of the last things to be taken for granted. Discussions are often clumsy or stiff because improvised speech in English is very difficult for beginners. As a result, sometimes it’s difficult for me to know what my students are thinking. Through the Agency by Design research initiative, I have the opportunity to explore, with support, this question: How might design thinking, maker culture, and Project Zero ideas help create an enriching and empowering learning experience for English Language Learners (ELLS)?

To seek answers, last June I decided to get my hands dirty.

My planning partner and I created a design course for Post Session, a 3-week period at the end of the year reserved for experiential art and physical education. classes. Twenty-five to thirty students, mixed grades, two teachers, all day. Here’s what happened…

Oakland International High School students use a variety of materials to prototype a redesign of the garden at their school.

Oakland International High School students use a variety of materials to prototype a redesign of the garden at their school.

Using the Parts-Purposes-Complexities thinking routine (from Project Zero’s Artful Thinking framework), students looked closely at the school for areas and systems that they wanted to improve. After narrowing down a very BIG brainstorm into a few priorities by discussion and vote, students worked in groups to rapidly prototype a system or area redesign. Then they presented their ideas to each other and another class.

During the prototyping and presentation phase I noticed two things about ELLs. The level of engagement in the redesign process is strongly affected by (1) the student’s comfort speaking in English and (2) by his/her comfort working with materials. Those with more English were able to involve their team mates in brainstorming and the exchange of ideas through words. They could also help negotiate differences of opinion and felt more comfortable presenting to others. Those with the ability to manipulate materials to express their ideas could often transcend language barriers entirely. It was a joy to see them smiling and getting through to others. Those with both English and material fluency had a blast! Unfortunately, I think students who were uncomfortable with both English and materials had a difficult time with this part of the design process, and began to disengage.

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Maker Movement in the Media

photo-48As we’ve written elsewhere on our blog, in addition to our ongoing collaborations with educators in the Bay Area, Agency by Design researchers have undertaken a review of scholarly literature to further our understandings of the various concepts connected to our study. While we’ve had little trouble identifying bodies of scholarship on innovation, digital media, design thinking, and the concept of student agency, we’ve found that a similarly robust corpus of work on the maker movement and maker-related initiatives in education does not (yet!) exist. However, as crystallized by an abundance of articles recently published in newspapers, blogs, and magazines, the maker movement is a lively topic of interest in the media.

Within the past five years, over two hundred articles on the maker movement have found outlet in seemingly disparate contexts; from popular press articles celebrating vibrant DIY projects at local Maker Faires, to publications with a focus on science, technology, and innovation, to a growing number of articles appearing in business-related publications. It’s clear that the maker movement speaks to a multitude of interests— and perhaps uniquely so. Continue reading