Maker Empowerment Revisited

Developing a sensitivity to the designed dimension of one's world is an important part of maker empowerment. During a special AbD workshop on learning-by-doing, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education increased their sensitivity to the design of electronics and other household appliances by taking them apart to see how they worked.

Developing a sensitivity to the designed dimension of one’s world is an important part of maker empowerment. During a special AbD workshop on learning-by-doing, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education increased their sensitivity to the design of electronics and other household appliances by taking them apart to see how they worked.

A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about the concept of maker empowerment that provoked a wonderful online discussion. Since then we’ve continued to think about this concept. Our thinking has been greatly informed by the many insightful comments on the post, and also by some prior research at Harvard Project Zero. So we’re at it again. In a moment we share a slightly revised version of the definition, along with some notes about what’s new in it and what’s not. But first, a couple of general remarks…

The big idea behind the concept of maker empowerment is to describe a kind of disposition—a way of being in the world—that is characterized by seeing the designed world as malleable, and understanding oneself as a person of resourcefulness who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.

The concept of maker empowerment is meant to be somewhat broader than the label of maker. It certainly includes maker-types—i.e., hackers, DIYers, and hobbyists—but it also includes people who may not define themselves as wholly as makers, yet take the initiative to engage in maker activities from time to time. For example, it includes the person who doesn’t think of herself as a maker, but after she purchases a new laptop computer, she envisions the perfect laptop cover and endeavors to design and make it rather than purchasing it from a store. It also includes the teens who may not think of themselves as DIYers, but frequent thrift stores in order to find garments they can hack and combine to make stylish new looks, and the girl who eagerly scours the internet for instructions on how to make a potato launcher rather than purchasing a ready-made one online.

From the standpoint of education, the notion of empowerment is behind much of what we teach. We teach art, or history, or auto mechanics not solely to train practitioners of these crafts, but to help all students develop the capacity to engage with world through the lenses of these disciplines—even if not all students will become artists or historians or auto mechanics. The concept of maker empowerment aims for this same breadth.

Maker Empowerment Version 2

Thanks to the input of our blog commentators, here’s another take on a definition. For the sake of comparison, we give the earlier version first.

Maker Empowerment (v1): A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of things and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so. 

Maker Empowerment (v2): A sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking.

One readily apparent difference is that in version two the word nudge is gone. The word was interpreted as implying the necessity of a third party, an external agent, to prod or push people into maker activity. We definitely don’t want to imply that! In fact, it’s contrary to one of the main purposes of the Agency by Design project, which is to understand how maker activities can develop students’ sense of agency or self-efficacy.  So nudge has been nudged out.

Though we’ve removed nudge, we’ve retained the word empowerment. There has been some very thoughtful commentary on our blog about this term and its social-movement connotations of the powerful giving power to the unempowered and thus retaining the status quo hierarchies of privilege and access. We agree that this connotation isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. Our hope is to reclaim a slightly different connotation in which empower refers to the driving force that comes from within—a personal sense of agency. This seems to be what people have in mind when they talk about how the maker movement can empower people to shift from being passive consumers of their world to being active producers or collaborators.

We’ve also retained the three-part construction of the concept that emphasizes sensitivity, inclination (previously the doomed “nudge”), and capacity. We’ve even made this dimension more explicit. Herein is the connection to the Project Zero research I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Project Zero has a long line of inquiry around “thinking dispositions” that aims to explain how habits of mind develop. This work is relevant to our definitional attempts here because maker empowerment is a dispositional concept. That is, rather than simply naming a set of technical skills, it aims to describe a mindset, along with a habitual way of engaging with the world.

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Maker Empowerment: A Concept Under Construction

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

During a recent Agency by Design workshop session in California, teachers from the Oakland Learning Community used a variety of tools to take apart and tinker around with household mechanical devices.

Over the last 18 months, the Agency by Design team has visited several school-based maker spaces and maker programs, talked with many educators involved in maker-inspired teaching and learning, and read numerous articles and books about the maker movement and maker-based education. As part of our effort to distill common themes, lately we’ve been talking about a concept we’re calling maker empowerment. We arrived at this idea by distilling what we’ve learned, by applying a “maker” lens to the concept of agency, and by trying to articulate our best hope for what young people might gain through maker-centered educational experiences—recognizing that maker-centered learning can take many different forms and yield many different products and activities. Here’s our working definition—what it may lack in poetry, we hope it makes up in precision.

Maker Empowerment: A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, along with a nudge toward tinkering with them and an increased capacity to do so.

If you look at this definition from a design perspective you’ll see that it cobbles together three distinct ideas. The first phrase, A heightened sensitivity to the made dimension of objects, ideas, and systems, points to the importance of simply noticing that many of the objects, ideas, and systems we encounter in the world—from desktops to democracy to driver education classes—are human-made designs. They are comprised of specific parts that fit together to serve a purpose (or multiple purposes), and they can be understood and analyzed from the standpoint of design. Continue reading

The Tinkering Table Comes to Class

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

Perspectives on Learning is a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that focuses on Project Zero ideas. This semester the class met in the Project Zero conference room, just beyond the tinkering table installed by the Agency by Design team. Graduate students are busy folk, and although some of them looked longingly at the table as they hurried to class, few had time to stop and tinker. So when the AbD team was invited to visit the class to talk about our project, we knew what we had to do.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

On the day of class, we filled two baskets with paper, wire, pipe cleaners, felt, and other assorted materials, and placed them on large tables in the conference room. After a few words of introduction, students were given 20 minutes to make something of their choice in response to an open-ended prompt. The AbD team was pleased to to provide students with an opportunity to dig into the materials, but we also had another purpose. We wanted to engage students in a making experience that they could later reflect on and examine for signs of thinking. Toward this end, we enlisted two members of the AbD team as observers, to watch for signs of thinking while students worked. We gave them lists of thinking dispositions from two art-related Project Zero frameworks to guide their observations. The Studio Habits of Mind framework features eight habits of mind that learners develop through exemplary studio art instruction. Similarly, Artful Thinking features six thinking dispositions that help people think deeply about works of art and other complex things. The observers used both lists to help them look for signs of thinking.

Not surprisingly, the AbD observers quickly saw signs of thinking related to both frameworks. For example, one student created an exhibit that displayed the multiple properties of red tissue paper. Our observers noted that he showed signs of close observation as he worked—a form of thinking featured in both frameworks. Another student designed a wearable puppet theater—a sure sign of the “envision” disposition in Studio Habits of Mind. Our observers noted many other examples of thinking as well.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

Although the Project Zero frameworks drew attention to certain signs of thinking, what our observers quickly realized was how much they didn’t capture. For example, neither framework mentions the moment of convergence when open-ended tinkering coalesces into an intentional goal. Nor does either framework mention the ongoing calibration that occurs as students’ hands learn about the affordances of materials they’re working with. (Tissue paper can’t be torn in a straight line; pipe cleaners only support so much weight before collapsing). The limitations of the two frameworks shouldn’t be surprising, since neither of them were developed with thinking-through-making in mind. But their limitations make it clear that the AbD team has plenty of work to do, if we hope to gain a better understanding of how to look for signs of thinking and learning in maker experiences

The Artful Thinking Palette.

The Artful Thinking Palette.

Watching the students work with the materials also left me with another thought. We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment. Frameworks like Studio Thinking and Artful Thinking identify several thinking dispositions that are relevant to thinking through making. But they don’t help us recognize signs of these thinking dispositions when they’re embodied in physical activity. For example, consider question-asking (from the Artful Thinking framework), which is surely a sign of thinking. We know how to identify a question when it is asked through words. But what does a question look like when it is asked by the hands? Classical concepts of cognition emphasize the importance of mental representation and symbol systems, and it’s easy to default to the view that mental representation comes first, and doing second: We conjure up thoughts in our minds and then carry out those thoughts with the body. But the concept of embodied cognition challenges this dualism. As the AbD project moves forward in its investigation of thinking through making, we need to avoid construing the activities of making simply as outcomes of thought, and instead learn to understand them as instances of thought. Perhaps eventually we’ll be able to reformulate the idea of thinking dispositions with the vocabulary of the body in mind.

Tinkering Towards a Definition of Tinkering

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

How do you define tinkering? This question is important to the Agency by Design team, because we’re interested in trying to understand how people think through tinkering. Through our visits to schools like Brightworks, the Athenian School, and the Nueva School, our many great conversations with folks associated with the maker movement, and now with our new tinkering table, we’re convinced that tinkering is a cognitively distinct mode of learning. So the question of how to define it raises an interesting challenge: What would it be like to tinker toward a definition of tinkering?

Gever Tully, founder of Brightworks and the Tinkering School, says that tinkering often begins when you have a model of something that gets you started, but you know it isn’t right yet. So let’s start by looking at a definition of tinkering that isn’t yet right, and see where it leads. According to thefreedictionary.com, to tinker is to “make unskilled or experimental efforts at repair.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is to “repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner.” I think about the visitors to the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio who experiment with carboard autmota or soft circuitry, or the students at the Tinkering School who tinker their way through complex, open-ended building projects—and these definitions feel far too thin. They fail to capture the “messing around” aspect of tinkering and its playful dimension. Nor do they capture the maker/DIY movement’s celebration of the pleasures of tinkering or its power as a mode of learning. Plus, there’s a whiff of old fashioned prejudice in the emphasis on unskilled effort.

Tinkering moves along by experimenting with various approaches, so let’s try another definitional approach: synonyms. Here are the synonyms for tinkering offered up by the online thesaurus fiddle with, dabble, doodle, fix, mess with, monkey, muck about, niggle, play, play with, puddle, putter, repair, take apart, toy, trifle with. This approach feels like progress. Terms like “fiddle with,” “mess with” and “play with” seem to get at the flexible, iterative process that’s at the heart of tinkering, though the terms “trifle with” and “niggle” still have an air of condescension in their suggestion that tinkering is a lightweight activity. Let’s keep tinkering… Continue reading