On Tuesday, May 6, 2014 educators, administrators, parents, and friends representing communities throughout the East Bay area came together at Studio One Arts Center in Oakland, CA to celebrate the work of Agency by Design’s Oakland Learning Community (OLC). For the past two years, teachers from six pre-K–12 Oakland schools have been partnering with Agency by Design researchers from Project Zero to explore the potential of maker-centered learning in their classrooms. Following a workshop session with OLC educators, the “Celebration of Learning” event illustrated the rich teaching and learning that took place in OLC classrooms.
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
On Wednesday, April 9 Agency by Design project manager Jennifer Ryan and I teamed up to host back to back workshops at the 2014 Learning Environments for Tomorrow (LEFT) conference. Co-hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Graduate School of Education, the LEFT conference brought together educators, architects, and school administrators to consider how best to design learning environments to meet the needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) students.
The workshops Jen and I led were entitled “Build, Tinker, Hack: Designing Learning Environments for Maker Learning Experiences.” Our workshops were driven by two guiding questions: (1) What do making-centered learning experiences look like? and (2) what are some design considerations for learning environments that may support this kind of learning?
To address these questions, we first engaged participants in a Project Zero thinking routine that had them consider the “parts” of our workshop space, as well as the “purposes” of each of those parts. After developing a baseline sensitivity to the design of our workshop space, participants were then given the following design challenge: Using only the materials provided (cardboard, box cutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners), design and build a functional chair that will hold your weight. Once set to this task, participants had forty minutes to build their chairs. Immediately, a flurry of activity took place.
Following their chair building and tinkering time, participants discussed their new insights and puzzles concerning the design of learning environments that best suit making-centered learning experiences.
Below are some images from our LEFT workshops. Be sure to check out our Instagram page for even more fun picts from this exciting event!
Special thanks to David Stephen, Daniel Wilson, Madeline Tarabelli and the Programs in Professional Education staff, Volk Packaging Corporation (for the generous cardboard donation), and all of the educators, architects, consultants, and administrators we worked with for making these workshop sessions a success. We had great fun—and learned a lot!
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.
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.
It is hard to travel long among young makers without stumbling across circuits. TinyCircuits, Snap Circuits, Squishy Circuits, breadboards, soldered circuits… almost everywhere you look, circuitry design is happening in classrooms, at home, and in after school settings.
I recently had the privilege of talking to a variety of young circuit designers eager to talk about what they were working on. However, since I didn’t know what a potentiometer does and I had never soldered in my life, I began to feel that my questions were becoming tedious after an eleven year-old had patiently explained to me how electrons move through wires for the third time. AS a result, I decided that it might be time to bridge the gap (if ever so slightly) in my circuit building knowledge, so I decided to learn by doing.
Developing a Sensitivity to Design by Looking… and Doing
The Agency by Design research team has thought a lot about the ways to encourage a sensitivity to design through classroom practices. We have engaged learners both young and old in exercises that require careful looking, considering the parts, the purposes, and noticing the complexities of objects or systems.
Simple objects, like a light for a bike helmet for example, have a variety of parts, a specific purpose, and design elements that were employed to meet the needs of a variety of users. We can observe many of these elements through a process of careful looking, but what about actually understanding something like the circuit design involved in making an LED light flash when connected to a battery—the basic function of a bike helmet light before the carefully designed outer shell is added?
I can promise you this; it takes a bit more time than ordering the bike helmet light online. For me, it took an entire weekend.
Earlier this year I was asked to participate at TEDxDirigo, a statewide TED Talk formatted platform for residents of the state of Maine,* to celebrate and share innovative and creative thought.
Embracing the AbD (and maker) principle of testing ideas in progress, I decided to focus my talk on the team’s current (at the time) concept of Maker Empowerment while highlighting one particular question at the heart of our research: why should we notice the designed dimension of our world?
Though a bit anxiety inducing (talking to 300 people is a lot different than workshopping with 30!), the experience was both illuminating and provocative. The talk resonated with many in the audience, including university STEM educators, parents, and business leaders. Perhaps just as important, it helped me clarify some of the guiding questions behind our research.
Many thanks to Adam Burk and the Treehouse Institute for producing the event, and in particular to Janice O’Rourke for her TEDx guidance.
*Though based in Cambridge, I actually live in Portland, ME.