Introducing the AbDLC

AbDLC member Bryce Taylor (Parts and Crafts, Somerville, MA) tinkers with a vintage German anniversary clock during the November 14, 2014 launch of the AbDLC.

AbDLC member Bryce Taylor (Parts and Crafts, Somerville, MA) tinkers with a vintage German anniversary clock during the November 14, 2014 launch of the AbDLC.

What happens when you put 32 maker and design educators in a room together for six hours? On a crisp fall afternoon this past November we did just that—we also added a few tools, some objects, time to think, learn, reflect, discuss, and have fun—and the results were fantastic.

After wrapping up the first phase of our action research collaboration with the Oakland Learning Community (OLC), on November 14, 2014 the Agency by Design team brought together maker and design educators from across the United States to launch the Agency by Design Learning Community, or AbDLC.

This talented group of techies and tinkerers hails from Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Toronto, and the golden state of California. Members of the AbDLC represent maker and design education programs in schools, after-school settings, museums, libraries, and a variety of makerspaces.

AbDLC members Mariah Landers (Alameda County Office of Education) and Rebecca Grabner (Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA) explore the inner workings of a coffee grinder during the November 14, 2014 AbDLC launch event.

AbDLC members Mariah Landers (Alameda County Office of Education) and Rebecca Grabner (Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA) explore the inner workings of a coffee grinder during the November 14, 2014 AbDLC launch event.

After spending two years developing a suite of Agency by Design thinking routines with our teacher partners in the OLC, we’ve brought together the AbDLC to pilot test our new thinking routines and provide real world pictures of practice of these routines in action. Consistent with Project Zero’s work developing learning communities, an additional goal of the AbDLC is to catalyze a national community of maker and design educators.

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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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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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A TEDx Talk about the Maker Mind: Why Having a Sensitivity to Design Matters

Agency by Design project manager Jen Ryan discusses the maker mind at TEDxDirigo. Photo by Michael Eric Berube.

Agency by Design project manager Jen Ryan discusses the “maker mind” at TEDxDirigo. Photo by Michael Eric Berube.

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.

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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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