Understanding Agency Part II: Putting an Abstract Concept into Action

With a name like Agency by Design, it goes without saying that agency is a central element of our work. But as we’ve noted in our earlier Understanding Agency posts, the word agency is not so easy to define. While we’ve set our sights on reviewing agency-related scholarly texts, we’ve also engaged in two pilot activities to see how our colleagues in Oakland—and students here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—understand this important concept.

A teacher in the Temescal Learning Community analyzes an AbD agency vignette.

A teacher in the Temescal Learning Community analyzes an AbD agency vignette. (Click on this image to read a sample vignette. How would you rank the agency expressed in this scenario?)

To do this, we developed a series of short narratives that we call the AbD “agency vignettes.” Within these vignettes, fictitious characters engage in specific acts situated within a variety of settings. The purpose of the AbD agency vignettes is to use hypothetical scenarios as a way to test ideas about agency and, specifically, to discuss variables at play for “ranking” agency in action. However, the degree of agency exhibited in each vignette is not so easy to gauge. The intentional ambiguity in the agency vignettes has led to some powerful discussions concerning the nature of agency.

This past March, we shared these vignettes with members of the Temescal Learning Community (TLC). To begin, we hung a clothesline up in a classroom and used it as a spectrum stretching from low, to medium, to high agency. After the TLC teachers read each vignette, they were asked to pin their names on the clothesline in a manner that corresponded to the agency they identified in each piece. Invariably, group members expressed differences in opinion—sometimes to great degrees. Participants had an opportunity to explain their decision, ask one another questions, and ultimately, change their positions on the clothesline if they wanted. It was fascinating to see how each member of the group either held their stance, or changed their position.

TLC educators adjust their positions on the Agency Continuum.

TLC educators adjust their positions on the Agency Continuum.

In a conversation before this activity, TLC group members identified terms like “empowered to make change,” “responsible risk taking,” “having a sense of self-worth,” and “cooperative” to describe the concept of agency. Following the session, TLC group members used a different set of words and phrases to describe agency, such as “reactive,” “initiative,” “perseverance, stamina, steadfastness, and resilience,” “access to resources,” “an ability to identify and overcome hurdles,” and “being quick to act early.”

AbD researcher Edward Clapp unpacks the agency vignette exercise.

AbD researcher Edward Clapp unpacks the agency vignette exercise with the TLC educators.

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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

The Project Zero Classroom: Reflecting on an Experience

Redesigning diapers! The final prototype: a compostable diaper with a sensor that connects to an app that alerts parents when its time for changing.

Redesigning diapers! The final prototype: a compostable diaper with a sensor that connects to an app that alerts parents when it’s time for changing.

This week the Agency by Design research team has been busy leading workshop sessions, presenting our work, and engaging with wonderful educators from all around the world at the Project Zero Classroom Summer Institute. We were particularly excited to work with participants who attended our mini-course: “Developing a Sensitivity to Design: How Making, DIY, and Design Experiences Can Activate Student Agency.”

During this session, we engaged participants in a series of hands-on activities that started with an exploration of the maker movement, design thinking, and other frameworks within which the Agency by Design project is situated. We then had participants look carefully at the design of objects before having them situate those objects within systems. After considering the multiple users who engage with their systems, participants jumped into a system redesign activity. In the end, participants considered the potential for cultivating the agency—and design sensitivities—of young people.

Facilitating these sessions helped expand our thinking on our core project themes, especially the relationship between agency and design. We learned a lot from working with so many enthusiastic educators. Below is a sampling of images of their work.

Imaging the parts, purposes, and ways in which Christmas lights are complex.

Situating Christmas lights within a variety of systems.

Redesigning bike helmets to alert users when its time to change the interior padding.

Redesigning bike helmets to alert users when its time to change the interior padding.

Packaging redesigned to be more transparent of the content of a can of tuna.

Packaging redesigned to be more transparent of the content of a can of tuna.

Exploding the interpol system through a passport  redesign.

Exploding the interpol system through a passport redesign.

Re-imagining the system of safety around the use of Christmas lights starts to pick up steam!

Re-imagining the system of safety around the use of Christmas lights starts to pick up steam!

The Temescal Learning Community: A Year into the Research

Members of the Temescal Learning Community look at student work with Project Zero researchers.

Members of the Temescal Learning Community look at student work with Project Zero researchers.

Dissecting the design thinking process and debating how to measure agency: that’s how the Temescal Learning Community (TLC) spent our spring study group session. Rollicking discussions prevailed. A year has quickly passed since we had our first session, now seems like an appropriate moment to pause, see where we’ve been, and survey the horizon.

The TLC operates as the practitioner partner of the Agency by Design (AbD) research project. The group is comprised of educators from four schools in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland who were willing to take a leap and join a Project Zero (PZ) research endeavor. With the help of these teachers, we at PZ have tested several activities to learn more about the impact of design and making opportunities in the classroom.

A teacher in the Temescal Learning Community shares a student-redesigned treehouse.

A teacher in the Temescal Learning Community shares a student-redesigned treehouse.

Over the past year, we have been designing and redesigning learning experiences and looking closely at the resulting student work with the TLC teachers. At the first meeting of the TLC, we began with an activity that got the teachers onto the streets near their schools, to take pictures, or find artifacts, in order to create a museum style display that depicted portions of the neighborhood’s story. Last July, the TLC members endured the humidity of the Northeast to participate in the Project Zero Classroom. At the weeklong institute participants learned about research frameworks and teaching practices developed at PZ.

In the fall of 2012, we explored the theme “developing a sensitivity to design in the world” by examining the design of several objects, ideas, and systems. Beginning with objects, teachers explored various activities with us during workshops and then tried them with students in their classrooms. When we came back together we looked at the students’ work to try to determine how young people think about design in the world. Continue reading

Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency?

AgencyEarly on in our project, we put forth the hypothesis that developing a sense of personal agency may be one of the most significant benefits of engaging young people in making and design thinking learning experiences. This hypothesis is based on the following two-part if/then statement:

  1. By developing a sensitivity to the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, young people may develop a sense of agency towards the design of those same objects, ideas, and systems, and…
  2. If young people develop a sense of agency towards the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, then they can effect change for themselves, their communities, and the their broader environments.

This hypothesis—as simple or as complex as it may seem—is at the core of the Agency by Design initiative. While we believe it’s a powerful—and hopefully plausible—postulation, we also recognize it begs the most fundamental question: What is “agency?”

During one of our earliest research trips to the Bay Area the Agency by Design team visited the Athenian School’s Makers Studio to gain an initial understanding of what happens in authentic maker learning environments.

While at Athenian we learned from instructor Bruce Hamren that one of the core outcomes he has for his students is fostering within them a sense of “I can do that!” As we heard variants of this idea expressed at other sites we visited, we came to the realization that the “I-can-do-that!” spirit that Bruce mentioned was actually a way of talking about student agency.

Of course, human agency is a far more complex concept than the phrase “I can do that!” suggests. As such, our team has been focused in part on understanding what agency means, how we will define agency for our project, and how we may go about empirically investigating agency in maker and design thinking learning environments.

So far, our literature review has led us to consider agency from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, phenomenology, and even neuro-physiology. As we delve deeper into the scholarship on agency, we’ve also committed ourselves to situating making and design thinking learning experiences within the context of agency frameworks and conducting thought experiments that explore the nature of this elusive term.

In future installments of this serial blog post we’ll highlight our emergent understandings of agency and outline the evolution of our thinking. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: How do you define agency? and, How might agency be fostered in young people through making, designing, and hands-on DIY learning experiences?

Reflections on a Moving Project

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

During a recent retreat, Agency by Design researchers used chart paper and Post-it notes to synthesize their data and formulate new guiding questions.

Several weeks ago, our core research team (myself, Shari, Jess, Edward, and Raquel) and our west coast liaison (Wendy) met for a two-day work retreat. We came with easels, markers, laptops, and a desire to reflect on year one of the Agency by Design project, assess and discuss our evolving research questions, and look forward to the work ahead.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Agency by Design researchers making sense of data and refining ideas.

Perhaps embodying our theme of “what does it mean to think like a designer?” our team has been working with an ethos of try, test, refine, try again. In other words, this has been an incredibly emergent project. Though our core interest—exploring cognitive and dispositional thinking in the worlds of design and making—has remained, we are continually refining our questions. And so, it seems the right time to share our current understandings about the project—or, in the spirit of how we work here at Project Zero, to make our thinking visible and accessible.

For the past year we have been working closely with colleagues in the Temescal region of Oakland, California. Considering questions such as, “if and how are young people sensitive to design?” and “can a sensitivity to design be cultivated or nurtured?” we have been engaging teachers and students with design/making- and observation-based activities.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

In response to a prompt about how an object functions within a system, a 12th grader demonstrates an understanding of the complex interrelation of systems, from interpersonal to homework to organizational.

We have also been exploring together the use of activities that encourage awareness of the design dimension of objects and systems, as well as exercises that help students develop the capacity to be agents of change with regard to design—to empower young people to see that they have a right to effect the designed aspect of their world—whether that be the design of a chair or the design of a health care system.

As we enter year two of our research project, we are excited to be expanding our empirical work with several more schools in Oakland, to continue developing ideas and a body of knowledge around design and maker thinking with our colleagues in Temescal, and to push our questioning into the theoretical world of academic and scholarly research. And while our retreat helped reaffirm our initial goal of strengthening students’ cognitive development around design and making, it also allowed us to frame guiding questions for the road ahead:

  1. In the context of design and making experiences, what are the signs of thinking and learning?
  2. What characteristics are typical of people who engage in design and making experiences?
  3. In the context of design and making experiences, what is agency and how can it be fostered?

Please stay tuned.