Looking Forward—and Looking Back—to AbD’s Action Research with Educator Learning Communities

OLC members engage in an AbD systems redesign activity at Oakland International High School.

OLC members engage in an AbD systems redesign activity at Oakland International High School.

If you have been following this blog, you know that the Agency by Design research team has had the privilege of working with a group of educators from six schools in Oakland, California that we fondly refer to as the Oakland Learning Community (OLC). Many educators in this group have been partners in the journey of our project from its earliest days, and together we have come to learn some exciting things about what it means to bring a Project Zero research perspective to the emergent world of maker-centered learning and design education.

After two years of collaborating with our teacher partners we are looking forward to a new phase of action research that will commence this month. In the spirit of our work—which relies heavily on the power of reflection—we feel that before we move forward it is important to take a moment to look back on where we have been… and to note a few things we have learned along the way.

Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick Makers…

An anvil awaits the hammer strikes of emerging blacksmiths at East Bay School for Boys.

An anvil awaits the hammer strikes of emerging blacksmiths at East Bay School for Boys.

Throughout our early site visits and interviews our team has tried to determine what it means to bring maker-centered learning into the sphere of K–12 education. What are the real benefits of maker-centered learning? is a question that is now being explored across the country as districts and schools hear more about the promises of maker-centered learning and design education and determine how these pedagogies might fit within various school contexts. In response, some schools are building out high tech Fab Labs and developing coding curricula while others are adding looms, wood shops, and forges for blacksmithing. Some schools are emphasizing design thinking and entrepreneurial coursework while others see making experiences as salient reminders of the importance of project based learning and interdisciplinary studies. Clearly, it is an exciting landscape, but one that is very hard to define. Continue reading

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A Celebration of Learning

Teachers from various OLC schools discuss the array student work on display, including a library redesign project (left) at OIHS. Photo by Emi Kane.

Teachers from various Oakland Learning Community schools discuss the array of student work on display, including a library redesign project (left) at Oakland International High School. Photo by Emi Kane.

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.

OLC member Harriet, a founding teacher at Park Day School, interacts  with student work from Oakland International High School (OIHS). Teachers at OIHS have been part of the Agency by Design initiative for the past two years. One of their AbD projects involved making a movie with their computers and technology teacher, Thi. Photo by Emi Kane.

OLC member Harriet, a founding teacher at Park Day School, interacts with student work from Oakland International High School. Teachers at OIHS have been part of the Agency by Design initiative for the past two years. One of their AbD projects involved making a movie with their computers and technology teacher, Thi. Photo by Emi Kane.

OLC member and Emerson Middle School teacher Carla led her students in an exploration of pencils as designed objects. Here she is installing a giant student-made pencil before the opening of the OLC Celebration of Learning exhibit.

OLC member and Emerson Elementary School teacher Carla led her students in an exploration of pencils as designed objects. Here she is installing a giant student-made pencil before the opening of the OLC Celebration of Learning exhibit.

Under the guidance of Kurt, an OLC member and Claremont Middle School history and ethnic studies teacher, students applied systems and design thinking to explore community, history, and self.  “What are the parts, purposes, and complexities of community systems?” Photo by Emi Kane.

Under the guidance of Kurt, an OLC member and Claremont Middle School history and ethnic studies teacher, students paired systems and design thinking with Project Zero thinking routines to explore community, history, and self. “What are the parts, purposes, and complexities of community systems?” Photo by Emi Kane.

Claremont Middle School teacher and OLC member Maite utilized old-school viewfinders to document the transformation of her school’s maker and design corridor. Photo by Emi Kane.

Claremont Middle School teacher and OLC member Maite utilized old-school viewmasters to document the transformation of her school’s maker and design corridor. Photo by Emi Kane.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Welcoming the New Oakland Learning Community

The 2013-2014 Oakland Learning Community

The 2013-2014 Oakland Learning Community.

As we enter year two of empirical research, the Agency by Design team is excited to announce that two new Oakland schools have joined our project: Claremont Middle School and North Oakland Community Charter School. Educators from these schools, several new teachers from our existing partner schools (Emerson Elementary School, Oakland International High School, Oakland Technical High School, and Park Day School) and last year’s AbD cohort met for the first time as a group on September 17 at Claremont Middle School. They spent their time together building community, exploring goals for their year with AbD, and framing the themes of the research project. We look forward to another year of knowledge building with our new collaborative learning group, the Oakland Learning Community— a.k.a. the OLC.

We are also excited to welcome two new practice-based groups that have emerged from the OLC. The School Liaison group, made up of four Oakland-based educators, will help make AbD ideas and work visible at each partnering school, design and lead OLC study groups, and provide support for all OLC teachers as they connect AbD and PZ ideas to their own practice. The Learning Experiences Design Team (LEDT) was borne from our teachers’ desire to explore concrete and sustainable ways to integrate AbD project ideas into classroom practice and to consider ways to extend this work beyond the OLC. LEDT members will gather monthly to explore, discuss, design, and pilot test AbD inspired lessons. One intended outcome of the LEDT’s work will be a compilation of lessons and/or units that will be available and accessible on the Project Zero website.

The OLC now represents six schools and includes pre-k to twelfth grade teachers from a wide range of disciplines. The AbD team is thrilled to embark with them on another year full of questions, curiosities, and theory-building!

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.

Continue reading

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