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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Hacking Simple Systems: The Tale of an Incomplete Soccer Uniform

All dressed up but not quite ready to go. Tatum's daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

All dressed up but not quite ready to go: Tatum’s daughter showed up for the first day of soccer practice wearing a party dress and sparkly flats. What to do?

By Tatum Omari, Guest Author

When I used to think about systems redesign, and what would inspire a person to redesign something in the first place, images of super smarties standing next to state of the art tech contraptions immediately came to mind. Now that I’ve had a chance to work with Agency by Design as a member of the Oakland Learning Community, I realize that systems are everywhere. There are high tech systems, such as the parts and pieces that go together to make your car start in the morning, and low tech systems, say the parts and pieces that go together to transform your child into a soccer player. This blog post explores the latter: systems redesign as not just a means to innovate but as a means to make due, be resourceful, and get by as a mom.

The context for this redesign is my daughter’s first official day of practice with the new soccer team she joined with friends at school. The first official day of anything is always a little discombobulating for me as a mom. I tend to be a “fly by the seat of my pants” kinda lady and that doesn’t always work in terms of extra-curricular activities going off without a hitch. In these situations I often anticipate something will go wrong. This time, however, was different. It just so happened that my daughter’s father was making a surprise visit to the Bay Area and, of course, totally wanted to go to her first ever soccer practice.

I knew that my daughter’s father would be expecting some sort of underprepared-mom shenanigans to take place. And so I determined that getting my daughter to soccer practice “without a hitch” was now mandatory. I was on a mission to have a shenanigan-free first day of soccer practice.

“Ok,” I thought, “I can do this.” We successfully dug a pair of shin guards out of a sports gear box and whilst digging through that box another box tipped over on me. That box just happened to have our ski gear in it and—voila—ski socks look almost identical to soccer socks! We didn’t have cleats yet, but the soccer team people said not to worry. Regular tennis shoes would work on the indoor field.

With tennis shoes, shin guards, and ski socks in hand, we were ready for practice—and we still had two more hours until we had to be there! I was feeling so proud of myself as a mom that I decided to take my planning to the next level. My daughter had a birthday party to go to after soccer practice so I formulated the bright idea of having her wear her party gear to practice and having her change into her soccer gear once we got there. Fast forward 10 minutes later and my daughter was dressed and ready to go. I felt so proud. First day of soccer practice and we had got this on lock.

When it was time to leave I strutted out of the house towards the car feeling like Super Mom. Super Prepared Mom! This feeling lasted until we were about a block away from the soccer field. Then… it happened. I heard a gasp from the back seat. I glanced back and saw a panic stricken look on my daughter’s little face. Slowly she began to speak, “Mom, I didn’t mean to, but when we left I accidentally set down my tennis shoes for a minute and forgot to pick them back up.”

The offending flats. They're sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

The offending flats: They’re sparkly and cute, but not quite meant for the soccer field.

My heart sank.

“Ok, ok,” I thought, “super prepared moms don’t freak out, right?” Emergency brainstorm: The kid had no tennis shoes and was dressed for a birthday party. The shoes she was wearing: sparkly flats.

“Hmm—maybe these flats are different from most?” I thought, “Maybe she could run in them just like her tennis shoes?” As soon as we got out of the car I had my daughter do a quick sprint and both shoes flew off before she took her third step. That’s when it started. I had a vision of her dad’s response: the slight eye roll followed by the “I totally expected this” head shake of disappointment. I was in for “the look.”

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.

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

World Maker Faire 2013

Making music with light. Kids experiment with soundwaves... and sound!

Making music with light. Kids experiment with soundwaves… and sound!

This year, the World Maker Faire #MakerFaire was once again held on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science in New York City.  Well over 100,000 people were scheduled to attend this momentous event. The Agency by Design team made the trip down from Cambridge to find out what’s new in the maker universe and to better understand what makes makers tick. Below are some key take-away moments from our visit.

If you were also at this weekend’s Maker Faire, please feel free to share your experiences and impressions of the event. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

A giant sculpture of Make's maker mascot welcomes guests to a rainy start of the 2013 World Maker Faire.

A giant sculpture of Make’s maker mascot welcomes guests to a rainy start of the 2013 World Maker Faire.

Authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager make the case for making experiences in education on the New York Hall of Science's Innovation Stage.

Invent to Learn authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager make the case for making experiences in education on the New York Hall of Science’s Innovation Stage.

Text this number, and this gizmo will play you a tune. Go ahead, try it! Very cool...

Text this number, and this gizmo will play you a tune. Go ahead, try it! Very cool…

Continue reading

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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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!