Build, Tinker, Hack

Success! Kicking your feet off the ground is the best way to prove a cardboard chair can hold your weight.

Success! Kicking your feet off the ground is the best way to prove a cardboard chair can hold your weight.

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!

 

Stacks of cardboard, an assortment of box cutters, and dozens of document fasteners awaited our participants at the LEFT conference.

Stacks of cardboard, an assortment of box cutters, and dozens of document fasteners awaited our participants at the LEFT conference.

Before beginning their chair-making activity, participants used a Project Zero thinking routine to map out the "parts" and "purposes" of our workshop space.

Before beginning their chair-making activity, participants used a Project Zero thinking routine to map out the “parts” and “purposes” of our workshop space.

Participants used text and images to map out the "parts" and "purposes" of our workshop space... and developed an increased sensitivity to the design of learning environments in the process!

Participants used text and images to map out the “parts” and “purposes” of our workshop space… and developed an increased sensitivity to the design of learning environments in the process!

A simple task, an exciting challenge...

A simple task, an exciting challenge…

 

An assortment of boxcutters were our participants' tools of choice.

An assortment of box cutters were our participants’ tools of choice.

Using only cardboard, boxcutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners, participants got to work making their chairs. Triangles were a popular structural strategy.

Using only cardboard, box cutters, roofing nails, and document fasteners, participants got to work making their chairs. Triangles were a popular structural strategy.

This was no ordinary conference session—participants were both up on their feet—and down on the floor—as they got to work on their cardboard chairs.

This was no ordinary conference session—participants were both up on their feet—and down on the floor—as they got to work on their cardboard chairs.

A comfortable cardboard seat—with an accompanying ottoman.

A comfortable cardboard seat—with an accompanying ottoman.

Another successful seat.

Another successful seat.

Let there be no doubt, this cardboard construction can hold his weight!

Let there be no doubt, this cardboard construction can hold his weight!

A fashionable triangular chair. It's more comfortable—and more sturdy—than it looks!

A fashionable triangular chair. It’s more comfortable—and more sturdy—than it looks!

Chair, schmair. This participant group made a cardboard bench and accompanying footrest!

Chair, schmair. This participant group made a cardboard bench and accompanying footrest!

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!

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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: 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

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.

The Tinkering Table Comes to Class

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

Perspectives on Learning is a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that focuses on Project Zero ideas. This semester the class met in the Project Zero conference room, just beyond the tinkering table installed by the Agency by Design team. Graduate students are busy folk, and although some of them looked longingly at the table as they hurried to class, few had time to stop and tinker. So when the AbD team was invited to visit the class to talk about our project, we knew what we had to do.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

On the day of class, we filled two baskets with paper, wire, pipe cleaners, felt, and other assorted materials, and placed them on large tables in the conference room. After a few words of introduction, students were given 20 minutes to make something of their choice in response to an open-ended prompt. The AbD team was pleased to to provide students with an opportunity to dig into the materials, but we also had another purpose. We wanted to engage students in a making experience that they could later reflect on and examine for signs of thinking. Toward this end, we enlisted two members of the AbD team as observers, to watch for signs of thinking while students worked. We gave them lists of thinking dispositions from two art-related Project Zero frameworks to guide their observations. The Studio Habits of Mind framework features eight habits of mind that learners develop through exemplary studio art instruction. Similarly, Artful Thinking features six thinking dispositions that help people think deeply about works of art and other complex things. The observers used both lists to help them look for signs of thinking.

Not surprisingly, the AbD observers quickly saw signs of thinking related to both frameworks. For example, one student created an exhibit that displayed the multiple properties of red tissue paper. Our observers noted that he showed signs of close observation as he worked—a form of thinking featured in both frameworks. Another student designed a wearable puppet theater—a sure sign of the “envision” disposition in Studio Habits of Mind. Our observers noted many other examples of thinking as well.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

Although the Project Zero frameworks drew attention to certain signs of thinking, what our observers quickly realized was how much they didn’t capture. For example, neither framework mentions the moment of convergence when open-ended tinkering coalesces into an intentional goal. Nor does either framework mention the ongoing calibration that occurs as students’ hands learn about the affordances of materials they’re working with. (Tissue paper can’t be torn in a straight line; pipe cleaners only support so much weight before collapsing). The limitations of the two frameworks shouldn’t be surprising, since neither of them were developed with thinking-through-making in mind. But their limitations make it clear that the AbD team has plenty of work to do, if we hope to gain a better understanding of how to look for signs of thinking and learning in maker experiences

The Artful Thinking Palette.

The Artful Thinking Palette.

Watching the students work with the materials also left me with another thought. We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment. Frameworks like Studio Thinking and Artful Thinking identify several thinking dispositions that are relevant to thinking through making. But they don’t help us recognize signs of these thinking dispositions when they’re embodied in physical activity. For example, consider question-asking (from the Artful Thinking framework), which is surely a sign of thinking. We know how to identify a question when it is asked through words. But what does a question look like when it is asked by the hands? Classical concepts of cognition emphasize the importance of mental representation and symbol systems, and it’s easy to default to the view that mental representation comes first, and doing second: We conjure up thoughts in our minds and then carry out those thoughts with the body. But the concept of embodied cognition challenges this dualism. As the AbD project moves forward in its investigation of thinking through making, we need to avoid construing the activities of making simply as outcomes of thought, and instead learn to understand them as instances of thought. Perhaps eventually we’ll be able to reformulate the idea of thinking dispositions with the vocabulary of the body in mind.