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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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

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.

Making Space Happen in K-12 Schools

 Teachers from Oakland International High School work with Project Zero researchers to explore opportunities for space development.

Teachers from Oakland International High School work with Project Zero researchers to explore opportunities for space development.

What kind of spaces might schools create to encourage design thinking and maker experiences for students? Schools and organizations across the globe are prototyping solutions to this question. Some construct state-of-the-art innovation labs, like the iLab at The Nueva School, prototyped at the Hasso Plattner School of Design at Stanford University (the d.school) and equipped with a laser cutter and a sophisticated fabrication shop; others dedicate a corner of a classroom as a fix-it space, like first grade teacher Belinda Gray at the San Francisco Day School.

An elementary school student in Belinda NAME's class takes apart a watch to see how it ticks… literally.

An elementary school student in Belinda Gray’s class takes apart a watch to see how it ticks… literally.

Another prototype brings making to you! Spark Truck, a maker space on wheels created by Stanford d.school students, pulls up and unfurls to reveal an impressive collection of tools, materials, and facilitators. Spark Truck’s summer 2012 launch tour provided hands-on design thinking experiences for 27,000 students in parking lots across 33 states—and now the project is the focus of a graduate level d.school course that will yield yearly iterations of the same truck, redesigned anew and ready to hit the road each summer.

"Inside the Spark Truck" by SparkTruck: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparktruck/8347456258/

“Inside the Spark Truck” by SparkTruck: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparktruck/8347456258/

 

Temescal Learning Community schools are curious about how their own spaces might encourage design thinking and maker experiences. On a recent visit to the Bay Area, architect, educator, and Agency by Design consultant, David Stephen led teams from Oakland International High School and Park Day School in a maker space exploration. The teams arrived at a fundamental question: should a school-based maker space stand-alone or should the school shift multiple spaces to invite making experiences? Proponents of the stand-alone space model describe the opportunities for sophisticated tool use, the need for materials and project storage, and the role a dedicated space plays in encouraging design thinking/maker programing at a school. These spaces should be stocked with tools and materials; ideal for whole-group, small-group, and individual work; very well-organized but designed for messy exploration; designed for exhibition of project work; considerate of light and sound; exceptionally flexible with moveable, modular furniture; rich with white board surfaces for brainstorming; and inviting and comfortable.  Sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it? Continue reading

Joyful Je-ne-sais-quoi: Sense of Play, Spirit of Fun, and the Agency by Design Project

Members of the Agency by Design research team honing their research questions during a recent retreat in Vermont. Clockwise from center Edward P. Clapp, Shari Tishman, Jennifer Oxman Ryan, Jessica Ross, and Wendy Donner. Photo by Raquel Jimenez.

Members of the Agency by Design research team honing their research questions during a recent retreat in Vermont. Clockwise from center Edward P. Clapp, Shari Tishman, Jennifer Oxman Ryan, Jessica Ross, and Wendy Donner. Photo by Raquel Jimenez.

Since the Agency by Design team welcomed me to the project as a research assistant in October, I’ve spent a lot of time getting caught up to speed on many activities commonly associated with the research process. Yet, as I’ve gotten to know my colleagues over the past few months in a beyond-our-bios sort of way, I’ve often reflected on the nature of our work together as a team. In many ways, our work together reminds me of chamber music, a genre of small ensemble music that musicologists often refer to as “the music of friends” due to the highly personal and interpersonal qualities needed to bring this type of music to harmonious fruition.

Here’s a glimpse into the joyfulness and personality that members of our ensemble bring to the Agency by Design project: Continue reading

Developing a Sensitivity to the Design of Teacher Learning Communities

The Temescal Learning Community weighing in on a design challenge at Oakland International High School.

The Temescal Learning Community (TLC) weighing in on a design challenge at Oakland International High School.

For a long time, I have held the belief that teacher learning communities have the power to stretch beyond individual school walls to tap the expertise of a broader community of educators and to tackle emergent research puzzles. Our partners in the Agency by Design initiative, the Temescal Learning Community (TLC), include just such a learning community.

The Temescal Learning Community educators hail from four vastly different schools all within a stone’s throw of one another in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, CAEmerson Elementary School, part of the Oakland Unified District is a 300-student, K-5 public school.  Oakland Technical High School (Tech), with a student population of about 1,200, is another district school that has served the community since 1914.  Tech’s campus is next door to another community member, Park Day School (PDS), an independent K-8 school that has been in the neighborhood for 37 years.  It is a short walk from PDS to the newest school in this community, Oakland International High School, (OIHS) which opened in 2007 to serve Temescal’s changing immigrant population.

For over a decade I have been hearing about the benefits of Professional Learning Communities to improve student learning and teacher practice from many voices in the education world including Richard DuFour (the author of several books on the subject) and his various co-authors, researchers at Project Zero, and the National School Reform Faculty, among others. These educators agree that there is tremendous benefit for teachers to participate in groups that represent multiple grades and disciplines. In the past, traditional planning time has been designed for meetings by grade level or discipline. Breaking from this tradition is essential for interdisciplinary planning and for lateral examination of student work to improve instruction. I spent ten years in a project-based school where time was devoted to learning community meetings across grade levels and across disciplines in order to design interdisciplinary units and assess student work—it was a fantastic learning experience. But what about taking that one step further? What might I have learned from my colleagues in neighboring schools? Continue reading

Welcome to Making Thinking Happen!

Members of the Agency by Design Learning Community have fun looking at complex objects during a “sensitivity to design” study group session at Park Day School in Oakland, CA.

Welcome to Making Thinking Happen, the official blog of the Agency by Design research and development initiative at Project Zero, a research organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Through the support of the Abundance Foundation the focus of this project is to explore the learning opportunities that exist at the intersection of the maker movement, design thinking, and extant Project Zero frameworks.

There are two primary strands of activity for this study. The first is a series of interviews with designers, makers, tinkerers, artists, and educators involved with design thinking and the maker movement, paired with a review of literature related to these domains.

Given the rising presence of design thinking and maker programming in schools and after school programs, the second strand of activity of this study involves a partnership with a group of K-12 educators from several schools in the Temescal region of Oakland, California. Through classroom-based activities and action research, we’ll be investigating ways to strengthen students’ cognitive development in three areas: (1) the capacity to recognize and appreciate the design dimensions of objects, ideas, and systems; (2) the capacity to be agents of change with regard to design in the world, and; (3) the capacity to think and learn through tinkering.

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