Looking Forward and Looking Back on AbD’s Action Research with the OLC

As AbD moves into a new phase of action research, Jessica Ross reflects on the project’s work with the Oakland Learning Community.

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

Moving Forward, Looking Back

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, but 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.

Prototypes of bridge designs at the Park Day School.

Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick Makers…

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.

Is Maker-Centered Learning Tech Ed 3.0? or Education3D?

We experienced déjà vu in many of the maker classrooms we visited as the proposed adoption of maker-centered learning echoed the same questions posed by the rollout of K–12 tech ed curricula over a decade ago:

Should there be a designated makerspace in the school? What are the prerequisite qualifications to teach a maker-centered curriculum? How will the tools of making affect student learning? Should maker-centered learning be integrated across the curriculum? Is maker-centered learning the best fit for all kids? How will teachers be trained?

And of course, as always, issues of equity and access are at the heart of these questions.

OLC member Carla Aiello of Emerson Elementary School posing with an over-sized pencil made by her kindergarten students.


Through our action research agenda we explored how some of the tensions associated with maker-centered learning could be addressed at the classroom level. Not one of the teachers in the OLC was a designated “maker educator.” The participating OLC teachers taught young people ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade. They included art teachers, technology teachers, middle-school history teachers, K–6 grade classroom teachers, literacy specialists, high school drama and science teachers, and many, many others. The challenge for each of them was to come to their own understanding of what maker-centered learning was and how it could—or could not—be woven into their curriculum. The means by which these teachers entered this exploration was through experimenting with the ideas we shared with them as we collectively sought to develop pedagogical interventions that helped young learners notice the designed dimensions of their worlds.

Last May members of the OLC shared student and teacher work that grew out of the many exercises we asked them to try out. Kindergarteners at Emerson Elementary School spent weeks in a deep dive into the construction and design of an everyday object: the pencil. Along the way, they built vocabulary, asked questions, and developed skills as they moved from observation to inquiry to redesign.

Students from different schools and grades took apart and explored several objects—light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, and computers, among other items. OLC students also created movies, books, ceramic bowls, prosthetic devices, mobiles depicting the civil rights movement, mind maps that explained community systems, wooden T-stools, tortilla presses, robots, and so much more. Students redesigned spaces, including a school library and an array of classrooms. Community gardens were planted, way-finding signs went up, and in some schools the design of hallways and communal spaces were turned over to the imaginations of their student inhabitants. Based on the work displayed at the OLC gallery in May, it was evident that these students and their teachers were afforded varied and ample opportunities to notice, name, explore, and hack many of the designed objects and systems in their worlds.

The diversity of student and teacher work was astounding. It did nothing to help narrow the definition of maker education, but it did offer insight as to how classroom teachers may thoughtfully employ maker-centered learning across a wide variety of contexts.

The design-inspired hallway at Claremont Middle School.

Looking forward

This week we will invite a new group of educators to join us as we expand the OLC into the Agency by Design Learning Community (AbDLC). Some of the AbDLC members self-identify as maker educators working in maker-designated spaces housed in libraries, museums, or out of school programs, others are technology teachers or content area specialists in K–12 schools, and others either defy definition, or are hybrids of the two. We are eager to be a part of the conversation as this new group gathers to share ideas while they explore some of the materials we have created to foster a sensitivity to design amongst young people, and support maker empowerment. We encourage you to watch this space and to be a part of the growing conversation.

This blog was published on November 13, 2014.
Authored by
Jessica Ross

Jessica Ross is a researcher and Project Manager on the Agency by Design project.