In this picture of practice essay, educators Ilya Pratt and Jeanine Harmon share a community “Design + Build” project. Fourth and fifth grade students from North Oakland Charter School and Park Day School find an opportunity to work together to build T-Stools for classrooms.
This piece is the first in a series of Field Notes which can be read as a Take Apart Toolkit of sorts, including how to use Take Aparts to engage in deep analysis, to increase accessibility, to explore the complexity of less tangible objects and systems, and more.
Cracking the case of a computer always inspires a small gasp—an intake of breath that is part fear and part wonder. And it really is beautiful in there.
For that matter, so are the guts of a blender or a blow dryer or an FM radio. When I first started using Take Apart practices in the classroom, it was for the simple unwrapping of the incredible miniature landscape inside of the familiar objects that we think we understand most intimately. The view from the inside is a powerful and nearly instantaneous entrypoint into what Agency by Design names a sensitivity to design—that the world around us is designed and made by humans like us, and can be remade, too.
Over time, I came to think of a Take Apart a perfect first dip into maker-centered learning for learners of any age or context because it requires very little prior knowledge. When I’m guiding a group of learners, I like to ask: Look at the object in front of you—do you know its name? Have you ever used it? Most of us can stare down a clock with some level of confidence and firsthand experience. We have a connection to an object we recognize and ready access to what we already know about how it is used, some alternative forms it may have, and even some ideas about how it works. We have memories that may connect it to our home, the Kindergarten teacher who taught us how to tell time, the last clock we touched. A Take Apart has an emotional locomotion that is hard to resist.
A first, essential step is looking closely—slowly observing and reflecting on the whole. One of the key requirements of a Take Apart, and one that I share with learners, is this important permission: You will not be asked to put it back together. You do not need to preserve it. Once the clock is really Taken Apart, it does not go back together, literally or conceptually. It is a plastic rain poncho that can never be stuffed back into its perfect tiny pouch. When we unpack the parts and complications of the clock—when we explore complexity—our understanding of it balloons out dimensionally.
Permission to break things is a visceral release, and the small shock of cracking the case of a clock marks that crystal moment of transgression. “No going back now,” some learners might say, or “Is this what I’m supposed to do?” They have entered forbidden territory.
The real processing begins when learners' hands are deep in the guts of the clock and a flurry of questions and inferences rise out of their inherent curiosity. It can get wild in there, and conversations and observations help make order and meaning of what they find. I like to prompt, What do you see? What words or numbers can you find? How are things connected? How does it work to move the hands? As pieces start to come out onto the table, I ask: Sort them in a way that makes sense to you. Is it the way they fit together on the inside? Is it by size or color? What way explains the clock best?
When everything is out, when it is arranged as a representation of our understanding of the clock, it has changed irreversibly. It is broken, for sure, but it is also now physically and conceptually larger than it has ever been. Reflection can make visible how learners’ understandings of the clock and their thinking about it have grown. They can teach what they have learned, or explain a moment of surprise where what they thought they knew about the clock was upended. I often invite my students to consider the following: What was hard about taking it apart, physically or emotionally—and what does that mean? What was hard about explaining its workings? What puzzles remain?
Then finding opportunity becomes a natural next step. Often, learners will ask me if they can keep a piece of this clock. I might ask: Why this piece? What do you want to do with it? What should be thrown away, and what is just too interesting?
In the past year, the Making Across the Curriculum project at Washington International School has supported our faculty to dig into an exploration of what Take Apart practices might look like in a classroom. The curiosity and enthusiasm of students during a Take Apart is often the most obvious impact, but we are also trying to identify more subtle evidence of student understanding.
Where are we coming from?
The Agency by Design framework for maker-centered learning and its accompanying practices encourage young people to pay close attention to the designed elements of the world, to deconstruct and reconstruct objects and systems, and to see themselves as participants in reimagining the world and their place within it. The designs that young people explore are not only physical. Thinking routines like Parts, Purposes, Complexities, Parts, People, Interactions and Parts, Perspectives, Me have been used by young people and their educators to look closely and critically at systems of governance and power and the various stakeholders involved in these systems. For example, educators from Agency by Design Oakland, a network established by participants in the AbD Origin Project, apply the AbD framework to support equity, look at power structures, and foster students’ critical thinking.
In collaboration with educators in the broader Agency by Design network and those participating in the Making Across the Curriculum project at Washington International School, the AbD team at Project Zero has been developing new tools and practices to support young people to take an even more critical approach toward design and making in order to both interrogate—as well as embody—design choices that challenge systems of oppression, representation, and power.
Design is not neutral
How might we support young people to develop a critical consciousness when looking at, interacting with, and participating in the designed elements of the world?
Design is not neutral. Making is not neutral. Every choice that a designer or maker makes is made in the context of a set of beliefs and ideas about the world. Design justice, a growing field in the realm of design, focuses on the ways that design perpetuates systemic oppression by looking closely at who benefits from design, who is harmed, and how the design of objects and systems might more equitably distribute design’s “benefits and burdens.” Along the lines of design justice, in pedagogic terms, are notions that creativity is not neutral and that classrooms, specifically classrooms that emphasize creativity, privilege dominant culture’s social and cultural perspectives. With forces of systemic oppression built into the very structure of design and concepts of what constitutes creativity, it is critical to support young people to recognize the importance of questioning design and how the decisions of the makers they encounter relate to and reflect representation and power.
Sensitivity to design also means a sensitivity to what is not built-in
Agency by Design defines Sensitivity to Design as "learning to notice and engage with one's physical and conceptual environment by looking closely and reflecting on the design of objects and systems, exploring the complexity of design, and finding opportunity to make objects and systems more effective, more efficient, more ethical, more beautiful, or more __________."
Perhaps just as important as inviting young people to look closely at the designed elements of the world and report what they notice is supporting them to question what they do not see and why. Cultivating a capacity and inclination to critically consume art, media, and other elements of material culture is a first, or early, step to understanding the ways that design empowers, oppresses, and often reproduces existing power structures. As young people—and all of us—engage with the inherent stories and perspectives of the elements of material culture we encounter, it is important that we are equipped with a critical lens and sensitivity to ask questions like: What information is missing? Whose voices are represented, whose are not, and why?
Voice and Choice, a protocol
Voice and Choice is a protocol for looking critically at a piece of content, considering perspectives and representation, and then redesigning or reimagining that content from one’s own perspective. “Content” might refer to a poem, work of art, historical essay, social media post, architectural structure, news article, piece of digital media, environmental plan, etc.
Learners begin by looking closely at a piece of content and then they do the following:
Download the full protocol along with suggested practices for using the protocol. Download the Voice and Choice Learner Workbook, co-created by Julie Rains. Below are three snapshots from the Learner Workbook.
How do you define tinkering? In this post, Agency by Design principal investigator Shari Tishman tinkers towards a definition of tinkering that considers standard text book definitions, examples from real life tinkerers, and a consideration of the “symptoms” of tinkering.
Agency by Design researcher Jessica Ross explores circuitry by engaging in a hands-on journey to build a flashing LED light from scratch.
What do we want our learners to be like when they leave our classrooms at the end of the year? What does authentic learning look like in a maker-centered classroom? Your response to these questions might be an indicator of what type of learning you value as a teacher. Inspired by Carlina Rinaldi and her writing on the relationship between documentation and assessment, we used these questions to identify what types of learning or dispositions teachers value most within their contexts. Think of it as a lens for looking at learning. What we quickly realized is that the values educators bring to their work have implications connected to assessment.
Agency by Designer project Director Shari Tishman introduces the concept of “maker empowerment” as a potential outcome of maker learning experiences.