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.
This piece is based on a workshop titled “Taking Apart Racism: Using Maker-Centered Practices to Break Down Systems of Oppression,” led by Jaime Chao Mignano and Mark Perkins at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (PoCC).
Like a lot of educators, I want my students to be empowered to impact the world around them. I want them to have social and political agency in a sense that is perfectly aligned with what Agency by Design means by agency—that is, skills and tools in combination with intention and impulse to action. When I task my students with dismantling systems of oppression, how do they know what that means? Do they feel ready to enact it? And how can I be a support?
This was the seed of a workshop for this year’s National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (PoCC), a gathering of thousands of educators from around the United States to explore ideas and share experiences around equity and justice in our schools and lives. My colleague, Mark Perkins (Media and Theater Coordinator), and I wondered what insights we could offer by putting Take Apart practice in service to racial justice education. I was nervous to try to build under the conference throughline “Anti-Racist Teaching Tools” - the stakes felt so high. We had an inkling, though, that combining the enthusiastic engine of taking stuff apart with the resonant act of creating stories that reimagine existing narratives of power could be an important experiment.
Mark and I built a workshop we call “Taking Apart Racism: Using Maker-Centered Practices to Break Down Systems of Oppression.” The heart of the workshop is the idea that looking closely and exploring the complexity of an object can create a bridge of metaphor that helps us understand a system of racial oppression. If we build the connection between these two systems—the system of the object and the system of oppression—then we can see the oppressive system in a new light and probe new possibilities.
Agency by Design researcher Jen Ryan explores some of the central ideas from the framework at TEDxDirigo Generate.
Educator Gus Goodwin shares how his students engage with the Agency by Design capacities during a design and engineering challenge, specifically highlighting the capacity Exploring Complexity.
Video by Alex Coppola
Featured photo by Jaime Chao Mignano
High School technology students in Darlease Monteiro’s class use Parts, Purposes, Complexities to analyze website apps prior to designing their own.