Jaime Chao Mignano is a Senior Practitioner Specialist on the JusticexDesign (JxD) project, and an ongoing leader in the project's conception and development, including developing tools and supporting educators to apply the emerging JxD framework in their contexts.
We find ourselves in a thorny historical moment, in the United States and around the world. Like my colleagues on the JusticexDesign project—and like many educators—I wonder: How will we support our students in deepening their understanding of the world around them and exploring the complex interplay of histories we are taking part in? In the US, we are debating the fate of American monuments, the legacy of American founders, and the impact of America’s own super story on the lived experiences of its people. How might we offer a path of agency to our students that champions historical honesty? And as we guide our students in considering colonial legacies, migration crises, and global economic injustice, what are some ways we might actively value the voices of communities adding their own truth to a contested history, even at terrible risk?
Artist Titus Kaphar’s work offers a rich model, pieces “that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present.” WIS History teacher Nora Brennan, a colleague in Agency by Design's Making Across the Curriculum project, and I had been struck by Kaphar’s 2017 TED Talk, “Can Art Amend History?” He asks, with his own children in mind, “What is the impact of these kinds of paintings on some of our most vulnerable in society, seeing these kinds of depictions of themselves all the time?” Kaphar concludes by urging us to “amend our public sculptures, our national monuments” in order to expand and deepen our historical narrative.
In the fall of 2018, Nora took her history class to visit the Titus Kaphar collection in the “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light” exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery. This experience was clearly powerful for students—we could sense that Kaphar’s artworks were shifting their gazes, pointing them to an actively unfolding dialogue on American history. Nora knew she wanted her students to connect more deeply to Kaphar’s philosophy of historical amendment. She combined this art exhibit and the history lessons she was teaching on the Civil War and Reconstruction as the foundation to challenge students to research a Civil War monument and reimagine it.
At the same time, Nora knew it was important to contextualize this project in the very active conversation in the U.S.—and around the world--about monuments and public memory. The controversy around Civil War monuments was and is a real current event—many city and state governments have been taking steps to address the symbolic presence of historical racial terror embedded in public spaces by tearing down monuments, renaming streets and buildings, etc. We wanted students to situate their thinking within these substantive critiques - not to attempt reconciliation but to explore their own perspective.
Nora drew on the Agency by Design framework to build her students’ sensitivity to the design of monuments and portraits. She knew that historical artworks can both express and obscure, offering us complex legacies that we can guide students in unpacking and probing. We wondered what maker empowerment might look like as students approach a portrait of Robert E. Lee or a statue of John. C. Calhoun.
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 tool is connected to the Agency by Design Making Moves. The Making Moves identifies three maker capacities that support a sensitivity to design, along with their associated learning moves. Here you’ll find three observation sheets, one for each of the maker capacities: Looking Closely, Exploring Complexity, and Finding Opportunity.