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.
Engaging young learners in exploring complexity and finding opportunities to make systems better requires perspective taking and empathy. Role playing can be a powerful approach to support learners in taking others’ perspectives when exploring the roles, ideas, and feelings of different characters in a system. Here we offer a few thoughts on how to leverage children’s natural desire to play and how to employ different thinking routines to foster perspective taking and empathy. This tool is intended as a starting point and does not need to be followed step by step or happen all at once.
Guest Author Jeff Evancho, the Project Zero Programming Specialist at the Quaker Valley School District, describes the process of establishing the Pittsburgh Maker Educator Learning Community, including the community’s interest in developing documentation and assessment strategies for the maker-centered classroom.
This routine encourages divergent thinking by prompting students to think of new possibilities for an object or system. It can also encourage convergent thinking by giving students a basis from which to narrow down their ideas so they can redesign or hack an object or a system. Ultimately, this thinking routine is about finding opportunity and pursuing new ideas.
Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom presents a systems-based approach to examining creativity in education that aims to make participating in invention and innovation accessible to all students. Moving beyond the gifted-versus-ungifted debate present in many of today’s classrooms, the book’s inclusive framework situates creativity as a participatory and socially distributed process. The core principle of the book is that individuals are not creative, ideas are creative, and that there are multiple ways for a variety of individuals to participate in the development of creative ideas. This dynamic reframing of invention and innovation provides strategies for teachers, curriculum designers, policymakers, researchers, and others who seek to develop a more equitable approach towards establishing creative learning experiences in various educational settings.
A community of teachers and researchers work together in Cambridge, MA and Temescal, CA to learn more about how students understand design in the world.