Agency by Design
What does it mean to see the world like a designer? What is “maker thinking?” What kinds of thinking dispositions characterize a tinkerer? These are some of the questions at the heart of the Agency by Design project, a multi-year research and development initiative at Project Zero, a research organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Sponsored by the Abundance Foundation, the focus of this project is to investigate the teaching and learning of design thinking and maker thinking. The term design thinking is derived from the practical work of designers: it refers to a context-driven, human-centered problem solving process that emphasizes creative ideation, learning from failure, prototyping, and designing for real-world use. Maker thinking is related to the burgeoning maker movement and the do-it-yourself (DIY) mindset; it refers to a process of thinking-through-making that emphasizes tinkering, resourcefulness, and “hacking” (i.e., altering or repurposing), and celebrates a spirit of inventiveness and hands-on fun.
Educational initiatives that target these forms of thinking are becoming increasingly popular in K-12 education, from design thinking contests and curricula to school-based hacker spaces and fab labs. Claims about the educational benefits of such initiatives are encouraging, but broad. Little is known about their impact on students’ cognitive development, and empirical research is sparse. Through two strands of activities, the Agency by Design research team hopes to contribute to a growing body of knowledge concerning the teaching and learning implications of design thinking, tinkering, and the maker movement. First, through interviews and a review of current educational trends and studies, we hope to clarify some of the claims and ideas in the air about these forms of thinking. In light of the rapidly-spreading influence of the maker movement on schools, we are especially interested in claims about maker thinking: What do educators and leaders in the maker movement see as the promise of maker thinking? What do they see as markers of success?
The second strand of activity involves a partnership with a group of K-12 educators from several schools in the Temescal region of Oakland, California. Through classroom-based activities and action research, we’re investigating ways to strengthen students’ cognitive development in three areas: (1) the capacity to recognize and appreciate the design dimensions of objects, ideas, and systems; (2) the capacity to be agents of change with regard to design in the world, and; (3) the capacity to think and learn through tinkering.
By combining these two strands of activities—a review of current opinions and trends, and on-the-ground work in schools—we hope to better understand how young people can learn to see the world around them through the lens of design, and how they can be encouraged to be active agents in the design and invention of their worlds. Hence the name of the project: Agency by Design.
Throughout this research we hope to connect with a broader community of educators and makers by sharing our experiences through a variety of social media platforms. We invite you to engage with us along the way—follow us on Twitter, view our Instagram account, and please visit and share your insights on Making Thinking Happen, our blog space dedicated to this project.
Funding: The Abundance Foundation
Project Zero staff:
Edward P. Clapp
Graduate Student Assistant: Raquel Jimenez
Abundance Foundation Liaison: Wendy Donner
Participating Schools: Claremont Middle School, Emerson Elementary School, North Oakland Community Charter School, Oakland International High School, Oakland Technical High School, Park Day School