Home » Tinkering » Developing Student Agency Through Design By Aaron Vanderwerff

Developing Student Agency Through Design By Aaron Vanderwerff

The core of what attracts us to maker-centered learning at Lighthouse is that it develops student agency and ownership of learning. The Agency by Design (AbD) framework, which we discussed in our last post, “What Is Making?” guides our work with learners in becoming more aware of the design of the world around us by taking a closer look at objects and systems.

As students become more aware of the design of the world around them, they begin to see themselves as people who can affect that design and are also empowered to actually do the work — to tinker, hack, and improve design. This newfound awareness isn’t limited to objects, but can move into the core curriculum as well, through discussion of the design of governmental systems, cell structure, or a poem.

Developing students’ sensitivity to design and agency are lofty goals. How do we do that? The Agency by Design team has boiled it down to three capacities that empower students as makers that are easy to integrate into any learning context:

Parts, Purposes, Complexities

There are many different ways to build the capacities of looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. One path into these capacities is through AbD’s thinking routines.

diagram of a penLet’s dive into a few examples of what this has looked like at Lighthouse, by focusing on one of these thinking routines: Parts, Purposes, Complexities (PPC).

In a high school math class earlier this year, students took a close look at a ball point pen (see image to the left) for over 45 minutes. During that time, they described the parts of the pen: “I never noticed the tip was a ball before”; the purposes of the parts: “The ‘clicker’ holds and locks ink in place”; and discussed the complexities of the pen: how its parts fit and work together.

We introduced PPC with a tangible object to help our students slow down, look closely, and explore the complexities of an object we can easily discuss. We finished the lesson by asking them to apply this thinking routine to a math equation: y=mx+b. Throughout the year, students will use this thinking routine (and others) to support their thinking around complex ideas in math equations, texts, and scientific models they are struggling to describe.y=mx+b equation

Our kindergarteners (see below) have also looked closely at an object as they explored new tools and furniture. Students used screwdrivers and drills to take apart stools and think about the parts of the stool. They soon realized that all screws are not interchangeable — each has a specific purpose. They were empowered to fix a number of broken stools that became part of their classroom furniture for the rest of the year. Later, during their science study of bones, kindergarteners used the PPC routine to examine the link between a bone’s structure and its function.

kindergarteners building while sitting on the rug

Professional Development

But PPC isn’t just for students. Educators in our two-day Designing Making Experiences workshop also use the routine to look closely and explore complexity during an object take-apart. We facilitate the activity with a light touch, allowing educators to determine in small groups how they will organize their thinking. During the PPC, we ask participants to get up and check out each others’ work. The diverse documentation techniques from group to group are generally a surprise, and participants reflect that working through the routine themselves is key to thinking about how it can be applied in their classrooms.

Developing curriculum is the goal of this workshop and many participants have integrated the thinking routines into their work. In one case, a high school English teacher decided to use PPC to open up the analysis of a short story students were about to read. Instead of asking students a series of leading questions, he asked them to identify the parts, purposes, and complexities of the story, automatically diving into the question of author’s craft — a key part of the Common Core.

Thinking Routines

AbD’s thinking routines are one way to support students in looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. Each of the thinking routines below has a facilitator’s guide with suggestions for using the routine effectively.

  • Parts, People, Interactions: Learners look closely at a system and consider how changes in one part of the system affect others. We find that PPI is an important part of thinking about how best to make strategic change to a system.
  • Think, Feel, Care: Learners put themselves in the shoes of other people in the system they’ve just taken a look at. TFC is one way to build empathy, but it takes careful facilitation to ensure that students challenge their assumptions and develop empathy for individual, diverse perspectives.
  • Imagine If…: Learners are challenged to reimagine the world around them. They’re provided with questions to rethink an object or system and then consider how it could be more effective, efficient, ethical, or beautiful.

Get Started Today!

Parts, Purposes, Complexities is a good entry point into Thinking Routines because it can be done with a physical object that makes it tangible, and builds on questions students likely already ask themselves. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Choosing PPC Objects: Choose simple mechanical objects like a door lock set rather than electronics with many black-box elements in them. This allows learners to explore the purposes and complexities of the object with background knowledge they already have. On the other hand, if you’re studying circuits or electronics, start with a PPC of an electronic device at the beginning of the class and come back to it throughout the unit.
  • Facilitation: How will you facilitate the activity? As discussed earlier, we try to keep facilitation to the minimum needed. One of the fundamental principles of maker education is to keep the learning experience centered with the learner, which means that they need to do as much of the thinking as possible. We try to let groups determine how to document their thinking and even how to interpret the questions. Sometimes, however, it can be helpful to provide a graphic organizer for students. Learners often record their own thinking, but teachers of younger students can do the processing orally as well.
  • PPC Without Take-Aparts: Have students closely observe an object such as a hand or hinge and use drawing as the medium for the PPC. But PPC isn’t limited to a physical object — a paragraph, a math problem, or a historical movement can bring the maker mindset into the core curriculum.

Agency by Design, by the way, has a forthcoming book: Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds, due out in 2016 from Jossey-Bass.

Let us know in the comments below if you try out an Agency By Design Thinking Routine!

Aaron Vanderwerff is passionate about engaging students in making and independent inquiry in the classroom, particularly students underrepresented in STEM fields. Aaron currently oversees design and making programs at Lighthouse Community Charter School, which includes coaching teachers and facilitating professional development. This effort came out of his making class, which culminates in students exhibiting their independent projects at Maker Faire. Aaron has taught high school science in the Bay Area for over ten years. Before joining Lighthouse, he taught ninth-grade physics and was science department chair at San Lorenzo High School, and taught math in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. Connect with him on Twitter: @aVndrwrff

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