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The Benefits of Design- and Maker-Thinking

ABDWhile it isn’t uncommon for young people to take things apart and rebuild in order to understand how something works or why it’s made, educational initiatives targeted specifically toward “design-thinking” or “maker-thinking” are becoming increasingly popular in K–12 education. However, little is known about the benefits of such initiatives in the classroom, and even less is known about how these efforts shape students’ cognitive development.

Through a multiyear research and development initiative called Agency by Design (ABD), Project Zero (PZ) researchers are exploring the intersection of maker- and design-focused movements, contemporary learning theories, and complex thinking. They are particularly interested in the potential role that maker experiences can play in helping young people become more engaged with the designed dimension of their world.

“We're trying to understand what it means to foster in young people a sense of maker empowerment, meaning one has a sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking,” says Lecturer Shari Tishman, the principal investigator on the project and director of Project Zero. “My hope is that by encouraging young people to tinker with their world we're empowering them to reinvent it.”

It began when the Abundance Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting and empowering local leaders in communities worldwide to develop new capacities that build lasting improvements in quality of life, approached PZ interested in examining the ideas behind “maker-thinking,” which refers to the do-it-yourself mindset.

“We had a lot of faith in the organization and felt this was an opportunity to partner with a research group that would that would really tap into the essential questions around thinking and learning that have been missing,” said Wendy Donner of Abundance Foundation, highlighting the valuable work that PZ had been doing with action-based research and practitioners.

“It was a great opportunity for Project Zero. As the Agency by Design team began to investigate the maker movement, design thinking, tinkering — the various DIY and hands-on inspired approaches — we realized there was a lot to learn from educators and makers and young people about the benefits of maker experiences,” said Jennifer Ryan, the PZ manager working on the research project. “Funders were interested in not only helping us build knowledge around these spheres, but also in supporting the development of activities and tools that could encourage maker-empowered youth.”

The research, which is currently in the data collecting phase, incorporates two parts. The first includes conducting interviews with thought- and practice-based leaders in the field. The ABD team hopes to learn how these educators are thinking about maker education, including their ideas around pedagogical decisions, maker learning objectives, and what they see as the greater effects or benefits of maker education. In addition, Project Zero is also delving into the classroom, where they’ve partnered with 21 educators in six schools in Oakland, Calif., to study if and how maker experiences may influence cognitive development.

“Our partner educators in Oakland contribute to the research project in many ways — by piloting ideas we’ve developed as a research team, by being the practice-based voice as we develop theory. In fact, I think one of the more exciting aspects of the project is the learning community that has developed among these educators. They meet regularly, both with us and without us,” Ryan said. “It is our hope that having this strong group of interested and passionate educators — across schools and grades — will help sustain the goals of the project long after the research project ends.”

Many of the educators visited HGSE last summer to participate in the Project Zero Classroom (PZC) — an institute focused on frameworks that enable educators to look at teaching analytically, develop new approaches to planning, and make informed decisions about instruction — offered by the Programs in Professional Education.

Claremont Middle School’s Maite Barloga, who teaches a “Design Thinking & Making" elective course this year for middle-school students, attended the PZC to prepare for the class. “During my week at PZC, I realized that I have been using PZ frameworks and ABD’s approach throughout my 10 years in the classroom, especially the last four years,” she said. “I have learned over the years that students need to use their hands and minds to experience and learn.”

Barloga credits her involvement with ABD at helping develop how to present design- and maker-thinking to students. As she moves through her course this year, she hopes to guide students toward looking at the systems, beliefs, and social structures, and understanding their role in design.

“Ultimately our research will position us to develop tools that encourage design sensitivity and that help those educators and organizations who are interested in optimizing learning and teaching environments for maker empowerment,” Ryan said.

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