February 25, 2014

Making in Memphis

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

A workshop participant maps out the parts, purposes, and relationships in a light switch.

By Jenny Ernst, Guest Author

As a member of the Oakland Learning Community (OLC), my work with the Agency by Design (AbD) research project has helped me understand that developing a sensitivity to the design of objects is an elemental part of maker education. Co-facilitating an AbD workshop on this theme at a national conference afforded me some of the very best in professional development. A surprising twist to one of our thinking routines made the experience even richer.

Earlier this month my colleague Brooke Toczylowski (Oakland International High School) and I (Park Day School) were welcomed as presenters at the most recent Project Zero Perspectives conference entitled How and Where Does Learning Thrive? The conference was hosted by Presbyterian Day School (PDS) in Memphis, TN. Over the years 85% of PDS teachers have attended the annual Project Zero Classroom summer institute in Cambridge, MA. As a result, every hallway bulletin board displayed student thinking routines and the staff (and even the students) spoke fluent PZ-terminology.

As classroom teachers and OLC members Brooke and I were asked to co-present with our Project Zero research partners Jen Ryan and Edward Clapp. Since Brooke and I have piloted many of the AbD workshop activities in our classrooms/schools, we offered a “teacher perspective” on AbD’s work. With reverence, we also shared the projects that our colleagues in the OLC have been working on when we were asked about real-world applications of AbD’s approach to teaching and learning.

While Brooke and Edward presented a systems-based workshop session, Jen and I presented a session entitled Developing a Sensitivity to Design: How Making and Design Experiences Can Activate Student Agency. For me personally, I wanted the teachers, learning specialists, and administrators in our workshop sessions to understand that as educators, we too develop a natural sensitivity to design alongside our students as we notice the parts, purposes, and relationships within objects and systems. When we are challenged to design our learning environments to include more maker/design thinking activities, we likewise develop the dispositional characteristics associated with AbD’s emergent concept of maker empowerment.

AbD project manager Jen Ryan and Park Day School teacher and OLC member Jenny Ernst co-facilitated a sensitivity to design workshop session together at the recent Project Zero Perspectives conference in Memphis, TN.

AbD project manager Jen Ryan and Park Day School teacher and OLC member Jenny Ernst co-facilitated a sensitivity to design workshop session together at the recent Project Zero Perspectives conference in Memphis, TN.

A big part of our work with AbD has been looking at the parts, purposes, and complexities of objects—a popular thinking routine the PZ researchers call a “PPC.” But before our Memphis workshop sessions, Jen informed me that we were going to change PPC to PPR. The “R” would stand for relationships, replacing the “C” for complexities. This interesting twist was a great reminder to me that our work with AbD is always “in progress” and open to tinkering.

At the workshop, we had our participants take apart or “mechanically dissect” a variety of electronics and household appliances, and then discuss the parts, purposes, and relationships they noticed within each object.

I found that naming the relationships between the parts and purposes helped participants see the sub-systems within objects. For example, one group took apart a wall-mounted pencil sharpener. They looked at how the parts “related” to one another and when they named the relationship “cause and effect,” it became clear how the designed parts interacted in a complex way.

When we asked the participants what insights they had about this activity, a number of them brought up how girls or boys might approach it differently: “Do girls ‘pass’ on using tools when boys are present? Do women ‘pass off’ tasks to the men in their lives?” These questions set the stage for a discussion about how we can deepen the concept of maker empowerment and what that means to all people. When we know more about the parts and purposes of everyday objects, do we feel more inclined to fix, build, or re-design ourselves? It was very satisfying for me to witness participants noticing their own disposition about using tools and naming their habits around persevering through certain kinds of physical challenges. I believe that their personal insights will have a direct impact on their students’ experiences.

In addition to gender questions, participants also wondered how these ideas might apply to teaching humanities classes. We noted how concepts, like objects, could be considered in terms of their parts, purposes, and relationships as well. One teacher’s face lit up during this conversation. It had occurred to him that Aristotle’s Four Causes of change or movement could be thought of in parallel to the parts, purposes, and relationships model. He was excited to see if he could get his students to identify these Four Causes with a similar thinking routine.

When I mapped out the parts and purposes and relationships of this trip for me, it was clear that my life was enriched. In addition to the conference experience, while in Memphis Brooke and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We also mingled with very friendly locals who shared with us experiences about their lives and the culture of Memphis. What a gift to experience southern hospitality firsthand! Special thanks to the Abundance Foundation for supporting us and to Jen for her guidance and for modeling excellent presentation skills. Also, thanks to Brooke for her great company and inspiring me to make a journal!


Jenny Ernst is a 6th grade math and science teacher at Park Day School in Oakland, CA. Her teaching approach comes out of Park Day’s progressive philosophy and, more recently, the Project Zero frameworks. As a “DIY/Maker”-type person, being part of the movement toward cultivating a sensitivity to design suits her both personally and professionally.

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