Agency by Design was created in 2011 as a collaboration between the Abundance Foundation and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero and focused on three research questions:

1) How do maker educators and leaders in the field think about the benefits and outcomes of maker-centered learning experiences?

2) What are some key characteristics of environments in which maker-centered learning thrives?

3) What kinds of educational interventions can be developed to support thoughtful reflection around maker-centered learning and the made dimensions of our world?

AbD was designed with multiple strands of research that included a literature review, interviews and site visits with maker education thought leaders, observations of student work, and collaborations with multiple cohorts of pre-K – 12 educators in Oakland. From this initial work emerged a hypothesis that fostering young people’s sensitivity to the designed dimensions of the world may be a powerful way to increase their sense of agency. We also realized that the development of agency and community are two of the core outcomes that many maker-centered educators seek to help their students develop. To explore these ideas, AbD engaged in a program of action research with a partner group of practitioners in Oakland to develop a theoretical framework, a set of thinking routines, and pictures of practice to support educators in helping students think critically about the design of objects and systems. This framework proposes that people of all ages can foster their own agency and empowerment, and become more sensitive to the designed dimensions of the world around them, by developing three core maker capacities: the ability to look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity.

The project recently published research findings in the book Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds. In addition, an online course based on the project, called Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom, is being offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Programs in Professional Education department.

In 2016, with the ongoing support of the Abundance Foundation, Agency by Design began a second phase of work. The premise of this strand of research is that in order for maker-centered learning to have broad-scale and long-term relevance to the education field, it will be necessary to develop documentation and assessment strategies to make thinking and learning visible, and to provide a rationale for the implementation and value of the work. A cohort of teachers in Oakland, called the AbD/Oakland Fellows, and a similar cohort in Pittsburgh, PA, are the practitioner-partners for the research. The three questions that guide this work are:

1) How can learners make visible their ability to look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity?

2) How can teachers qualitatively measure students’ performance within the realm of these three core maker capacities?

3) How can we collaborate with students and teachers to design a suite of practical documentation and assessment tools best suited to the development of maker empowerment?

As part of the larger Agency by Design research project, the AbD/Oakland Fellows have had the opportunity to see first hand the powerful impact of a locally formed and led fellowship convening around meaningful research-based ideas. The Oakland-based work has formed a structure that comprises the core design of this prospectus: a fellowship of 28 teachers from 16 schools or organizations working together to build individual maker-centered learning practices and think through new ideas as a learning community; a leadership team made up of educators able to offer personalized professional development according to the needs of participants; a grants program designed to provide schools and organizations with the tools and materials needed to reach their goals; thoughtful partnerships with key organizations in the field; and a primary focus on equity in the work.

The Agency by Design framework and tools are powerful. In our experience working with educators, we find that they quickly come to understand the impact of integrating the Agency by Design framework and ideas into their teaching. It is not what the teacher knows that matters most, rather it is how the teacher designs the learning environment and experiences that will have the most impact on the development of student agency. By scaffolding this research-based framework, educators are able to develop a maker-centered learning practice that is inquiry-rich, complex yet manageable, and deeply meaningful for students.