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Harvard Wants to Know: How Does the Act of Making Shape Kids' Brains?

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A group of Harvard researchers is teaming up with schools in Oakland, Calif. to explore how kids learn through making. Through an initiative called Project Zero, they're investigating the theory that kids learn best when they're actively engaged in designing and creating projects to explore concepts. It's closely aligned with the idea of design thinking and the Maker Movement that's quickly taking shape in progressive education circles.

Though it's still in very early stages -- just launched at the beginning of this school year -- researchers and educators at the school want to know how kids learn by tinkering – fooling around with something until one understands how it works. They want to know what happens cognitively – how this learning process helps form habits of mind, builds character and how it affects the individual.

To do that, they are working with both private and public schools in Oakland, headed by the Harvard researchers and 15 participating teachers who meet in study groups every six weeks to share ideas and to form a community.

Harvard will give teachers specific activities to incorporate into the lessons they already plan to teach. Educators will report back to the researchers on how the class behaved and what they noticed about their students through surveys and conversations. “Schools have been really open to this,” said Jennifer Ryan, the Project Zero coordinator. “It’s not a lesson plan; it’s not a curriculum; it’s a way to look at the world.”



The most recent activity required students to spend time examining an object – first looking at all its parts individually, then examining what each part does and how that fits within the whole, and ultimately identifying the complexities of the object. An elementary school teacher did this activity with physical objects in the classroom, like tennis shoes. At Oakland International High School, the technology teacher had students examine a Google Doc. Some teachers took the exercise a step further and had students re-purpose the object by redesigning it to be something else.

“In my experience with the kids, it allows them to more quickly gain a deeper understanding of what makes up that object and its purposes and its complexities,” said Ilya Pratt,  Director of the DesignME program at Park Day School, an independent elementary and middle school. Pratt hopes that by designing things from an early age, kids will be able to explain concepts they've learned spatially. “As kids try to express their understanding in three dimensions it adds so much more to how they engage with a concept and wrap their mind around it,” she said.

Project Zero is also asking teachers to look at student work differently. Rather than judging it based on the criteria they have in mind at the outset of the lesson, teachers are encouraged to take more time examining the work and the mind that created it before coming to a judgment. Project Zero has given teachers thinking routines to go through in order to practice a different way of seeing student work.

For the researchers the collaboration is about understanding theoretical questions around how children learn and what’s going on in the brain when they create, but it’s also about what happens on the ground, in classrooms. That’s unusual for them.

“You get to see it in action and things happen that maybe you didn't expect, or that are very provocative and it allows you to change directions in ways you might not have otherwise,” Pratt said. She’s excited about the iterative approach and hopes that by the end of the three-year project they will not only have produced academic research in how design thinking affects education, but they will also know what works and what doesn't in the classroom.

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