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How Dissecting a Pencil Can Ignite Curiosity and Wonderment

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Can the act of making or designing something help kids feel like they have agency over the objects and systems in their lives? That’s the main question a group of researchers at Project Zero, a research group out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are tackling alongside classroom-based teachers in Oakland, California. In an evolving process, researchers are testing out activities they’ve designed to help students to look more closely, explain more deeply and take on opportunities to change things they see around them.

The program is called Agency By Design and it relies on nimble, malleable activities Project Zero researchers call “thinking routines” that slow down the pace of the classroom to make space for deep observation and wonderment. That happens by talking and discussing objects or systems in the everyday world to help kids develop words to describe their thinking. It’s more a framework than a specific step-by-step process. The Oakland educators experimenting with thinking routines teach a range of ages across public, private and charter schools. They each adapted the exercises to fit their purposes.

"The main focus we’re looking at is an idea about how students might gain an alertness to their designed world, the designed objects and systems in their world,” said Jessica Ross, a senior practitioner specialist at Project Zero. “If you have multiple opportunities to engage with the designed world and notice the complexities of the design, will those repeated activities allow you to see that you might change that design?” Ross queried.

One big emphasis in the project so far has been on looking deeply at even the simplest of objects. In a thinking routine called “parts, purpose, complexity” students are asked to carefully observe the individual parts that make up an object. When each part has been thoroughly explored they start discussing and wondering about the purpose of each part. Then they think about how even a simple object can be complicated when broken down into its component parts.

A public school kindergarten teacher at Emerson Elementary found that this thinking routine needed to be broken down further for her young students. She first thought she’d try the “parts, purpose, and complexity” routine to toy cars. “What we found was that students didn’t have the language for them to go really deep,” said Carla Aiello, “so we started looking at a pencil because it’s an everyday object they use all the time and that they have language for.”


Because students were looking at something completely ordinary, they were able to describe very specifically what they were noticing, dissect its simple parts and talk about how those parts work together. Students even designed their own pencils and looked at mechanical pencils as a design innovation. “That could lead into thinking about not just objects, but systems, and are they working for you, and if not why, and what would you do differently,” Aiello said.

Now, Aiello says she sees students approaching all their work in a different way. A thinking routine called “see, think, wonder” has opened up her students’ ability to question. In the routine students look closely at something, take note of their thinking and then ask questions about what they can't see.

After introducing this thinking routine, Aiello moved onto a science unit on snails where she didn’t intend to introduce any Agency By Design material. But her students approached the snails with a depth of observation she’d never seen them use before. They started talking about the parts of snail, what they do, how they work together. She and the kids charted what they noticed visually (making thinking visible), which helped each child see how his or her classmates were thinking and helped spark new ideas that pushed their thinking a little deeper. They ended up talking about what they could design to make life easier for the snail, including the ideal habitat and conditions for it to live.

“I’m moving them in a direction to question things around them and be really curious about the world around them,” Aiello said. She sees the routines building critical thinking skills and reigniting wonder in her students, something she hardly saw before, even in kindergarteners. The open-ended quality to wondering, and lack of a right or wrong answer, has also inspired her students to start wondering about more the stories they read in class. That was a new experience for many of them, who don’t often read at home and aren’t accustomed to questioning stories they’re told.

“It’s already changing how I approach science, and even art; I definitely think more about how to get students to question and problem solve,” Aiello said. She thinks it has been helpful as she tries to teach the Common Core too. “They’re going to have to defend their thinking and so practicing this kind of thinking is going to set them up for the real critical thinking they’ll do later.”

The routines have also given kids who struggle with academics like handwriting, math or English Language Arts to show their creativity and success in school. “[Some] really excelled at looking closely and defending why they were creating something a certain way, and had really thought through why they were doing something,” Aiello said.


When Brooke Toczylowski, a high school art teacher at Oakland International High School first heard about Agency By Design, she wasn’t sure its focus on Maker Education fit the art classroom. She thought of it as something technical, for engineers and programmers. “My thinking has shifted,” she said because the project emphasizes the crossover between designing and making.

In many ways Toczylowski was already practicing skills like close looking and iteration in her classroom because art has always required prototyping, changing course and incorporating critique. But she sees Agency By Design as a great way to bridge the gap between the arts integration work she does and the subject area teaching of many of her colleagues.

“Teachers are designers; they design lessons every single day,” Toczylowski said. “They are trying to meet the needs of their students all the time. It’s a natural fit for teachers, their brains work that way.” So giving her colleagues actual tools like “parts, purpose and complexity” or “see, think, wonder” has been a helpful to all the teachers at her school who are beginning to build those models into their subject areas.

Oakland International teachers have found the thinking routines especially helpful because all of their students are English Language Learners who have been in the country for a short time. Scaffolding language is a part of every teacher’s job, even in art, and giving kids thinking routines that they can do again and again, while developing their language skills is a natural fit.

“It’s just a great way of looking at the world in general, it’s a great way to build curiosity,” Toczylowski said. She’s found that the routines work well with her under-privileged students of color, so she uses them, but she’s troubled at how little diversity there is in the Maker-ed and design thinking movements. She’d like to see these kinds of professional development opportunities offered to more Title I teachers, to help inspire the kind of creative teaching that can ignite learning in all kids.

At the end of last year, Toczylowski worked with a small group of students for three weeks every day, all day on a design project. They redesigned and built new tables for the art room. “They’re these gorgeous wooden tables that students designed and built,” she said. Student conducted interviews to determine what needed changing, and ended up building tables of various heights built in storage space for binders and drawers for materials. They even repurposed some old district materials. At the end of the three weeks Toczylowski said they were much more comfortable with the idea of themselves as designers and builders.

In an after school design group Toczylowski and a group of students even took on a library redesign. They moved a wall, carved out a reading space, moved the mailboxes to somewhere more private and reconceptualized how the space could be used. “We sparked this idea at our school that you can alter and change space and that space is an important element of how we experience education,” Toczylowski said.

They ran into bureaucratic problems along the way, which led to a deeper realization about the way schools operate. “The structure of school is not necessarily set up for deep, hands on, mucky learning,” Toczylowski said.


While the research and in-class experimentation with design thinking oriented routines has been eye opening to many teachers, even shifting how they think about their practice, one of Agency By Design’s biggest strengths has been to provide teachers with a community to come together and share ideas. Even better, Project Zero researchers valued teacher’s input, tweaking activities based on their feedback.

“These kinds of projects invest in teacher's personal learning, which has major impact in the classroom,” Toczylowski said. “An engaged, happy, curious teacher is going to inspire his or her students in that same way.” She especially grateful for the local focus of the project, which was funded by the Abundance Foundation, an Oakland group that requested the research take place in schools in a specific neighborhood. “What’s really exciting is that it has built this network, which never happens,” Toczylowski said. “Some of us are within blocks of each other and we’re coming together to do research and try things.”

Project Zero researchers also recognize that to change classroom practice the research must first make sense and resonate with the teacher. “With any of this kind of work you have to think about the teachers who are exploring this and having time to think about this,” Ross said. Thinking routines that spend a good amount of time just looking at an object might not automatically appeal to a harried teacher trying to get through a busy year.


“We expect teachers to be professionals, to know their learners and know the content they are introducing alongside it,” Ross said. That professional courtesy and the deep discussions around pedagogy and practice are why many teachers enjoyed participating in the program even though it took significant extra time and energy. For their part, researchers are tremendously grateful to teachers for helping them hone their research questions. The research hasn’t yet produced any definitive results, but now they know better where and how to look.