by David Consalvi (Rock Hill Schools, SC)

How can we help teachers of every discipline see the value in learning-through-making? At Rock Hill School District’s summer professional development sessions, we have used the “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” thinking routine to help educators develop a maker mindset of their own.

Parts, Purposes, Complexities is a protocol (developed by Harvard University’s Agency by Design research group) for guiding inquiry into all manner of things: physical objects, complex systems, works of art, historical documents — anything, really. This process nurtures the key maker competencies that Agency by Design has identified in its research: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity. By using this protocol with teachers, we invite them to develop these competencies themselves and reflect on the kind of critical thinking that maker learning can bring to their classrooms. We can see the success of these sessions in the conversations they spark and the lessons teachers plan afterwards.

Not all classrooms integrate maker learning with the same tools or projects. Instead, what they share is a common approach to need-finding and problem-solving. Try using the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine with your faculty and see if they might also relish the chance to be makers themselves by looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity.

Before you get started

Gather a collection of non-precious objects and a set of hand tools for this activity:

  • Participants will select an object and, in the process of examining it closely, deconstruct it. Donated, broken, and recycled tools and toys are recommended.
  • This project is most engaging with objects that have mechanical parts. Electronics are difficult to deconstruct and understand; objects that have a single part are not a great fit for this activity either.
  • Having a few hand tools available (e.g., screwdrivers, pliers, scissors) will make it easier for participants to deconstruct and examine their objects. Encourage participants not to break their objects, but only to disassemble the objects when doing so will allow them to explore the objects more closely.

Gather classroom supplies for creating a display:

  • Markers, posterboard, tape, etc.
  • Print or project the guiding questions for the activity:
    • What are the various parts the object I have chosen?
    • What are the purposes of each of these parts?
    • Where do complexities emerge among these parts and purposes?

Parts, Purposes, Complexities introductory page sample

Be sure to read the original documentation here.

When you are facilitating the activity

Introduce the activity to participants.

  • This activity focuses on inquiry and deconstruction more than making something new. But it’s still a maker activity!
  • The structure of the activity uses a thinking routine that elicits core maker competencies: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity.
  • Throughout this inquiry-driven process, participants will document what they discover. At the end of the activity, each group will share with the others.
    • Discuss documentation strategies (which may include tables, drawings, concept maps, etc.) early and often with participants so that it does not come as a surprise at the end of the activity.

Support participants by returning to the guiding questions in the thinking routine:

  • What are the various parts of the object I have chosen?
  • What are the purposes of each of these parts?
  • Where do complexities emerge among these parts and purposes?

Keep participants on task.

  • Kids and adults alike benefit from occasional reminders of the purpose of the activity: this is about inquiry, not just disassembling random objects! Any time that participants spend disassembling (not breaking!) their objects should be in service of examining them more closely.
  • Parts are easy to identify and document. Purposes and complexities are more abstract and therefore more difficult. As facilitator, engage in conversations with groups to provoke their thinking around these more abstract, complex ideas.
  • Remind participants to document their work. What are they discovering? How can they best document that in order to communicate their findings with others?

Wrapping up

When working with teachers, this activity is not finished when participants have documented and shared the fruits of their inquiry — it’s over after they have had time to reflect on the experience and discuss it with each other. This processing time is crucial for maker learning projects, and so it is similarly important to create this time and model best practices for teachers.

Consider a few conversation starters that may help start a wrap-up discussion:

  • What did you learn during this activity?
  • How did you learn that?
  • How would you describe the experience of being the learner in this activity?
  • What did you notice about the work of the facilitator? What was and wasn’t helpful to you as a learner?

How can this activity inform what teachers do in the classroom next? Allot time for more discussion about how educators will integrate a maker approach into their own classrooms:

  • How might this thinking routine engage students…
    • at the beginning of a unit,
    • as a formative assessment, or
    • as an extension activity for students that already know the material?
  • What are the artifacts in your curriculum that can be deconstructed through this process of inquiry? For example:
    • In a science class, they could be related to the concept such as bones that show the different joints or levers that illustrate physics concepts.
    • In math class, the items could be various algorithms that students dissect or as an alternative to proofs.
    • In social studies it could be a part of a historic document such as the Declaration of Independence.
    • English Language Arts could use a piece of literature or technical writing.
    • The objects used are important to support the instructor’s goals but regardless should invoke inquiry-driven exploration that is necessary for higher order thinking.

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