Tinkering for design sensitivity and maker empowerment

Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom is an online course by Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. I’m about halfway through the units but I have already learnt a lot and it has started to influence my practice. It will prompt more blog posts in the future, I’m sure. For now, I’d like to write about developing design sensitivity.

When someone is maker empowered, they see their world as a collection of designed objects and systems and realise that those designs can be tinkered with, fixed, redesigned, hacked or reimagined. By promoting this as teachers, our students will feel empowered to build and shape their worlds. This promotes a sense of agency.

“Being maker empowered is about having a heightened sensitivity to design and an inclination to tinker.”

Jen Ryan, The Maker Mind TEDx

Design sensitivity is a key disposition of maker empowerment. The book and the online units outline a framework for developing sensitivity to design. The three interrelated capacities are:

  • Looking closely
  • Exploring Complexity
  • Finding Opportunity

The first two are closely linked; one must usually look closely in order to explore the complexities in an object or system. Finding opportunity is about students exercising agency and bringing about change.


The following activities were suggested by the course. I was able to authentically bring them into our current How The World Works unit about energy storage, transformation and practices. My students have been learning about electricity and circuits. Thanks to the course, I took this further than I normally would with these memorable learning engagements:

Design Hunt

Design hunts encourage students to find and take notice of designed objects and systems around them. The hunts can be in a classroom, around school or beyond. As students hunt, they try to think about design choices. These questions prompt their thinking:

  1. What is the object or system you’re looking at?
  2. What do you notice about the object or system? What’s interesting about it?
  3. What do you think the designer(s) thought about when creating this object or system?
  4. What are ways you might redesign the object or system? Why?

To connect with our electricity learning, I took my students on a slightly more focused design hunt for electrical products. They took photographs on their devices and then created collages on Seesaw with responses to the above questions.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For a more detailed explanation of design hunts, click here.

Parts, Purposes, Complexities

This thinking routine encourages students to look at an object or system closely, carefully and mindfully and to think about how it works. Students consider these questions:

  1. What are the parts?
  2. What are its purposes?
  3. What are its complexities?

These questions can be adapted to suit your needs. For example, another course participant tweaked the wording to make them more accessible to her younger students. As a PYP teacher, I used some Key Concepts to drive the questions: Form, Function and Connection. To take it further, my students took apart the electrical products so that they could see the inner workings. I wanted them to see ‘real’ circuits and make connections to their previous learning. I went on a hunt for old, unwanted electrical appliances and also invited the students to bring their own. Simple torches, handheld fans and computer mice work well for this.

After all of the planning and preparation, I lost sleep over this lesson. I was wondering if I should trust students with screwdrivers and hammers. At the beginning of the lesson, I briefly discussed the risks and made my expectations clear. Of course, I had nothing to worry about. They were sensible, mature and blew me away! Also, I borrowed goggles from the science department to protect their eyes from sudden snaps of plastic.


The students took apart their electrical products and displayed the parts on their cardboard mounts (we will use glue guns later). They were encouraged to organise them thoughtfully, considering which parts go together. They then answered the questions and posted them using post-it notes. I was very impressed by their discussions, observations and connections.


For a more detailed explanation of Parts, Purposes, Complexities, click here.

These lessons allowed me to teach about electricity in a more ‘real’ way while simultaneously developing a sensitivity to design in my students. I also heightened my own sensitivity to design and my knowledge of appliances. I previously assumed that the circuitry would be too advanced and complicated for connections to be made. In fact, the circuits and their components are very similar to the child-friendly ones that we use in class! Students were able to identify motors, bulbs, etc. I’m proud that I was able to apply the ideas from the course and use them to enhance my students’ learning.


The Agency by Design website offers a lot more activities and thinking routines that you can use to promote maker empowerment in your classroom. If you are interested in the online course, the next opportunity starts on February 24th 2020. Click here for more information.

To receive blog updates, find the ‘Follow’ icon (below or in the sidebar) or ‘Like’ my Facebook page. Your ongoing support and encouragement are very much appreciated.


Share your thoughts