Think. Make. Do: Students at Discovery Elementary School SHINE as Expert Designers!

“Play is children’s most serious work. In a playful environment, you feel safe enough to explore ideas that would otherwise be risky.”
- Edith Ackermann, Developmental Psychologist and Learning Researcher, MIT Media Lab (1946-2016)

As the late developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann articulated in a 2014 interview with the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, “playfulness is a counterpoint to curiosity.” Both features are sophisticated inclinations that liberate learning for kids. Edith’s pedagogical perspective on ‘tinkering’ to encourage experimentation (taking risks and embracing failure) was the philosophical driver behind our interdisciplinary collaboration. Working from the premise that all children are at the height of their creative capacity yet rarely engaged in the planning and programming of schools, our team came together to develop a design challenge brief centered around children as experts of learning space. Tapping into the principles of Design Thinking for educators and students, we prioritized a learning experience for children that enabled them to research, conceptualize, and build a micro-space in their school – while transforming our role as ‘adults’ into participatory coaches. According to Maria Burke, Discovery Art Teacher & Sustainability Liaison, “this collaboration capitalized on the design thinking process from a variety of professional perspectives, each of us empathizing with one another and synthesizing new vantage points, each peering into the project from a different face of the prism.” In the supportive setting of Discovery Elementary, both teachers and children were open to trying this new approach to participatory learning, and along the way, we learned first hand that by ‘tinkering’ as experts within the right playful parameters, children ‘learn to learn’ by doing what most interests them as self-expressions.

Through the support of Arlington County Public Schools and the foresight of Principal Erin Russo,  Discovery Elementary School Art Teacher Maria Burke had attended the 2015 Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute, which featured a day trip to the MIT Media Lab with facilitated reflections and discussions led by Dr. Edith Ackermann. Mutually inspired to translate Edith Ackermann, Seymour Papert, and Jean Piaget’s ‘constructionism’ learning theories into action; we collaborated with researcher and professor of architecture Dr. Rosie Parnell (Northumbria University); building hero Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop; and industrial designer Jonathan Pidwell, to develop a prototype design-thinking-build curriculum for students at Discovery Elementary School.

The Seat Design Challenge engaged 83 fifth graders to re-imagine the design of furniture to transform a novel space in their school. The design process was devised to encourage children to imagine new environments while also putting new tools and technologies into their hands to find their own voices, and exchange ideas with their peers. Starting with an initial discovery and research phase toward a high-intensity 2-week prototyping workshop, children worked throughout a 6-month period culminating in an all-class full scale build in June 2017. Children worked in teams to gather data, research space & behaviors, share ideas; rapid prototype by making small models; and build a full-scale occupiable micro-environment. Exchanging ideas with each other throughout the process led to refinements for each phase of experimentation prior to voting for the top seat design and its location in the school. By incorporating opportunities to express their ideas through different media throughout the iterative process, the focus on ‘learning through making’ was empowering each child’s creative confidence. According to Burke: “Brainstorm sketches were posted around the school ... in hopes other Discovery students (from any grade level) would layer yellow Post-it notes filled with suggestions and comments to propel their ideas beyond their preliminary work.” With the help of Jonathan Pidwell, Industrial Designer and former Head of Product Development at VS America, students were prompted to transform their 2D designs into 3D “functional sculptures” using low-tech materials like cardboard, foam core, wood, paper & textiles. Students were also coached by VMDO designers Ben Lawson and Ellison Turpin on digital design tools to test ideas in Sketchup and 3D printing each design for further reflection and iteration.

Students truly became the creative experts in the process—individually and collaboratively engaging with experiential learning that was both self-directed and investigation-based. Burke reflects: “Students planned for their seat to have many uses. They thought about the quantity of people that would sit in their seat, as well as the materials, functionality, and form. From data students collected, they hoped for an elevated, comfortable, and nurturing space with a cocoon-like atmosphere that would be a place to escape from school stress, to read a book, or do work calmly on their iPad in the commons area at the top of the slide on the second floor of Discovery.”

The Design Challenge offered us a chance to support children’s exploration of what they determined was a communal need for their school. By inventing for themselves and directing their own exploration, Alex Gilliam, founder Public Workshop, observed that “often in this work, the people who are least recognized or least thought of as having potential as leaders rise up. They’ve been leaders in hiding and they just needed the right conduit, the right chance to take [their inspiration] and run with it.” Coaching all 83 Fifth graders to build the winning prototype—a “rocketship seat” lounge-loft in an open space Burke reflected “Alex taught the students and teachers not only to use power tools with safety, but to feel comfort in struggle, to trust themselves while measuring from the heart, and to solve their own problems.”

Discovery’s 2017 Seat Challenge serves as inspiration for participatory learning as a resource to reach every child’s learning potential. By collaborating with researchers Edith Ackermann & Rosie Parnell, educators Maria Burke, Heather and Greg Rusk, and designers from a wide field range of fields, we can truly tap into the deeper linkages between learning, learning space, and designing with children as co-creators of learning. According to Burke, “the mission of Discovery Elementary School is to ‘learn, collaborate and innovate with the world in mind.’ With this mission, the Seat Design Challenge will teach our students to become sustainable innovators and pioneers for our future.”

 “I often see intelligent well-trained individuals who are scared of not knowing … and while the unknown is always a risk, a well-developed process can make it more safe. If you never try something because of being unsure then you often never discover what wonderful innovative things are possible. Letting children discover, fail, and win, is everything for them. Showing them the process of evaluation and decision-making sets them up well for the future, both in their professional careers and their private lives.” -Jonathan Pidwell, Industrial Designer