Maker Empowerment in the Making!

Oakland Learning Community member Ilya Pratt describes her experiences working with the concept of “Maker Empowerment” at a recent Agency by Design workshop in Oakland, CA.

A few weeks ago the Agency by Design research team asked the Oakland Learning Community to apply both our personal and educators’ perspectives to exploring the concept of maker empowerment. They requested that we each bring two objects to our October workshop session: one that represented empowerment, and another that represented making. Through a series of sharing and connection activities, we came to understand our various perspectives on empowerment, making, and the concept of maker empowerment. Some comments from our group included the following:

 “I brought a book that has knowledge and therefore empowerment. It’s about who I work with and knowledge for when [I am] working with those students.”

I also brought a book. Books give you the feeling that you are related to other people, are like other people—and finding this commonality is confidence-building and therefore empowering.

“[I brought a] hammer. This to me is about power. It’s not exactly about making an object or a thing like furniture. I actually relate it to something like making your to-do list go away. Or hanging a piece of art—I reach for it. It’s more about empowerment than making. It is a very strong tool that is an extension of the hand.”

Members of the Oakland Learning Community develop a “Maker Empowerment” installation during a recent Agency by Design workshop at Oakland International High School.

In the moment our dialogue was very personal and reflective. Now it is actually quite remarkable to look back and consider how easily the concept of maker empowerment became a means to find commonality in the values we have as educators—there were clear themes that we considered important to student success: confidence; supportive environments; a desire to create, be inspired, and space to use one’s imagination; hands-on learning; hard work; a sense of purpose; knowledge as power, and; collaboration.

Furthermore, we realized our learning community values are enmeshed with a strong social justice fabric. A seemingly simple exercise in which we used the objects we brought to make a group sculpture triggered a discussion about unintended consequences: what are the ethical considerations that we need to be aware of—the possible negative social and environmental impacts of maker empowerment and agency?

“Making is about intentionality with what you are making: what it is for? Are you being intentional about its purpose? What effects will it have on other people? I go back to this article about people coming in from outside and having solutions without making sure they know the community they’re working in and not just taking the giant hammer and (swinging gesture…).”

“Being a maker comes with a lot of responsibility towards what the intended and unintended effects are. Empowerment has an ethical component.”

The Oakland Learning Community now has an increased sensitivity to maker empowerment. It will be interesting to see how we further nudge towards tinkering with our teaching practices, mindful of both the intended and unintended consequences!  

Ilya Pratt likes to figure out how things work. Her lifelong interests range from building and racing bicycles to industrial arts and woodworking. She is now the Director of Design+Make+Engage at Park Day School, an independent school in Oakland, California, where she leads the school’s work with the Agency by Design research project. Ilya has worked with children and educators for three decades, in school and non-school settings, from the Boston Children’s Museum to a sabbatical at Ullens School in Nepal. She is the K-1 Learning Specialist at Park Day, supporting students and helping teachers explore and understand how children learn. The Learning Resource program she developed for Park Day was one of the first in the Bay Area independent schools. Ilya recently gave a presentation about Park Day’s work with Project Zero at the Progressive Educator’s Network national conference.

This blog was published on November 18, 2013.
Authored by
Ilya Pratt

Guest author Ilya Pratt is an AbD Oakland Leadership Team member and Design+Make+Engage program director at Park Day School.