Critical Making

I owe it all to my wife and a little bit of curious wandering. She is an artist. For a mechanical enginerd, Spock-like logical thinker, and excel spreadsheet fanboy, she might have well been an unicorn of cognitive disruption. I followed her on lots of dates to museums and galleries. I made the novice mistake of saying things like:

“Those are just solid colors. That’s not art!”

“A kindergartener could splatter paint like that, but you don’t see those in a museum.”

“That is just plain weird…and I’m a little uncomfortable.”

If I knew then what I know now, I would have been able to see the inquiry, experimentation, and fabrication that went into those works. Each artist was incredibly capable of landscapes, portraits, sketched figures, etc, yet they chose – with purposeful intentionality – to create the works masterpieces above. Rothko’s work reflects inquiry into how color can can affect behavior and moods and consume the viewer. Pollack experimented tirelessly to challenge the status quo of painting on an upright easel and instead explored a technique that allowed paint to meet canvas from multiple dimensions. Pras piled a bunch of trash in a way that…seriously…I don’t care who you are…that is awesome. He fabricated something from nothing while exhibiting extraordinary craftsmanship. Hmmmm..starting to sound like our Maker|Design|Engineering culture.

Years later, I hope I’m a little wiser and find myself leaning increasingly more on the art world for inspiration not just from a creativity standpoint, but on pedagogical one. I’m desperate to learn more about how to cultivate creative thought and action AND assess and provide feedback in a way that cultivates our value standards for Maker|Design|Engineering at MVPS.

A recent source of inspiration is the book Art of Critical Making published by RISD. I’ve read it, highlighted a ton, and initiated a book study with some of our arts faculty to better understand how to bring the ideas in book into actionable classroom norms. It’s that good, and I’m convinced that the art studio model of critiques and self assessment holds at least part of the secret recipe to meaningfully assessing MakerED builds. Additionally, I feel even more strongly that the maker community we imagined over a year ago along with the culture we hoped to cultivate is rooted in what I now know to call the Art of Critical Making:

Indeed, works of art are the result of inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and innovation, and as such, they offer the opportunity to develop and exercise these very same skills. (Art of Critical Making, loc 1775)

Below is a sampling of segments from the book that seem to directly align with our value and process standards for Maker|Design|Engineering at MVPS.


RISD’s studio model is built around two key elements: critical thinking, the ability to process and evaluate information while challenging assumptions and employing multiple ways of knowing; and critical making, the process of creating things by altering materials and giving form to ideas. Critical making requires critical thinking and social consciousness along with embodied knowledge if it is to be distinguished from making in general. Critical making should also be understood as different than production where the thinking is complete before the fabrication begins. In critical making, the very process itself opens up new possibilities for deep, expansive thinking and the serious inquiry that stimulates discovery. (Art of Critical Making, loc 1555)


RISD is a place where students are developing their own creative capabilities as professional artists and designers, learning how to use their own hands to craft diverse materials into objects. Walking around campus, one primarily sees students working with their bodies at easels, drafting desks, kilns, saws, and machines, and lots of things propped, pinned, piled, strewn, and hung. Yet contextualizing is always there. In expressive arts such as painting, ceramics, or sculpture, context is often fairly subjective. While most artists consider their work a contribution to society and social discourse, they frequently draw on personal experiences of the world as sources, trusting that unknown audiences will share their interests or appreciate their perspectives. In design fields such as architecture, graphic design, or industrial design, context is often made explicit in the creative process. Designers make things for particular people, places, and situations, whose qualities and meanings they study in order for their designs to be most relevant. (Art of Critical Making, loc 874)

Idea Exchange :

Artists and designers train to approach the lively aspects of the materials with which they work with multileveled engagement and creative play. They become absorbed in the conversations, dip in and out, and enter experiences of making collaboratively in working states that reject the question, “Where does your input end and the input of the material begin? (Art of Critical Making, loc 2118)

Observation & Judgement:

Critiques can be behavioral learning experiences that help participants learn about social interaction, expressions of support, and disagreement. Successful critiques are about perceptive, constructive feedback, not a judgment of good or bad, but an offering of “I experience this — was that your intention?” or “What if . . . ?” Critiques provide a pathway through which students develop a lifelong ability to self-evaluate and to reflect on improving, articulating, and evolving their ideas. The benefits of this kind of conscious awareness of how a work succeeds in communicating an intended outcome and the cultivation of honest response surely have applications not just in art and design but in multiple circumstances. (Art of Critical Making, loc 453)

I hope that readers (that’s you!) will comment on what they like, what’s missing, and how they might translate to their own classrooms or places of work. Steve Jobs said that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards”. I’m at a place where I’m committed to the idea that self assessment a-la the art studio model should be considered an increasingly valid and reliable method of assessment especially for domains like art and design that are rooted in creative thought and action. I genuinely want to invite this reader community to engage in some discussion to help me connect some dots.



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  • How might we remind our community that we are all makers?
  • How might we make students’ creative ideas tangible?
  • How might we design a space that invites creative and industrious behavior?
  • How might we create a space that communicates our culture of making?
  • How might we make a learning space that is magical.
  • Industrious. Buzz. Collaborative. Transdisciplinary. Shared purpose. Shared learning.

At MVPS we start with questions and divergent thinking. The how might we’s listed above are just some of the questions terms our team is wrestling with as we work toward creating our maker-community. We’re not designing maker spaces; we’re building a maker community.

A maker space might be considered any space with the tools and materials to create – the art studio, the science lab, the writing lab, your kitchen. In that regard, there is nothing much special about a maker space. A maker community, however, requires more. A community includes spaces, identities, and an embedded culture. It was with the above brainstorm and galvanizing of language that informed the design of the physical space more than anything else.

Designed to be a flexible creative and creating space, the HIVE will be home to 5 distinctive work areas. Leveraging common language from MVIFI’s own Jim Tiffin, Jr. and the Studio(i) space which is already in action on our school’s Founder’s Campus:

  • “Agency” is the workshop space where our community can fabricate their designs with wood tools, a Crawlbot CNC machine, Glowforge laser cutter, and various other material choices.
  • “Platform” is our digital creation space with access to 3D printers, vinyl cutter, micro electronics, and workstations for CAD, animation software and more.
  • “Joinery” is a common space that fosters collaboration, ideation, and assembly.
  • Learning spaces that instigate our community to experiment with their ideas and explore possibilities through the lenses of Art, STEM, or Humanities are located at the center of the space. They are central to not only the space butto the ethos of continual experimentation and seeking of new understandings.
  • Flexible space at the entrance to invite inquiry, research, and sharing of ideas with both internal and external experts. It is also space to hangout and manifest ideas.

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Central to our hopes and dreams for the space is the idea that we are all makers. Especially if we broaden our definition of making to include art, design, writing, etc. To help scaffold that idea for students, we are working on various pathways – not labels – through which student can engage in cross-disciplinary inquiry, experimentation, and fabrication. Students may view their builds in progress through the lenses of:

  • Artisans – those who create for beauty;
  • Tinkerers – those who create for function;
  • Hackers – those who (re)create for a purpose.

Below are some “before” pictures of Bo Adams and I finishing clean up before construction. In January, we look forward to opening the HIVE and continuing the MVIFI design work of building our Maker, Design, and Engineering program.

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Quick post: The Rise of Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace Learning

Amen! A beautifully written piece after the jump below that includes the importance of developing T shaped students and the positive changes we are making in education.

@OpenBadges: RT @TheCLAlliance: The Rise of Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace Learning: via @edutopia #edchat
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Backwards Design for Post Secondary Experiences

There is definitely tension between teachers who lean more toward the “habits of mind” side of the spectrum, those on the discrete learning outcome side of the spectrum, and those who are somewhere in between. I struggle with the balance as well. I feel pretty confident that the mindsets are what students most need to know (embody?), but I feel pressure to not pass on science students to another teacher who might expect certain discipline specific prerequisites.


In the end, the pressure to add learning outcomes stems from what feels like an academic arms race. At some point, which I think is soon, the addition of more standards/APs/tests becomes unsustainable. Innovation is part analytical thinking and part intuition. The analytics may say APs and test scores make for a collegiate “minimum viable product”, but intuition and experience tell me that these figure little into the overall success and happiness of a person.


I wonder what it would look like if our focus was not only to prepare students for post secondary acceptance, but really pushed to guide students toward the best possible post secondary experience. In UbD fashion, if we want the best and most personalized post secondary experience for students, than we should start with an imagined student future beyond college. I guess my point is – there is a broader definition for “college ready” than just checking boxes next to learning outcomes and test scores.


My hypothesis is that the university does not make a person. Rather, those who have the foresight, and sometimes bravery, to seek out the absolute best fit post secondary experience will be more successful (how ever they define it), and more importantly happier and self fulfilled.


So, here are some hopefully disruptive HM-dubs.

How Might We….
  • weave career exploration into core classes?
  • prep students for alternative post secondary experiences like tech schools, trade schools, culinary schools, 30 weeks, or Singularity University?
  • repurpose books like “what color is your parachute”  for academic way-finding in addition to career considerations?
  • get students involved in career and technical student organizations (CTSOs)?
  • loop parents into the conversation of a more personalized education and career path for their child?
  • make an optional track – outside of “school” – for consultation, networking, and building of entrepreneurial spirit)

Engineering Design vs Design Thinking

I have been posed the question before, and was most recently solicited on twitter: What is the difference between engineering and design thinking. As most of my colleagues know, I’m a fan/student of design thinking. My intuition tells me it is right for use in school. However, this particular conversation really forced me to lean in and think about specific differentiators between the two.

One bit of information that I left out of my “argument” was perhaps my all time favorite definition of designing thinking as proposed by Roger Martin – @RogerLMartin – of the Rotman School of Business. Martin describes design thinking as the overlap between analytical thinking and intuitive thinking.



His visualization of design thinking is so elegant to me – perfectly capturing the tension between the analytical (ie. engineering design; “prove it”) and the intuitive (ie. trust your gut; “love it”).

Matin's Definition of Design Thinking (1)

Anyway, I captured the previously mentioned twitter convo using Storify.  How did I do? How would  you differentiate between engineering design and design thinking?

Quick Post: Is this what school should look like?

Charles Tsai at Good sought to find out and did some fantastic work.

Interested to hear some feed back. These students are inspiring and ambitious. Would this format work for all (or even most) students?

Reblogged from Good:

Tsai, Charles. “What If Students Designed Their Own Schools?” GOOD. N.p., 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. <;.


The Big Beacon | A Movement to Transform Engineering Education

Not 5 minutes after publishing my last post, I came across a tweet from Dave Goldberg of The Big Beacon. The timing could only be described as kismet. I’m so happy that it reminded me to re-read The Big Beacon’s manifesto on rethinking engineering education. I’ll be posting these norms in my classroom next year as a reminder to both myself and my students to keep things in the right perspective.

The Big Beacon | A Movement to Transform Engineering Education.