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.

Iterative Instruction

Time flies when you are having fun! I launched the Technology, Engineering, and Design (TED) course 2 years ago. The curriculum, my teaching style, and the space(s) have changed significantly since then – largely in response to my students’ feedback. Because TED is a one semester elective, I have had a chance to test 4 prototypes. I’ve tried engineering themes (GIS, Environmental Engineering, Product design). I’ve tried different projects (architecture & construction, bike redesign, furniture design & fabrication). I’ve tried different assessment strategies (a magazine/portfolio, project deliverables, standards based). Learning from those prototypes and iterations I feel like I have finally gotten pretty close to a replicable semester experience. That is saying a lot considering I have really enjoyed changing up content and themes each semester.

You may have read my previous post where I shared this semester’s syllabus…full of hopes and dreams. Being 6 weeks in I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on how things are going. At this point the TED course is ⅔ of the way through assistive technology foundations. Foundations are 2 week project sprints meant to:

  1. use project type (wood working, electronics, 3D printing) to acquaint students with protocols, tools and materials available
  2. use specific deliverables to teach students my expectations for how we work
  3.  use a semester theme to enforce consistency and human centered design practice

The foundation projects were presented to students in the form of mini-design briefs (below).

This started out great! Each group of students was excited about the project they would start with (seemingly forgetting that each group will get a chance to do each of the projects regardless). Below are what some typical days looked like:

As the first round of projects wrapped up, it was fun to see the how the next group learned from the previous. One of the key hypotheses I continue to test is how projects evolve after students critique the builds from the previous group.  The “exit ticket” out of one foundation build and into the next is 1) a clear deliverable and 2) honest critique and feedback on each other’s work. In particular, students are getting more comfortable with sharing their pHails. In fact, just 20 minutes prior to me writing that last sentence a student exclaimed “Hey we forgot to share my pHail today AGAIN! Can we be sure to do it tomorrow?” The craving of feedback with an eye toward helping next project iterations is a key element of the maker community we want to build.

I think there are at least two reason why the pHailur (that just happened!!) culture has flourished this semester.

  1. A full class period is protected at the end of each foundation round with the intent of doing formal critique
  2. Students have generated empathy for users of assistive technology.

Regarding the latter, empathy for a variety of users has been generated largely through a partnership with Georgia Tools for Life – a non profit dedicated to testing and delivering assistive tech to people in need. GaTFL hosted myself and Trey Boden at their offices where we were able to ask if they would serve as both inspiration and outside evaluators for our students’ work. Following that visit, our students were able to visit….virtually…using a piece of assistive technology called a VGo telepresence robot. Driving the robot around from our own school was an empathy exercise in its own right, but the real “aHa” moment was a tour of the seemingly endless wall of assistive devices – each with it’s own story of how it made someone’s life easier – more independent – with restored dignity.

In reflection of how things are going, I’m pleased. That is not to say that things are perfect.  I will continue to iterate my instruction, but for the most part the culture of design and making that I hope to cultivate is taking shape. Students are coming in early and staying late, presumably because of their perceived shift from projects to purpose.

Maverick Maker

3-2-1-Launch. My syllabus for this semester’s edition of my T.E.D – Technology, Engineering, & Design – class is live. This year at Mount Vernon Presbyterian school our Head of School, Brett Jacobsen, provided a bold provocation to the entire faculty: Be a Maverick. In a vague, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous(VUCA) world an innovative mindset is necessary to navigate. One pathway to innovation is by being a maverick. That is, mavericks vary and change their routes. They challenge assumptions. They experiment and test. They think big.

The pioneer in me – recently validated via by the StandOut Assessment – took the maverick message to heart. As such, I’m varying my route in the T.E.D. course this year and testing at least 3 new ideas:

  1. HMW I redesign my syllabus to inspire and engage parents and learners?
    • Which is preferred? Static content that clearly delivers “just the facts” or dynamic content that engages and generates questions?
  2. What if the E in T.E.D. were changed to entrepreneurship?
    • While students have previously had opportunities to build and make projects that were meaningful to them, that element of choice will include and added dimension this year. In addition to submitting a build permit (standard procedure for our Maker|Design|Engineering program) students will create a business strategy for launching their product to the marketplace. The hypothesis is that this additional dimension will help learners more meaningfully consider usability, marketability, and feasibility.
  3. HMW practice PBL in an interdisciplinary that creates real meaning for each class involved?
    • You May have read about last year’s edition of this experiment. This year, T.E.D., AP Physics, and Pre-Calculus will partner to design assistive technologies for real users. The hope is to better embed the designing process > generate more empathy > fabricate more meaningful products.

I’ve worked each of these tests into a syllabus I created using LucidPress (a favorite tool, BTW). Because I’m testing new ideas….I’m craving feedback. Bring it on!



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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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