A group of Harvard researchers is teaming up with schools in Oakland, Calif. to explore how kids learn through making. Through an initiative called Project Zero, they’re investigating the theory that kids learn best when they’re actively engaged in designing and creating projects to explore concepts. It’s closely aligned with the idea of design thinking and the Maker Movement that’s quickly taking shape in progressive education circles.

Though it’s still in very early stages — just launched at the beginning of this school year — researchers and educators at the school want to know how kids learn by tinkering – fooling around with something until one understands how it works. They want to know what happens cognitively – how this learning process helps form habits of mind, builds character and how it affects the individual.

To do that, they are working with both private and public schools in Oakland, headed by the Harvard researchers and 15 participating teachers who meet in study groups every six weeks to share ideas and to form a community.

Harvard will give teachers specific activities to incorporate into the lessons they already plan to teach. Educators will report back to the researchers on how the class behaved and what they noticed about their students through surveys and conversations. “Schools have been really open to this,” said Jennifer Ryan, the Project Zero coordinator. “It’s not a lesson plan; it’s not a curriculum; it’s a way to look at the world.”


The most recent activity required students to spend time examining an object – first looking at all its parts individually, then examining what each part does and how that fits within the whole, and ultimately identifying the complexities of the object. An elementary school teacher did this activity with physical objects in the classroom, like tennis shoes. At Oakland International High School, the technology teacher had students examine a Google Doc. Some teachers took the exercise a step further and had students re-purpose the object by redesigning it to be something else.

“In my experience with the kids, it allows them to more quickly gain a deeper understanding of what makes up that object and its purposes and its complexities,” said Ilya Pratt,  Director of the DesignME program at Park Day School, an independent elementary and middle school. Pratt hopes that by designing things from an early age, kids will be able to explain concepts they’ve learned spatially. “As kids try to express their understanding in three dimensions it adds so much more to how they engage with a concept and wrap their mind around it,” she said.

Project Zero is also asking teachers to look at student work differently. Rather than judging it based on the criteria they have in mind at the outset of the lesson, teachers are encouraged to take more time examining the work and the mind that created it before coming to a judgment. Project Zero has given teachers thinking routines to go through in order to practice a different way of seeing student work.

For the researchers the collaboration is about understanding theoretical questions around how children learn and what’s going on in the brain when they create, but it’s also about what happens on the ground, in classrooms. That’s unusual for them.

“You get to see it in action and things happen that maybe you didn’t expect, or that are very provocative and it allows you to change directions in ways you might not have otherwise,” Pratt said. She’s excited about the iterative approach and hopes that by the end of the three-year project they will not only have produced academic research in how design thinking affects education, but they will also know what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.

Harvard Wants to Know: How Does the Act of Making Shape Kids’ Brains? 20 February,2014Katrina Schwartz

  • Michele

    This a great way to apply the concepts students learn and truly can enhance learning. However, this teaching method can never replace direct instruction, because students cannot apply concepts that they don’t already have a good understanding.

  • Rosie Kerr

    I think the important part of this project is getting kids to slow down and observe. They are used to someone handing them the answers. When they are challenged to come up with questions that prompt direct instruction, they will be more engaged, because they have thought about it and want to know the answer. These habits of mind are cultivated through learning in the arts as well. If you are interested in this topic check out…The Artistic Edge on Amazon.com

    • J-me

      Kids are ready, willing, and able to “slow down and observe”; it’s in their nature. It’s the parents, teachers, and education policymakers pushing them in the Race to Nowhere who need to slow down and observe a little.

  • Go, Project One.

  • $85 an hour! Seriously I don’t know why more people haven’t tried this, I work two shifts, 2 hours in the day and 2 in the evening…And whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my kids. Heres where I went, Fox92D O t c o m

  • Rachael Gassman

    The initiative Project Zero appears to be a great leap in education. This research can move our schools and programs in the right direction. It seems today everything is instantaneous and kids do not learn how things are made; they tend to only use and see the end products. The result of an instantaneous world is student’s lack of patience
    and quality of problem solving skills. Student’s get frustrated easily and do
    not like to put forth the effort to figure something out.

    This Project Zero initiative has potential to expand our student’s creativity and thinking while allowing them to engage in meaningful and satisfying activities that stray away from worksheets, quizzes, and typical day to day monotonous routines. I can see this
    program enhancing student’s abilities to work in groups and formulate part to whole knowledge. Opportunities are also available for development of social skills while engaging in group activities.

    I look forward to following up with this initiative and hearing the findings of the study. I hope this study produces successful results and will be implemented more and more as the years go by.
    **Rachael G**

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  • This is right up in my alley! Finland has a LONG tradition with craft education (1866 on). The focus from purposeful products has shifted over the decades and is now in the design & technology education. My master’s is in Textiles and craft design education which is a compulsory subject in the elementary and optional in the higher grades – along with technology education. Just google Finland & any of the terms mentioned above and you’ll find lots of articles. If you follow academia.edu look up Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen to read more.
    In the Finnish school system designing and making are seen more as a process including multiple phases. Crafting / creating something materializes the design thinking.

    Personally, I think Finland could offer a lot in this field of education! I hope Harvard is aware of this!

  • Frank Wilson

    It’s worth mentioning, apropos Rosie Kerr’s comment about kids’ asking questions, that the physical act of moving an object in relation to its environment, and to other objects in that environment, is in itself, a question embedded in action. Cognitive scientists have pushed very hard to shine their bright lights, and our interest, on the human cerebral cortex, so it’s no surprise we couch our observations and theories about learning in overtly “mentalist” terms. But as neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga points out in his new book, Who’s in Charge?, there are 86 billion neurons in the human brain and 69 million of them are in the cerebellum, a part of the brain largely devoted to timing and coordination of movement; the largest and newest part of the cerebellum is integral to the control of skilled hand movement.

  • This was once called “Art” . . . the class that was cut from a lot of public education.

  • Ta

    rudolf steiner developed and opened the first waldorf schools in Germany. Every day my children are educated thru philosophies as described above by this article. This modality has been around for 150 years.

    • J-me

      Same here. Harvard need look no further than the Waldorf schools in their backyard.

  • It does not matter what we call it, design thinking, maker movement, vocational, shop, home economics, manipulatives, kinesthetic learning, or any other title that means ‘learning by doing’. Educators can be some of the dumbest people sometimes, we think that we have to discover that the earth is round in every generation or we will not believe. All we need to do is pay a little bit of attention to history. We started counting sheep with a bag of pebbles thousands of years ago. We have rediscovered that we need to figure things out in our mind to become ‘critical thinkers’. This has all been done by our ancestors over and over, John Dewey stated that “Education through occupations consequently combines within itself more of the factors conducive to learning than any other method” in 1916. It is past time for professional teachers to act and be treated like professional teachers. Teachers are supposed to be professionals, we are supposed to use our
    experience to teach our students, but we are told that we must use
    ‘research based methods’, align our curriculum with everyone else, and
    make sure that our students can pass a test at the end of the year. Sorry if I slipped a little on my soapbox.

    • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

      I like this very much! I don’t know, but I imagine the drugging of our boys would go down considerably, and we might keep many more kids all the way to high school graduation. When we “fail” (double entendre if there ever was one) 25% of our students…_we fail_, too!

      There, that’s my soapbox! Next…

  • Jjewt

    Bill and Ta are right. Over and over again I see these articles about a “new” way to educate are youth, but it ends up being a concept that Maria Montessori introduced to the world 100 years ago based on scientific research. Yes, Bill and Ta, mention other well known educators of the past, but the point is we don’t have to create a new path to education. We just need to get on the right one.

  • I homeschooled my daughter using what’s called “unschooling”. For fifth grade she decided she wanted to learn how to knit, so we went out and borrowed or bought many different books on “how to knit”, various supplies and tools, and dove into knitting. We even made our own knitting needles for awhile (including making Sculpy beads for the end caps). We had a BLAST, and she’s now a Master Knit Designer of amazing proportions. Experienced knitters into their fifth and sixth decades are impressed with her designs.

    She’s now 19.

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  • Marte Blackmon

    This is why the Slingerland Approach works so well. I KNOW more of this is going to
    follow, even this coming year. Austin/Coley Academy, in Longview, Tx. is striving to
    have this be their whole type of learning. Each year something new and innovative
    is added, to creative these young genisus.

  • blumoon

    Agree this was much of Art programs. Now is used in ‘gifted’ classes. Should be incorporated in a regular curriculum with no standards attached……..

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  • Vanessa

    Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible in the classroom. First, in order for kids to learn anything from tinkering, they have to be invested in the project (meaning: interested). Pre-selected projects are not likely to interest all 30-plus kids in a class. Second, how the schools implement this is going to look a lot like how they approach reading and math…in tightly scheduled increments where the kids first get to listen to the teacher lecture them on how to complete the project, then they get to read the handouts instructing them to fill in notes as they work, then just as they finally get to the hands-on portion they will hear the bell ring telling them they are out of time.

    • Elizabeth Rubenstein

      well it sure will be better than the drill and kill they’re getting now!

  • Holli

    As long as we have standardized testing that impacts a teachers position and school funding and rankings, this type of education will never become mainstream. As a past homeschool mom and a current assistant professor at a public university, I have some experience with what works and what doesn’t in education. We are doing it wrong…the big question is how do we fix it? I don’t have the answer but this type of research is on the right track I think.

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  • learn2teach

    Hope they read the book, The Hand: How its use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture, by Frank Wilson. I read this book after watching a Ted talk by Stuart Brown on Play. In that talk Brown mentioned that several large engineering firms will not hire engineers who haven’t fixed their own cars, because the link between using your hands and your brain is so important.

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  • Ben

    Good, but not new. Look up the Waldorf School (Rudolf Steiner School) if you want to give your child one of the best educations available.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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