April 27, 2015

Grappling with Equity and Gaze: A Conversation with Shirin Vossoughi and Meg Escudé

Categories: Equity, Research
scribble bot made of cups tape chalk making chalk drawings

As the maker movement continues to build in numbers, I’ve been particularly interested in the critical research that is scrutinizing the dynamics of interaction and learning within spaces of making.

I recently got a chance to talk digitally with Shirin Vossoughi and Meg Escudé about their research into tinkering, equity, and gesture. I’m particularly excited about the scrutiny into aspects of making that are sometimes overlooked and how this work can extend to educator professional development: 

For a general audience, can you describe the Tinkering After School Program and what led to it getting started?

Meg Escudé: In 2012, I came on as the director and lead educator of the Tinkering After-School Program while Shirin participated as a post-doctoral researcher. The program was coupled with an institutional partnership between the Exploratorium and the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco, and built on the activities developed in the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. Tinkering activities blend scientific and artistic inquiry with the iterative design and creation of artifacts such as musical instruments, scribbling machines, and homemade speakers.


Shirin and I really developed the after-school program together and our roles blended and complimented each other from the outset. We also immediately discovered that we share a commitment to centering issues of culture and equity, and grounding curriculum and pedagogy in the lived experiences of the students we were working with, who were predominantly working-class students of color. We both come from immigrant families and I think that contributes to our conviction that students’ lives are rich with ways of knowing and doing that often go unrecognized. So, curricular design and research were centrally informed by the question: science for whom and toward what ends? We also recognized that we could benefit from a deeper understanding of the specific communities we were working in. So, we expanded our teaching team to include teens from the partnering Boys and Girls Clubs, and strengthened our connections with club staff, who have long-term relationships with the kids and their families. 

Your research is looking at the role of embodiment in making. Can you describe some of the key findings/your thinking around this area?

Shirin Vossoughi and Meg: To describe our emergent findings, we think it might be helpful to briefly share how our focus on embodiment came to be. First, we identified a problem or tension in the tinkering settings that we were actively looking for ways to address. Based on observations and video research, we noticed that educators sometimes took over for students, such as taking projects out of kids’ hands or line of sight in order to fix something without describing what they were doing. While such moves often stemmed from a well-intentioned effort to help kids finish their projects, they also overlooked the opportunities for learning or shared problem-solving that were present in these seemingly small moments. Around the same time, we noticed that a particular student (who was perceived as being less “on task”) was consistently receiving more narrow or next-step forms of assistance. This was out of sync with the value we sought to place on multiple pathways and solutions and, in this case, reproduced racialized and gendered inequities with regard to who gets to engage in more complex intellectual activity. So, we were looking for tools that would help us collectively reflect on our assumptions and expand our practice.

At the same time, Shirin was sharing weekly field notes (based on video-recordings) with the teaching team prior to their next session with the students. During a light play activity, she began experimenting with including some of the photographs Meg had taken in the field notes, such as the following:


The pictures allowed us to look at the various drafts kids were making, but they also served as a way to bring the reader (in this case educators) back into the moment. This felt generative, so we continued including pictures (screenshots taken from video) in the field notes for subsequent activities. This one was taken the following week during a circuit board activity:

circuit-300Once we began studying these pictures, we became more attuned to the pedagogical role of gesture and gaze, and started asking new questions:

  • When and how were educators intervening or participating in students’ investigations? 
  • Which configurations of hands, eyes and voices were present?
  • What meanings did they hold with regards to the subjective experience of learning?

This built on foundational research by Manuel Espinoza on the social-interactional dimensions of learning in making environments, which we began to revisit and draw from at this time. Our thinking is also indebted to the research by Barbara Rogoff and others on the developmental role of observation and intent participation across cultural communities.

Returning to our earlier problem, we decided to organize a professional development session with adult and teen educators around the theme “hands and eyes.” We put together a series of slides that showed the range of interactions across participants: educators observing or offering verbal guidance while kids’ hands were on a project, kids leaning over to gain insight from a friend’s investigation, adults having one hand on a drill or soldering iron while kids held the tool with both hands, and participants working together such that both their hands and eyes were on the artifact. Here’s one of the slides we shared that day:


We paused to talk about each picture with the teaching team, working together to think about: 1) the history and context of the interaction, 2) the pedagogical possibilities within the  configuration and 3) what it might feel like for the kids. This helped us move away from binaries such as teacher vs. child-centered learning or narrow maxims such as “students should have their hands on the project at all times.” Instead, the photographs, and the conversations they sparked, helped us to identify a more nuanced range of potentially rich configurations. We also talked about when these moments might be constraining. For example, working to solve a problem while an adult is observing might feel supportive or evaluative. This led us to treat the history of the interactions and relationships as primary, and to frame pedagogical decisions as improvisational and sensitive to the moment.

What was the impact of this kind of professional development (PD)? How did it influence your research?  

Shirin: The PD session was an experiment and we weren’t sure how it would go. But, what we found was a profound shift across the team toward a greater reflexivity and intentionality in working with students, and paying close attention to their thinking and agency. We also noticed some immediate shifts in practice. During our team debriefs, it became common to hear people say, “I had a cool hands and eyes moment!” or to describe their practice with greater interactional detail. Other shifts took more time, and are part of what we are currently documenting. This includes paying attention to the ways kids intentionally guide and support one another. Overall, the PD session gave life to a new and ongoing conversation about the ways pedagogical decisions regarding hands, eyes and voices can expand or constrain students’ sense of capability and dignity in the moment.

Meg: Looking at hands and eyes also helped us see the moment-to-moment role of student agency with more clarity. I think too often the image of a student successfully engaging in making or tinkering is one of autonomy. We have always valued the role of educator or peer support and co-thinking because it helps to deepen a person’s investigation and expand the possibilities in their work. But, it was hard to name the moves that made some assistance supportive of student thinking and authorship as opposed to the kind that didn’t. As mentioned above, we observed (and continue to wrestle with) moments when assistance seems corrective or unintentionally dismissive of the student’s own thinking. My sense is that many of us have received this type of instruction — where the goal is to get the one “right answer” — and that it may therefore be a kind of default for what we think a student needs to be successful.

Using video and photographs to show when and how educators guide students in ways that bring them into the thinking of that task was drastically more generative than pointing out faults would have been. Conversely, showing examples of when simple tasks — the ones that most often get done for students — are treated as rich learning moments made a strong impression on our younger facilitators. Over a year later, they still refer to the revelations they had in viewing these examples with us. In staff debriefs, I often hear them say things like “I noticed she kept looking away and I realized I could have her do part of the soldering with me, with both our hands on it.” In this way, the PD served both to confirm the potential and capabilities of the kids, and helped the educators feel equipped with the skills they need to deepen student engagement. Walter Kitundu, one of the adult educators on staff, described the hands and eyes conversations as helping him develop a more reflective intuition, what he called an “examined pedagogical life.”

Your study is looking at “gesture, gaze, and language.” Could you give us some framing of how you are defining these words and how you’re seeing them relate to the explosion of making in educational environments today?

Shirin: On the one hand, I think the explosion of making has the potential to widen our definitions of learning to include more hands-on, playful and socio-emotional dimensions, and to meaningfully blend the scientific and the everyday. So, the focus on gesture and gaze might help us think about what deep engagement looks like beyond facing front, “tracking” the teacher and acting as a receptacle for pre-defined content. At the same time, the current maker movement has not adequately engaged with the cultural, historical and political dimensions of learning. The dominant discourse of making often uses words like “self-directed” learning or “celebrating failure” in ways that feel out of touch with the schooling experiences of our students, and advance particular cultural values about what counts as learning, and what counts as “making.”

Our own efforts have really been about studying shared activity and joint attention among adults, youth and children in ways that not only privilege the social dimensions of learning, but also treat the development of relationships (what Espinoza refers to as the emergence of a “we”) as a value unto itself. So, an ethnographic lens that foregrounds gesture, gaze and language will, we hope, help us think about the social and ethical qualities of the learning experience, and the interwoven development of artifacts, ideas, relationships and selves.

Selfishly, I’m really interested in the methodology piece. I don’t think those questions will translate well into a short-format Q&A. Instead, maybe you can talk about how you did this research but in an elevator-pitch-y way (and we can link to longer work down the road!)

Shirin: Both the program and the research methodologies evolved through our ongoing dialogue about field notes, videos, photographs and interviews. Currently, we’re working to figure out how to best highlight and convey the role of embodiment in ways that invite readers to be co-analysts of the interactions. Meg’s insights were also invaluable for thinking about the aspects of our research that would be most useful for educators. I remember a particular moment when she reminded me that a video clip we were analyzing, which showed Meg gracefully supporting multiple kids at once, was “harder than it looks.” This led us to think more deeply about how to describe pedagogical moves in ways that recognize the moment to moment pressures teachers are experiencing, and bring the ingenuity of their practice into relief.

Meg: We also thought a lot about the politics and ethics of educational research, and the importance of building trust with students. Documenting people’s learning experiences, especially with a video camera, is a sensitive and potentially problematic endeavor. Because we each played a hybrid role as researchers and educators, Shirin also engaged with children and youth in a pedagogical capacity over an extended period of time. These long-term relationships were central to our efforts to conduct research in ways that are respectful, and that involve young people in the documentation of what they deem to be important about the educational setting.

How do you see this work impacting how we research in multimodal making environments? And, what can educators/parents/etc. take away from your findings?

Meg: I think the most broadly relevant aspect of this work has been an appreciation for the small moments that so often go unseen. Last summer, we were doing a lot of thinking and talking about the research and at the same time, I was obsessively following Argentina in the World Cup. In one game, there were some really beautiful moments of finesse and unexpected brilliance on the part of players on both teams. It was a tense game that tied 1:1 in the first 8 minutes and stayed that way throughout the first half. Afterward, I was excitedly telling Shirin and other colleagues about how much I loved fútbol for having so much beauty and substance even when those moments don’t result in anything quantifiable, like a goal. I think growing up watching a game like soccer allows a person to develop an appreciation for those small moments and their importance regardless of immediate outcomes. Working with Shirin and engaging in research that values these moments has greatly expanded the scope of what I and our staff get to call learning in the program. These impacts have been most evident in the sense of intentionality and pride that our facilitators have in our work and our student’s work. So, a broader implication might be how this lens can expand our view of learning in other contexts, such as the family or within children’s play and friendships. The clubhouses have also shared that this lens has helped them see potential for staff to better understand the depth of learning that happens in other club activities, and to expand their existing efforts to leverage the resources parents bring to their children’s learning.

Shirin: I love the soccer metaphor. At its core, I think this is a story about a group of adults and young adults working together to develop new ways of seeing and engaging with children in an educational setting. For us, this involved reflecting on the dynamics of power and possibility within the coordination of children’s and adults’ hands, eyes and voices. In studying how this idea came to shape and reorganize pedagogical practice, I think we’re aiming to craft a form of perception that recognizes teachers and students as akin to fútbol giants — enacting seemingly small but beautiful movements that, when we look closely, pulse with history and meaning. So, our challenge as researchers is both empirical and artistic: how do we render this beauty and complexity? Pedagogically, I see the implications of this work less as a series of teaching dos and don’ts, and more as an argument for developing situated and historically informed ways of seeing that expand our ways of being, teaching and learning.

Thanks for taking the time to share your work.

Feel free to email Shirin (shirin.vossoughi@northwestern.edu) and Meg (mescude@exploratorium.edu) with any questions you may have or share any ideas in the comment section below.