seyMour’s puBlic enTities, eDith’s maKe-ing conVersation & DeSign ReViews

“Learning … happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity.”   Seymour Papert

“Papert is interested in how learners engage in a conversation with [their own or other people’s] artifacts, and how these conversations boost self-directed learning, and ultimately facilitate the construction of new knowledge.”  Edith Ackermann

When people ask me to explain Seymour Papert’s constructionism pedagogy, I say that constructionism is “learning by making.”  However, much “learning by making” is unexpected and often unique to the learner;  it can’t always be predicted by a syllabus.  

So for the most learning to happen, makers must have many opportunities to discover and name what they are learning.  As educators, we can provide youth with thoughtfully structured opportunities to engage in conversation about their projects during the making process in order to:

  • explain why and what they are making
  • to develop skills at giving and receiving feedback
  • increase their creative confidence
  • discuss their process including research, successes & challenges along the way
  • Generate ideas about how to make the project better

Whether for a simple short – or an elaborately long – maker project, our Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn (L2TT2L)  community has found that design reviews are one way to provide these opportunities.  Carefully facilitated and strategically timed design reviews can dramatically improve youth’s  learning, as well as the quality and success of projects.  Our experience is that they harness the collective imagination, the collective knowledge,  and the collective skills of our youth (and community).

Over the past 15 years of thinking together, teenage youth teachers, and college mentors have developed five different kinds of design reviews:

  1. Design review for generating simple project ideas
  2. Design review to evaluate initial ideas for bigger projects
  3. Peer review of rapid prototypes
  4. Formal community design review for proof of concept prototypes
  5. Final community design review of full model: Project Expo

1  Design reviews for generating simple project ideas  

You are planning a short simple activity that takes only a couple of hours, such as building a paper circuit, laser cutting a backpack tag, creating a Makey Makey game controller or coding a simple Scratch animation.  Even for relatively short and simple project activities, conversations help youth explore ideas.

At L2TT2L, youth sketch their ideas with pencil and paper and present those ideas to their peers.  Drawing and verbally explaining their ideas, then presenting them to peers for even short feedback, helps young people develop creative confidence and a clearer direction that can dramatically improve the quality of the projects.  

Starting to move ideas out of the brain onto the physical act of putting pencil to paper (even if it is just words and scribbles) helps youth make their ideas more concrete.  Our evidence comes from experience, but there must be some neuroscience explanation!  Sharing their ideas with peers and talking about them – even briefly — helps to identify challenges and opportunities for simplifying or adding to their designs.

Here is a guide that documents one helpful version of the  process that is used at L2TT2L:

2  Design reviews to evaluate initial ideas for bigger projects  

When small groups design and build bigger projects that are to be worked on for several weeks, conversations about how the project demonstrates the characteristics of past successful projects can be inspiring.   

It’s empowering to have the youth themselves think about and generate metrics for great projects.  We had a group of youth and mentors research and name the characteristics of 10 years of the most successful and satisfying  L2TT2L projects.  The youth turned those characteristics into a poster of “project metrics”:

Mentors meet with each group to have a conversation about how the group’s  project idea could be improved to demonstrate more of the great project characteristics from the best youth projects in the past.

Some thoughts about prototypes for bigger projects

At Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn, we use a series of prototypes for long-term projects that might be built over a span of 3-6 weeks. Prototypes are a way to test ideas in the physical world.   A great resource for learning about prototypes & how they are used in business innovation settings is a set of slides developed by the UK Nesta Foundation.  Here is an adapted version of their definition:

“Prototyping is an approach to developing, testing, and improving ideas at an early stage. . . It is a way of project and team working which allows you to experiment, evaluate, learn, refine and adapt. . .


  • Involves relevant people at an early stage
  • Develops ideas with the people who will help you find the answers
  • Makes ideas tangible and tests them
  • Refines those ideas
  • Informs and improves any [plan] for change”

The only thing I would add is that prototyping activities should be designed to engage a real sense of playfulness that fosters “falling in love.” As Sherry Turkle spoke about at a recent symposium on Seymour Papert, falling in love with learning,  ideas, materials, and projects are the most important gauges for the success of maker activities.

At L2TT2L, we structure design review conversations for bigger projects around three kinds of prototypes:  rapid prototype, “proof of concept” prototype and a full model prototype.  A rapid prototype is quick (30 minutes) building exercise, using craft materials, that communicates the idea for a project.  A “proof of concept” prototype is a partial model built (typically over several days) to demonstrate that the big mechanical and electronic ideas that will be used in the model are do-able.  A full model prototype is a working model of the project (typically created over many weeks).

The next three design reviews involve these three kinds of prototypes.

3   Peer review of rapid prototypes

We find it helpful to give the young people an opportunity to “think with their hands” and make a rapid prototype for bigger project ideas.  I like these thoughts about rapid prototypes and their relationship to creativity from Tom and David Kelly from their book, Creative Confidence:  Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All:

“The reason for [rapid] prototyping is experimentation—the act of creating forces you to ask questions and make choices. It also gives you something you can show to and talk about with other people. . . a prototype is just an embodiment of your idea. . .

“. . . Some failure is unavoidable. . .The best kinds of failures are quick, cheap, and early, leaving you plenty of time and resources to learn from the experiment and iterate your ideas. . . Creativity requires cycling lots of ideas. . .”

This diagram summarizes how youth teachers at L2TT2L approach creating rapid prototypes of their projects early on:

After rapid prototyping, we have an informal peer design review with facilitated questions to answer, as summarized in the guide below.

We typically have 36 teen youth who are working in small maker groups on 7-8 projects, so this design review needs to be carefully facilitated to be effective and timely.  Each small maker group presents their project for 3-5 minutes.  Then the other peer groups have 3-4 minutes to come up with feedback that they record on sticky notes.  Several of the groups summarize their feedback orally.  However, the written sticky notes from all the group are collected and given to the maker group.  In this way, we can get through the design review in about 60-80 minutes.  

A facilitator (at L2TT2L, this is a college mentor) makes the process run smoothly by:

  • Introducing each maker group
  • Being sure maker groups answer all questions & pass prototype around room
  • Facilitating sticky note peer group feedback brainstorm
  • Facilitating sticky note peer group feedback from 3 groups
  • Giving all the peer group sticky notes to each maker group

Having a timekeeper and someone to collect the peer group feedback sticky notes is also helpful in keeping the design review running smoothly.

After the design review, give the maker groups time to have further conversation to discuss and document the feedback that they have received.  Questions that might guide such conversations:  What different kinds of feedback did the rapid prototype receive? What changes to the project might be considered based on the feedback?

At L2TT2L, we have youth document their entire engineering design process on a project blog that they keep.  This is also where they post the insights from their feedback and conversations.This approach to feedback helps youth to develop competence in analyzing and critiquing projects.  It also gives each maker group interesting guidance and ideas that will help them improve their project during the next steps of the engineering design process.


4   Formal community design review for proof of concept prototypes

After rapid prototyping of larger projects, maker groups spend one or two days creating the next level “proof of concept” prototype.  A “proof of concept” prototype is a partial  prototype that is constructed to test and demonstrate that the most important parts of the electronics, coding and mechanical systems in the design are practical and “do-able.”

Typically youth use prototyping kits such as littleBits (a kit with magnetized electronic components that snap together)  or Grove Kits (a shield that fits on top of a microcontroller development board that allows components like servo motors and LCD screens to be “plugged in” and coded without the complication of wiring) to create a simplified model of the electronics and coding.  

Laser cutters and cardboard are typically used for prototyping mechanical parts of the proposed project to prove that they are “buildable.”

These “proof of concept” prototypes are presented at a more formal design review where representatives from the community serve on a panel that offers feedback.

Maker groups design Kickstarter-style presentations for the formal design review.  To prepare youth, we introduce the idea of kick starters and show examples of inspiring kick starter sites (for instance, we often show youth the Makey Makey Kickstarter, because they use Makey Makeys).  

The idea of Kickstarter-style campaigns is evocative because Kickstarter inventions — and we hope the projects that our youth design and build —  are created for real people and are designed to be used “in the world.”  The high energy, quick presentation format and questions that Kickstarter videos ask seem to be exactly right for our youth:  “Tell us who you are. Tell us the story behind your project. Where’d you get the idea? What stage is it at now? How are you feeling about it?”

A design guide is provided for maker group presentations.  Maker groups are encouraged to incorporate slides or posters as visual aids.

For the formal design review session, we gather a diverse panel of community members from outside the L2TT2L  program.  By diverse, we mean that they vary in their work fields, and also by gender and culture.  For instance, we may recruit an engineering professional and university professor, but also seek out people with no engineering or technology backgrounds.  We have invited community organizers, business people, local teachers, union trades workers, and politicians. The diverse perspectives from the panel offer a wonderful variety of ideas, suggestions, and questions which are useful for the youth as they improve their final design plans, technical tools & approaches, and potential uses of the projects.

We set up a table for our design review panel with paper tents with their names & roles, paper and pencils for notes, and even some water to give the design review a professional and formal touch.  We also provide them with some suggestions for the kind of feedback that would be useful for the maker groups.

The formal design review is structured with a facilitator for the agenda, timekeeper for presentation and panel feedback, and recorder to collect panelist notes and record verbal and written feedback on a Google Doc.

Here is an example of the feedback documentation that our youth received on their proof of concept prototypes at last year’s formal design review:

Again, it is important to provide time for Maker Groups to discuss the feedback from the Formal Design Review.  Some questions that they could discuss might be: What types of feedback were given about the social, technical and artistic aspects of the project?  How should the project be changed to respond to the feedback?  Our Maker Groups document these conversations and plans for project change on their project blog page.

5  Final community design review of full model prototype: Project expo

Each year, we hold a Community Project Expo at which maker groups display their full model prototype projects.   We have a potluck lunch and invite family and friends, as well as local community folks — including technology and engineering professionals, educators, and business people. There is also a sort of “Final Design Review” embedded in our Project Expo each year.  

Each maker group sets up a “booth” with their project and a poster which guides the viewer through the engineering design process, using our youth-generated engineering design process infographic as a guide.

The maker group posters are very much modeled after conference posters but much more modest, of course.  Some of the information on the poster includes:

The maker groups receive serious feedback, but using a more informal design review process.  We ask community members, friends and family to sit with the maker groups, their project posters and projects and give them meaningful feedback and evaluation of their projects.  

We find that a very large percentage of the youth’s learning comes on this day when they have to explain their process and project 20-30  times to different folks.   By the time the Project Expo is over, youth are really articulate about what they have learned and accomplished.

Youth are often so busy trying to finish their projects and poster before the Project Expo that their project documentation blog entries grow quite thin in the last week of project building.  To address this problem, this year Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn is adding a documentation and discussion day after the Project Expo so that learning can be better documented.

Some concluding thoughts about seyMour’s puBlic enTities, eDith’s  maKe-ing conVerSation & DeSign ReViews

Seymour Papert’s constructionism pedagogy is the most powerful approach to maker education I (and so many others) have used.  His insistence that maker projects become “public entities” is often quoted.  Edith Ackermann’s work says that one way to construct “public entities is to focus on providing opportunities for meaningful conversation that help youth construct new knowledge.  These conversations allow makers to create more robust internal mental models of how technology, engineering and coding work in the world.

Yet, even as a maker educator and experiential educator for over 30 years, I still find myself longing for more writing and focus on those concrete practices that help makers construct their projects as  “public entities” and that suggest forms of conversation that move makers forward in constructing new knowledge.  In this article, I have suggested the practice of design reviews as one such strategy.

Now it is up to you, my readers, to take to writing up your practices and ideas!  If you do, please share them — as well as any comments and suggestions on this design review meditation —  with me, either in the comments on this blog or at klimczaksusan [at] gmail [dot] com.  

I know this is a loooooong blogpost, so if you would like to read/print out a copy of this document, it can be found at:


What is Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn?  L2TT2L is a program of Boston’s South End Technology Center @ Tent City.  Each year, we hire 36 teen youth teachers who represent Boston’s diversity in genders, family cultures, schools, neighborhoods, and spectrum of thriving in schooling.  Our goal is to create a critical mass of Boston youth engaged in the creative possibilities of technology and engineering.  Each April – August, youth teachers learn 6 different technology and engineering modules and build projects that solve a community issue.  Then they go out and teach what they have learned to 600+ Boston elementary and middle school youth in 25 community organizations in the neighborhoods most in need of education resources.

Shout outs

To the Noun Project for their collection of very cool and useful icons.  The icons used for the diagrams in this blogpost were created by Daniela Baptista, Gregor Cresnar, Philippo Gianesi, Delwar Hossain, Gregor Cresnar, Jaap Knevel, Ghan Knoon Lay, Michael Rojas Olivia Stoian, and Unlimiticon.

To Dr. Brian Gravel of Tufts University for invaluable feedback and suggestions!

To Eva Kerr, longtime South End Technology Center @ Tent City volunteer, for her faithful eagle eye editing!