Parts, Purposes and Complexities – A useful thinking routine

As a group of teachers at our school, we are nearing the end of the Harvard Project Zero – Teaching and Learning in the Maker Centred Classroom course. It has all been great and will take plenty of time to digest and work out the best ways to bring these ideas and approaches to the wider school community. The main focus of the course, and the Agency by Design project, is on a set of thinking routines that encourage the students to look closely, explore complexity and find opportunity

One particular thinking routine has really stuck with me as something that is simple, powerful and easy to apply in lots of ways. That thinking routine is called Parts, Purposes and Complexities.

This routine is all about looking closely and is designed to help students slow down and make careful, detailed observations by encouraging them to look beyond the obvious features of an object or system. This thinking routine helps stimulate curiosity, raises questions, and surfaces areas for further inquiry.

Students look at a system or object and ask:

  • What are its parts?
    • What are its various pieces or components?
  • What are its purposes?
    • What are the purposes for each of these parts?
  • What are its complexities?
    • How is it complicated in its parts and purposes, the relationship between the two, or in other ways?

For the course I had students working on an existing making project to build a game controller by looking at existing commercial Game Controllers. If time allows and it’s appropriate it is great to ask the students to actually take apart the item.

I was able to pick up a box of broken video game controllers from ebay for cheap. Students worked in groups of 3 or 4 to disassemble them. They took all the parts they found and glued them to a board. On the board they then labelled the parts, purposes and complexities in different colours. Initial points I noticed was that students don’t have that much experience taking things apart with screwdrivers and cutting tools. This was fine, it just added an extra bit of time needed for this routine.

Once they had identified everything they could they took an iPad and recorded a quick video of their group talking about their insights and puzzles. This showed some really interesting conversations they had had as groups during the process and highlighted their sensitivity to design as well as their knowledge.

As well as being a fun and memorable activity for the students it has really made them think deeper and explore design more when designing their own controllers.

I’ve been using this routine in other places as well and sometimes just using bits of it. The image below shows Year 1 students looking closely at the parts and purposes of robots they built in the Robot Factory app on iPad.

Other teachers on the same course have been using this routine in other areas completely away from edtech. Below are some students looking closely at tomatoes to examine the parts, their purposes and how the parts work together to make it complex.

I can see this routine working well for larger designed and human systems as well. Another routine called Parts, People and Interactions is a useful follow up but did highlight some issues with students having a lack of experience of the people involved in systems.