Why Innovation is Important in Education

Have you seen the viral video of the man on the airplane, working with all of his might to fit his bag in the overhead compartment? After 45 seconds of trying, a flight attendant comes to help. She twists the bag and it slips into the compartment. At the very end, you can see the the onlookers laughing at the man, shaking their heads at his inability to see the obvious.


We can find the video funny, but I’d like to suggest that we have all been the man in this video. We have an idea of how it is supposed to work. We try, and to our confusion, it doesn’t happen. So what do we do? We try again, and again, and maybe again. Perhaps we convince ourselves that grit, perseverance, and persistence will win the day. With that personal pep talk, we pick up the bag once more and try the exact same way, but to no avail.

Then someone comes to us and suggests another way. Maybe we are open to taking their advice? Or, maybe we reject it. Sometimes on a matter of principle, we persist with the method, protecting it like our only child.

“This is now how it is supposed to work.”

“This is the right way to do it.”

“It has worked for me this way before.”

“I’ve tried everything and it just doesn’t fit.”

This is why we need innovation in education. Innovation is not just a buzz word. It isn’t just about embracing new and trendy ideas. It is about embracing the breadth of possibilities, acknowledging that there might be a better way, being open to new ways of embodying our values and embracing our mission.

We’ve had enough of trying to stuff students in our educational compartments. We blame the students, the compartment, the people around us, or even ourselves when it doesn’t work out as we desired or expected. Maybe innovation is really about having the openness and humility to consider something new. And maybe it is sometimes as simple and subtle as twisting the idea on its side.

User-Centered Design in Schools

User-centered design is a design concept that is simply focused on designing products and services with the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. At first, it sounds simple, but this approach requires a keen eye, an ability to listen, and being truly opening to learning from the patient, customer, or end user of whatever it is that you might be designing. It calls for the mindset of an ethnographic researcher, being deeply curious, and pushing through conventional wisdom and untested assumptions. Yet, the end result is something that really works, something that truly addresses a key need or problem for the user, something that resonates with people.

While I appreciate the caution of trying to treat a school like a business / customer transaction, there is still something useful about a user-centered design when it comes to our schools. Consider, for example, how curricula are often designed today. Interview dominant textbook publishers. Ask the designers and developers of leading educational software and educational product companies. Ask teachers and curriculum committees to describe the processes that they use to design curriculum. How many of them actually use a user-centered design approach? I can tell you from my study over the years, the answer is very few.

There are some who turn to research about education. Textbook and curriculum developers, for example, do tap into content experts, educational psychologists, instructional designers, and many other people with valuable expertise. It is quite rare, however, for the development process to involve careful observations of learners, interviews with learners, observations of future life and work contexts, and the like. We have resources informed by research sometimes, but it is not necessarily designed in a way that takes into account important factors and nuances with various learners.

For those who think that I’m arguing that we should just cater to the random whims of any student, I’m not. This is about getting serious when it comes to results and impact. User-centered design is producing wonderful outcomes in healthcare and other areas, so why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it to improve our education system?

While this is great for new and existing schools and programs, I think a great place to start is more user-centered design with our policies. Instead of lobbying for one policy or another and turning the whole thing into troubling political positioning, what would happen if we worked toward a system where policies were shaped, informed by and evaluated by some sort of user-centered design approach? Shouldn’t policies be created and supported that keep the learner in mind? What good and ethical reason can we have for promoting policies that do not truly have the user/learner in mind throughout the process? Isn’t school first and foremost about equipping students for life and work?

Of course, I’m keen to engage the students directly in the project too. There is little keeping us from teaching user-centered design to students and having them help to improve the school system. After all, they are already the stakeholders for whom this is most important. Why not give them a chance to help make it better and, as a result, improve their own learning? I talk to many groups interested in creating new schools or programs, and I love providing initial consulting for such groups. Yet, it is fascinating to me how often people don’t take time to learn directly from students or to engage them directly in the design and development process? Why not? What is there to lose? I sure see much to gain.

Yet, maybe all of this is a bit too abstract. If you haven’t seen user-centered design in action or even read about it, you might still be wondering what all of this is about. What exactly is user-centered design? As I noted before, it is a broad term to describe any design that is keeping the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. It works from a number of simple guiding principles. I’ve tweaked them a bit to apply this to an educational context.

  1. Base the school, class, lesson, learning experience design upon a deep understanding of the learners, their goals and needs, and the unique context or environment.
  2. Involve learners in helping to shape, reshape, and revise the school, lessons, learning experience design in an ongoing way; and at all stages of design and development.
  3. Elicit learner feedback and input (through observation, surveys or other creative ways) throughout the process, not simply starting with the leadership’s potentially narrow set of goals and priorities. Respect the goals and needs of the learners.
  4. The design never ends. It is constantly tweaked and adjusted based upon feedback loops from the learners and other key stakeholders (parents, community, etc.).
  5. Design in a way that considers the full breadth of the leaner’s experience, not just narrow academic metrics. Design in a way that fits with the goals, values and priorities that are near and dear to the learners and other key stakeholders.

Imagine how our schools might change if we were to consistently and persistently apply these principles to our design of the learning experiences. Notice that this doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher in the least, but it also doesn’t build a system around the preferences of the teachers, the administrators, or any other whose primary responsibility is to serve the students in their learning. If schools exist for learners (and for the communities in which those learners will live and work), it only makes sense that a deep understanding of the learners would play a central role in the design and redesign of the experience.

There are a variety of processes that people use for user-centered design, but almost all of them are based on five key elements. The first involves identifying the problem, but it isn’t done in isolation. Already at the problem phase, we are listening to, observing and learning from the user. The second step, given that this is typically a product development process, is to determine the context in which a user will make use of the product. Or in a learning context, we can think about the context in which we hope for learners to learn and to apply what they learn…not only that, but the context in which the learners themselves hope to learn and apply what they learn. Then, based on this early research, we need to create a list of critical characteristics. What elements need to be present in this product if it is going to meet the needs of the learners? These elements will serve as guides throughout the rest of the design process. Next we need to start designing some prototypes and creating plans to get learner feedback and input on these prototypes. How well do they embody the key traits and meet the identified needs? We then identify a prototype to further develop, build it out, and start to gather ongoing user data that we then use to persistently adapt and improve what we are doing.

Imagine the possibilites if we were to embarce such an approach to the design of our schools and learning expeirences.


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3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles

In, “Are ‘Learning Styles’ A Symptom of Education’s Ills?”, Anna North joins a long list of journalists, academics and researchers who are trying to dispel the myth that teaching according to student “learning styles” is a worthwhile effort. I’m referring to the concepts that originated in the 1970s, suggesting that each student has preferred “styles” of learning. One of the more popularized descriptions of learning styles is the VARK model: visual, auditory, reading-writing, and kinesthetic. This theory suggests that learners have a preference for one of these and that, designing lessons that accommodate such preferences, is more likely to improve each student’s learning.

This and similar approaches have been taught in teacher education programs and in-service teacher professional development for decades. In some schools, it is hard to find a P-12 teacher who doesn’t refer to the importance of learning styles. That is surprising given the limited research to support such claims, and the growing body of literature to suggest that designing lessons according to student learning styles or preferences does anything significant to improve student learning. Yet, the beliefs and practices persist. In fact, when I challenge the idea of using learning styles as a way of designing instruction, it is common to get passionate opposition, quickly turning to a flurry of anecdotal proofs from one’s classroom experience. I offer three responses to such opposition.

1. A Plea to Healthy Skepticism 

“Yes, please don’t believes this because I am saying it. I have not provided a single robust and empirical study to support my claim. Why not test my claims by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject? There is ample research to explore. Check it out directly and see what you think.”

The challenge is that using peer-reviewed research is uncommon among many in education, and methods of teaching classes in University education programs are often taken from textbooks and “how-to” resources. Look at a typical undergraduate education program, you will often find students reading secondary works about education far more than they are reviewing the scholarly research.

2. A Plea to Common Sense

Suppose I want to teach you how to play basketball. Is one student going to learn basketball better by watching slide shows for hours, while a different student will learn it better by playing basketball and getting coaching? Or, should I divide up my physical education class into four groups: having the reading-writing people just read books about basketball and writing essays, the visual learners just look through instructive photos about playing basketball, and the auditory learners send to another areas to listen to recorded audio lectures on playing basketball?

I realize that this argument has weaknesses. After all, ample research challenges our common sense or experiences. That is part of the fun of delving into the research. Regardless, I’ve found that this example often helps people become a bit more open to considering different claims about the effectiveness or lack thereof for using learning styles as a guide for designing instruction.

3. How Should we Prioritize?

A third response is that I step away from too strong of an attack against learning styles. Instead, I suggest that we simply prioritize the degree of importance we assign to many considerations for designing learning experiences. For example, I mention cognitive load theory, a body of research showing how we can minimize the chance of students experiencing overload when trying to grasp a new concept. I reference the value of taking into account prior student experiences and learning when designing learning experiences. I reference the importance of students having adequate attention to or focus upon that which is being learned. I talk about the research in support of deliberate practice. Or, I might also discuss the research on feedback loops and their impact on student learning. In other words, given all the research we have on what helps students learn, where should we prioritize the learning style claims?

There may well be research in the future to support more of the claims around learning styles as a guide for designing effective learning experiences, but I’ve yet to see a solid body of such literature. As such, it only makes sense to me that we focus our attention on those areas that are far more consistently supported.

What do you think? Have you been a learning styles champion in the past? To what extent are you open to challenging some of those assumptions and practices, or possibly lowering them on our list of strategies for designing high-impact learning experiences? Or, are you already one of the minority who never embraced learning styles or who has set them aside for more fertile teaching and learning ground?

How to Maximize the Impact of an Edupreneur in Your School

There is a good chance that you have at least a couple of them in your school. The question is whether they will soon be leaving your school or if they are helping them make their greatest impact on the students, school, community and world. I’m referring to edupreneurs, the sometimes eccentric, but always passionate and driven teachers who want to create, innovate and conjure the spirit of a startup in education. Many edupreneurs started by identifying a problem, need or opportunity and doing something about it. They are action-oriented and want to see tangible results. Does this sound like the type of educator who might have something to offer to your school and students? Is is the type of person that you might want to keep around? If so, here are ten tips to doing just that.

1. Differentiate

We get the idea of differentiated instruction for students, but what about for teachers, staff and administrators? Sometimes doing the same thing for every person is the least fair, or it is a certain way to make sure you don’t help everyone perform at their maximum capacity. Instead, consider what each teacher and staff member needs to not only survive the day, but to thrive. Make it your goal to offer differentiated leadership.

2. Leave Space for Innovation

Sometimes school leaders establish policies and procedures that verge on micro-managing. Some employees thrive on very detailed and prescribed activities, but many do not, especially not the edupreneurs. They need room to experiment, explore and innovate; and that means finding ways to loosen up on the reigns a bit. In fact, there may even be times when you want to give them the freedom and flexibility to work beyond the standard policies and procedures to launch something new. Just be aware of the impact on the overall culture and be prepared to manage perceptions.

3. Affirm The Innovators

Find ways to affirm the innovative work of the edupreneurs. Make sure they know that you value their contributions and appreciate their distinct gifts and abilities.

4. Help Them Find the Time and Resources

Innovation takes both. When possible and proper, look for creative ways to give a bit of financial support and especially time for them to work on a new project. If that means calling something a pilot and making them the official lead for it, then give it a try.

5. Redefine Failure

A highly risk-averse context is not a place where an edupreneur will thrive. If you want to reap the benefits of such people in your school, then it means celebrating failure as an education that helps with future endeavors. Of course, you want to manage the risk and make sure it doesn’t compromise other organizational priorities, but given that you have those things in check, give them room to fail and don’t treat it like a character flaw. The goal is positive impact more than polished perfectionism.

6. Accept The Value of the Lopsided Edupreneur

Some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial people are wonderfully lopsided. In other words, they don’t necessarily have a perfectly balanced set of skills, knowledge and abilities. However, they may have a few amazing and well-refined skills and abilities, and that is where they can have the greatest impact. Those annual reviews need to happen and it is important to help them work on growth areas that might hurt them (or others) or hold them back from being successful. It is equally or even more important to encourage them to build on their strengths. In other words, if they are excelling in an area, don’t necessarily think that the goal is to then help them excel in an area of weakness. Instead think about how you can help them build on their strengths.

7. Be Open to New Titles, Structures and Processes

Innovation is, by nature, about doing things that are not being done. So, there is unlikely to be a set of policies, rules and job descriptions that fit what an edupreneur may be trying to do. Be open to creating new positions, new job descriptions, and new structures that give them what they need to flourish.

8. Trust Them But Stay True to Your Convictions

You are not going to see or understand everything they are trying or thinking. Some may even seem downright silly. You will need to find a balance between trusting them to innovate in ways that you don’t understand and staying true to your values and convictions for the school. Make your expectations clear, but also be willing to give them the freedom to do things that you don’t get…at least not yet.

9. Keep the Students First

These innovators have wonderful gifts to offer, but your first priority is to the well-being and education of the students. In the frenzy of creating and innovating, some edupreneurs may occasionally lose sight of certain elements that are critical. They may often be willing to take risk that you are not willing to take, not when other key priorities are at stake. With that in mind, you can support them, but do so within the boundaries that you consider important, and communicate those boundaries clearly, explaining why they are important to you. Sometimes you will set boundaries in the wrong place, so be humble enough to see that and change. Other times, the edupreneur may decide that she needs more freedom and flexibility than is possible in your school. That is okay.

10. Let Them Go

Some edupreneurs will be delighted to spend a long career in your school, but that is not necessarily the calling for all of them. Some will benefit your school, develop new skills while there, and then be called to something else. Accept that. Don’t try to guilt them into staying. Make sure they know that they are valued and supported as long as they want to stay, but also be the first to give them your blessing and support as they go to start the next big education business, start a new school, or apply their gifts in a new context.

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10 Ways for Teachers to Hack Homework Assignments

A recent #Edchat was focused on the topic of homework. Should we use it? What is good homework? What are the benefits and drawbacks? What does the research say about it? Some even wondered what a teacher can do when the school requires that they give a certain amount of homework. My response to that last question was simple. If you are required to give homework, then hack it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that hacking homework is a good standard practice.

Homework is simply defined as work that a student is supposed to do at home (or beyond the class session). With that broad of a definition, it is hard to make too many definitive statements about it. For me, that is an invitation to play and experiment with the term. So what does it mean to hack homework? Hacking is about experimentation, exploration, using things in unexpected or even unintended ways. So, if we add hacking to homework, we get the idea of playful, experimental, experiential, exploratory learning. In other words, we get an idea of homework that sets aside the worksheets, drill and practice exercises, and similar activities. We let go of the idea of that performance on homework assignments adds up to be part of a letter grade. Instead, what if we made homework exploratory, playful, and formative. With that in mind, here are ten ways to get you started on your homework hacking journey.

1. Life Experiments

This is can be done prior to or after a lesson. It is where you invite learners to conduct simple experiments related to what they are exploring in class, and then to report their findings back to the class.

2. Find It in the Real World

These are assignments that challenge students to try or test something from class beyond the walls of the school. If it is a math class, have students find examples of where the math is being used, or how it can be used to explain something.

3. Interviews and Observations

This may not work as well for every content area, but having students observe or talk to people can be a rich and powerful learning experience. It doesn’t need to be complex. Even simple conversations with parents or guardians can be enlightening.

4. Don’t Grade It

Think about it. Homework is typically about helping students practice. Practice is not the game. It helps get ready for the game. So, why would we make the practice part of what goes into the final grade for the class? That is confusing formative and summative assessment, and it simply rewards those who need the least amount of practice or help. If grades about what students have or have not learned by the end of the class, why grade homework, which is just progress toward that final goal?

5. Make their Non-Homework Homework

Tell them not to do any homework, but then to make connections between what they learned in class and what happening in the rest of their lives.

6. Mini Service Learning

How about the “Pay it Forward” approach to homework. Give them the challenge of using something they learned in the class to help someone. Then have them report back. This is a great way to help students make the connection between the life of learning and service.

7. Artistic Expressions

Most students have cell phones, iPods or something they can use to snap pictures. Have students take one or more pictures that helps teach or illustrate a concept that was studied or will be studied in class. Once they take the picture, you can have it send to you, ready for a fun and interesting slide show the next day in class. In essence, your students are creating part of the hook for the lesson.

8. Self-Directed and Self-Generated Homework

Your assignment is to give yourself an assignment that will help you learn, reinforce, or refine your understanding of ___________ (a topic learned about in class). You will be amazed at some of the interesting and creative ideas that students develop. This will also help you learn about them as learners, an it helps them learn about themselves. People say that homework teaches responsibility, but this really helps students move toward self-directed learning and the nurturing of human agency, which is hopefully what we want to see in graduates.

9. Homework Games

Your task is to create a game that could be used to help people learn about ________. Then, when you get to class, play some of the games.

10. Lesson Planning

Yes, why not invite students into the lesson planning process. Share all your lessons with students in advance using a Google Doc. Let them use the comment feature to review, revise, suggest alternatives, etc. In other words, invite them into the process of planning their own learning activities.

This is just the beginning. By simply giving ourselves permission to define homework more broadly and combining with the spirit of the hacker, we can come up with some wonderfully rich, engaging, and beneficial “homework” for learners. What are your ideas? Feel free to suggest other ways to hack homework in the comment area.

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Creating as the Foundation of Formative Education

There is no shortage of voices pointing out the need to move beyond industrial-age factory model of education. I am one of them, but I am also a strong critic of criticism that does not offer a compelling alternative. It is one thing to argue that the factory model of education is outdated, but then what? What do we put in its place?

I will illustrate my point using one example of industrial age practices. I am candid about my critique of letter grades.. The letter grade system is an antiquated educational technology that does not align with our growing knowledge about best and promising practices in teaching and learning. Yet, we persist with such practices because:

  1. the letter grade has become a trusted academic currency,
  2. we have built educational systems around this technology,
  3. questions about the letter grade system are not widely discussed,
  4. educational leaders are often “winners” in the traditional game of education (including letter grades) and find no reason to change things,
  5. there is not a clear picture of the negative impact of letter grades,
  6. many remain uninformed about the wonderfully promising current and emerging alternatives,
  7. teacher training is primarily in how to function in an industrial model of education so changes may be seen as personal risks or challenges to teacher’s current understanding of how to teach and motivate students,
  8. there is a sense that letter grades are so deeply embedded that it is hard to see how things could change, and
  9. most people do not have a clear understanding of why and how to make the shift toward one or more of the alternatives.

We are not going to critique our way through the eventual shift away from letter grades. Authors like Alfie Kohn do a fine job pointing out the limitations of something like the letter grade system, but they also offer alternatives. I contend that we need more focus on the alternatives. A critique is necessary, but it is creation that will lead a growing number of learning organizations to abandon letter grades in place of something better. It is getting informed about the possibilities, creating new possibilities, and having the courage and boldness to bring those creations to life. The CD didn’t replace the album because of the many limitations of the album, but because the creation and experience of the CD was embraced as a more promising option.

This is true about many challenges and needs in society as well. There is an important role for critique of the status quo, but we need visionaries who see new possibilities, make them a reality, and invite others to experience what they have created. We need more creators.

This is why I contend that creation should be a central curricular focus of learning organizations. So much can be learned through the process of creating. We can create great questions, positive relationships, communities around a shared social issue, compelling and thoughtful narratives, solutions to problems in the local community or the world, valuable products and services, music, art, scientific experiments, and much more. Imagine a learning organization that made such creation the central attribute of the learning organization. Imagine what could be learned and what rich and valuable creations could be shared with the world in the process.




Orbiting Academic Hairballs: For All the Educational Innovators

According to Gordon MacKenzie in Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, a hairball is, “policy procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity, and submission to the status quo, while orbiting is originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation, and innovation.”  MacKenzie is writing about how to maintain creativity and originality when working in a corporate culture, but I could not help but think about how his ideas apply to those of us who seek out these same “orbiting” traits in schools and other learning organizations.

Some do this by branching out on their own. They abandon the organization and venture into the world of consulting, freelancing, or pursuing a startup. That is an admirable option, and I’m grateful for the amazing work that comes from people who chose this option. However, what intrigues me about MacKenzie’s book is that he offers another option as well, doing what he calls “orbiting the giant hairball.” Here is how he explains it:

Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards.” – all the while connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

When I read that quote, I wanted to make a poster of it, turn it into a t-shirt, memorize it, and post it on my office wall! This quote encompasses so much of what I’ve devoted myself to over the last two decades. Stretch myself and others to explore the promise and possibility beyond “accepted models, patterns, and standards” in education. Rather than simply “clinging to past successes” or ingrained educational practices, my passion is to look to what is possible. In doing so, we discover educational vistas that we previously thought non-existent, infuse our minds and communities with passion and creative energy; but we do it without abandoning the educational establishment. We find ways to breath creativity into these institutions, maintaining a deep love and respect for the important missions that drive many of our schools and learning organizations. We commit ourselves to helping reveal how that shared and valued mission can be expanded and enhanced through creative and innovative endeavors.

10 Ideas for Designing an Engaging Classroom Space

Throughout the United States and other parts of the world, educators are preparing for the start of another school year.  Faculty meetings, curriculum planning, and preparations for the first days and weeks of class are well underway for many new and veteran educators. As part of this planning, teachers also choose (or decide by doing nothing) how to design the physical classroom space.  Many considerations inform their thoughts and decisions: personal expression; a desire to highlight important messages; the plan to create a place that inspires a certain ethos (perhaps the inspiration of messages and images that convey truth, beauty, and goodness; for example); and the desire to promote certain types of interactions with the teacher, one another, and the content.

Within certain reasonable boundaries, there are likely not right or wrong decisions; but there are decisions that do or do not align with the learning organization’s goals, mission, vision and values; as well as decisions that may or may not support an individual teacher’s personal identity, educational philosophy and goals for the learning environment.

If you are an educator, consider the following ten “design decisions” and how they do or do not align with your own goals and organization’s mission and core values.  These are not necessarily distinct categories.  Many classrooms, for example, blend them or even redesign the classroom space at different times of the school year.

1) Disciplinary Decor – This approach seeks to fill the room with visuals that focus upon the primary subject or discipline that learners study in the course.  It can range from posters and key quotes (focused on American history or physics, for example), or it can go so far as to create an entire Disney-esque theme room: a medieval library (history or English), King Arthur’s round table (seminary for English), a rain forest (science), an office for a newspaper or magazine (journalism / writing) a or an architectural firm (geometry).

2) Truth, Beauty & Goodness – This approach may continue a theme that focuses upon a specific discipline, but other aspects of the space also seek to demonstrate connections across disciplines, all with the broad focus of highlighting art, quotes, and other artifacts that direct students to that which is true, good, and beautiful; the threefold focus of one grounded in a liberal arts understanding of the world.

3) Teacher’s Interests, Credentials and/or Style – This is common in many of the middle and high school classes that I visit, as well as the offices of University professors.  It may include framed diplomas, family photos, and memorabilia related to the teacher’s favorite athletic teams, musical preferences, hobbies, and other interests.  It is a way for the teacher to share a bit of self with the class.  At the same time, some argue that this places the focus upon the teacher, and it does little to invite the students into an educational conversation.  It “brands” the room as Mr. or Mrs. _______’s room, but what does it do to make it a place of deep and meaningful learning?  Proponents argue that it serves an important purpose of building positive relationships with the students.

4) The Classroom Canvas – This approach leaves the classroom largely blank at the beginning of the year, but with some items that invite/guide the students in contributing elements to the visual experience of the room.  There might be a space for students to bring and post their favorite quotes about something related to the subject, or to engage in simple “show and tell” exercises where they bring an image of a relevant figure, or they help to find relevant art and other visuals in order to decorate the room.  I have seen this done where the teacher leaves the classroom canvas almost entirely open to student choice. I have seen others where the teacher provides parameter’s to thedecorating exercise.  It can be done all at once in the first week or two of the class, or it can be done gradually, having students add artifacts as they progress through different units in the course. One benefit of this approach is that the space becomes a sort of visual log or journal of the class learning journey.

5) Graphic Organizer’s and Learning Tools – This approach, like the disciplinary approach, also keeps the focus upon the area of study.  However, this one seeks to fill the walls with items that aid in student learning: timelines (filled out or that the class fills out as the year progresses), lists of key concepts and terms, taxonomies, compare and contrast charts (completed or filled out as the class progresses), tips for success (related to a critical skills in the class like research, writing an essay, reading for understanding, etc.), Venn Diagrams, maps, and any number of infographics that help students connect the dots in one or more aspects of the course. The teacher(s) and students then use and reference these items throughout the school year.

6) Connecting School-wide Goals and Values with the Individual Course – It is easy for students to see school as a collection of largely disconnected courses. In addition, students in many schools are not even aware of that the school likely has school-wide goals, things that all graduates are expected to know or be able to do upon graduation.  Instead, they just see school as passing a list of required classes.  To combat this and promote a more holistic understanding of the learning goals in a school, some teachers create visual reminders in their room.  They might post the school-wide goals, the mission statement, and possibly the core values.  They might also add quotes and images that help students to see how the specific course or content area fits into and supports these overarching school elements.  If enough teachers join in this effort, it can be a powerful means of developing a shared vocabulary, and a common vision.  It can even aid in cultivating a distinct educational ethos throughout the school.

7) The Student Hall of Fame – This approach highlight the people who came before the current students. It might include examples of previous student’s best work, what they are doing now, short quotes and words of advice written to the current students, and explanations of how & what they learned in the class helped them later in life.

8) Etch a Sketch – If you have used one of these toys, then you know it is a device that lets you draw something and then erase it quickly in order to draw something new.  This is the same concept behind the etch a sketch classroom, creating a room that is largely a blank slate. Instead, it is rich with whiteboards, interactive whiteboards, and other surfaces that allow the teacher(s) and students to brainstorm, draw, design, erase and start all over again the next day, week, unit, or month. In the digital age, where 1:1 environments are more common, some teachers leverage the devices for this part of the classroom experience, freeing up the walls for one of the other elements.  Still others like this approach because it is flexible, tactile, dynamic, and like The classroom canvas approach, students help to create the visual experience.

9) The Interactive Classroom – This approach may blend with any one of the others, but it seeks to cultivate space(s) and an experience that is multi-sensory and invites students to interact with the space/items. This might range from creating dedicated centers for different student activities to designing the room a bit like an interactive science museum or library: books and other technologies that students can borrow, unique items they can hold and manipulate, discipline-specific brain teasers…things that engage the mind and senses. It also allows the teachers to hide (in plain sight) artifacts and objects that they will use at later units in the course for object lessons, tools for labs and experiments, etc.

10) Inspiration & Encouragement – This room does not focus upon a specific theme or discipline as much as it focuses upon attributes of a successful learner.  This is the room with quotes, posters and other artifacts that encourage and inspire students to persevere, work hard, be a person of character and integrity, or to set high goals and strive for excellence. This might connect with any number of the previous approaches (especially the Hall of Fame, The School-Wide Goals focus, or the Disciplinary Room).

Ultimately, when it comes to setting up the physical space, the goal is to create a room that encourages and invites the students into deep and meaningful learning, and any of these approaches can help, including a blend of several of them.  Perhaps you have experienced or tried one or more of these. If so, please consider sharing your thoughts and experiences in a comment or by sending me a quick message.

What is Your Educational Creation vs Consumption Quotient?

Recently, I asked my kids to share a couple of personal goals for the summer.  One of the questions that I asked them was, “What would you like to create this summer?”  My daughter (eight years old) decided that she wanted to create dolls and learn how to design clothes for them. I handed her an iPad and she started researching different methods that others use to create dolls.  An hour or two later, she decided to start with a paper doll and a yarn doll.  We took a trip to the craft store, picked out our favorite colors of yarn, and headed back home for an afternoon of doll-making.

For the next two days, my daughter went almost everywhere carrying a yarn doll.  I asked her why she liked it so much and you can probably guess her answer.  “Because we made her, dad.  Other dolls are nice, but we didn’t make them.”  Yesterday, I came home from work and saw a thick stack of “clothing” that she designed for her new paper doll as well.  I enjoy watching my daughter play with dolls, but there is something really exciting about seeing her create the dolls herself and then play with them.  I couldn’t help but think about the parallels with my philosophy of education, one that values self-directed learning, projects, and creation.

This led to another conversation about her use of the iPad.  Using the example of the doll that she created, I explained that some apps on the iPad seem to be mainly consumption apps. They are like the dolls that you buy at the store.  There are also creation apps.  These allow you to create or design something for yourself.  Of course, not every app fits neatly in one of these two categories, and she was the first to point that out.  “What about apps where I practice things like math?”  “I suppose that makes a third group dedicated to practice apps,” I replied.  These are not carefully constructed categories but they communicate the general idea.  We then spent time talking about some of the “creation” apps, and I explained that I love seeing her spend time with the creation apps, apps that allow her to create stop motion movies, record video messages to her friend, create her own comic strips, write letters and stories, or design fictional magazine covers. “I love doing those things too, dad.”

There is an interesting part in the Judeo-Christian creation account:

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”  – Genesis 2:19

Note that this was not a consumption activity.  According to this account, one of humanity’s first “assignments” was a creation assignment.  The animals were not pre-named and then it was our job to memorize those names.  This was much more than rote memorization. It was to create names for the animals.  As a parent and an educator, I want to keep the spirit of that first assignment alive in a 21st century education.  Consumption is certainly an important part of life today.  We can’t live without it. Yet, the educational endeavor is not adequately equipping people for life in the constantly changing 21st century landscape unless it places a high priority upon students learning to grow and learn by tinkering, designing, building, planning, and creating.  One’s capacity to create is rapidly becoming one of the most universal currencies of the digital age.

Designing Learning Spaces that Cultivate Creation More than Consumption

Should educational institutions focus upon engaging students in consumer activities or producer activities?  Is it our goal that learners become excellent consumers or that they become skilled creators and producers while also being wise and critical consumers? If we want to refocus our efforts on creation, then how do we redesign the physical learning spaces to align with such a goal?  These are the exciting questions that continue to be asked in our “wild west era” of education, with promising models.

A consumer is one who uses products and services from a producer.  In the educational sense, we can think of a consumer as one who receives that which is provided by the instructor, educational software, or some other producer. Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the common 15th century use of the word “consumer” was used to indicate, “one who squanders or wastes.” What is a producer?  I love this definition that shows up when you Google “definition of producer“, “A person, company, or country that makes, grows, or supplies goods or commodities for sale.”  In light of Chris Anderson’s book, Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing, allow me to suggest that we remove “for sale” from the end of that definition.  That leaves us with a producer as one who “makes, grows, or supplies commodities.”

Few would argue that the goal of education should be to cultivate the art of squandering and wasting, but what about the more common use of the word “consumer”?  Is the educational enterprise providing a social good if it only cultivates critical consumers?  Given the changing nature of life and work in the contemporary world, empowering one to leverage creative capacities affords far more possibilities and opportunities. It only makes sense that one’s education entails cultivating knowledge and skill in the realm of consumer and producer, learning to be a wise and critical consumer while also developing competence and confidence in what Howard Gardner refers to as the “creating mind.” This refers to a way of thinking and a set of skills that is available to anyone.  It is the way of thinking that allows one to diverge, innovate, design, construct, compose, invent, originate, make, shape, plan, formulate, and produce.  It is the pinnacle of Bloom’s Taxonomy because it is argued that these verbs represent “higher order thinking skills.”  They are also verbs that empower one to effect change in oneself, others, and the world around them.

Of course, this is not new.  This is a point that Sir Ken Robinson makes in his TED Talk about how Schools Kill Creativity. Richard Florida argued it in his book about Rise of the Creative Class, and it is discussed in a myriad of texts that argue for important skills of the 21st century life (Whole New Mind, 5 Minds for the Future, etc.).  More contributions to this conversation continue to emerge. I’m especially intrigued by the maker movement gaining a growing voice in learning organizations.  Sylvia Martinez’s book, Invet to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom is a delightful and useful addition to the conversation, providing specific and practical ideas on how educators can bring a bit of the maker movement into school, inviting students to learning by doing.

However, if we truly want to transition to schools as places of creation and production as much or more than consumption, spaces make a difference.  How might we design spaces that encourage learning through creation?  How do those spaces look similar or different from more traditional classrooms?  For a few ideas, consider the following five resources (or suggestion more in the comment section).

The Education Design Showcase – When you get to this site, browse the slide show on the home page for a glimpse into new and emerging designs for learning spaces.  It doesn’t take long to begin imagining the possibilites.

Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration – This book tells the story (in words and pictures) of the Stanford D-School.  Now only does it provide interesting design ideas, but it also explains the depth of thought and intention that informs the design decisions.

Great Schools by Design (Center for Advancement of Architecture) – This site offers more insight into a variety of school designs, including short video case studies from different schools.  The snippet about The School of One is excellent.

The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching and Learning – This text provides practical examples of how design influences teaching and learning.  For the educator looking for next steps, this is a great resource.

Ten Innovative School Designs – You may not take practical next steps from this tour of ten amazing designs, but it certainly offers to inspire.