The ‘Broader Canvas’ of Design

For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve had Jack Schulze’s talk from the MIT Media Lab open in a browser tab. Today, I finally made the time to sit down and watch it. The wait was worth it.

Schulze is co-founder and principal at BERG and the 90-minute talk gives some of his thinking around where we are not and where we could be headed with the making of things.

For me, the light bulb turned on toward the end of the talk when Schulze said, “There’s something of a mythology in terms of the idea that utility is as valuable as it claims to be.”

While I’m not a designer, this certainly spoke to the tension I feel as an educator who calls for teachers to ask kids to do real, meaningful and authentic things while also insisting on the value of play for the sake of play.

In naming the mythology of utility, Schulze isn’t denying the place of utility. He’s more calling it out as not the only reason to build things, to design things and to make things. I like that. I like what it could say about authentic learning experiences existing in the same spaces as play for play’s sake. If we are going to have kids make things, perhaps they don’t need to show us their learning, but there might be a more human, more cultural reason for the making of things. Maybe the making is reason enough.

Later Schulze points out, “Culture is a broader canvas than the functional utility of delivering functions or responses to problems.” Again, this strikes the sweet spot of educational beliefs. The cycle present in many vintage educational landscapes is train for test to train for next level to train for test to train for next level to…well, you get the picture.

If educational institutions take the “broader canvas” of culture as our guides, then we need not be preparing students solely for what’s next. We can also be preparing students for the present moment and providing them with playgrounds (literal and figurative) for finding out who they want to be as they picture the cultures around them.

Schulze closes with what design and software can be, “Software and design can be there to increase the cultural value, or enjoyment, or delight, or engagement with something above and beyond, say, adding or refining functionality or improving the user experience.”

So can education.

Professional Learning for Everyone (No, Really)

Some Things

  • Our district has started moving to a 1:1 device-to-student/teacher ration in secondary schools.
  • Our elementary schools will also be getting a sizable influx of devices.
  • There are only 6 instructional technology coordinators (ITC) in the district.
  • Realizing our capacity and teachers’ and students’ needs weren’t quite aligned, we started to design a new system.

Since not long after I started at the district, this project has been my baby. A few weeks ago, it started hitting its stride.

The basic idea is to create a range of 1-2 hour online self-paced modules in our district MOODLE install where teachers, students (anyone, really) can log in and  work through their learning whenever they’d like.


Each module follows a simple structure:

Overview – This offers a description of the main ideas within the module, the driving objectives, and the essential questions.

Investigation – Here is a curated pathway for learning about your module’s topics complete with explanations, links and ideas for learning.

Application & Discussions – In this section, you’ll complete a specific activity related to the module topic that asks you to put your learning into action, and a link to posting and sharing your learning for deeper discussion.

Further Investigation – If the initial Investigation was dipping your toe in the learning, this section gives you a chance to dive in, explore things more deeply, and provide yourself with an archive of resources for shifting your practice.

Wherever possible, the application gives participants a choice of tasks that both speak to the learning of the module and remain open enough to fit participants’ needs.

Realizing that 1-2 hours only scratches the surface on many topics, the Further Investigation section holds all the resources we identified as valuable, but not necessary. The hope is that participants will follow their curiosity.


Anyone can look through a module. There’s no need to complete the application if you drop in and find what you were looking for, we’re happy you stopped by.

If you’re looking for something more, we’ve built that too. The fine folks in Professional Development have included module completion in the PD Course Listings. Participants can sign up to complete 4 modules (including application and discussion) for .5 hours of course/salary credit.

What’s more, any face-to-face course we teach has an accompanying, abbreviated module. This way, a teacher completing a course can answer a principal’s request for sharing what was learned in a faculty meeting can reply, “Sure, I’ll walk them through the module.”

Finally, modules de-centralize the knowledge. Whereas there might have been one of us in the office who was equipped to lead a training on classroom workflow or any other topic, modules mean we can all own the landscape of any course. It’s not a script, it’s a container, a bag of tricks.


When we started planning, we didn’t want these modules to be “another thing” for teachers. This made it important to align each module with other district instructional initiatives. Each connects with Tier 1 instructional practices, the teaching and learning cycle, and the newly-adopted Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.


Everyone is building these modules. It’s part of the beauty of starting from a basic structure. ITCs, curriculum coordinators, teacher librarians, classroom teachers, and contracted instructional designers have helped us bring 17 modules to life with the goal of having around 50 completed by the end of the school year.


When a module has been created by someone in the school district, that person remains the teacher within the course. They are notified when assignments and forum posts have been submitted, and jump in for conversation and comments.

When a contracted instructional designer has built the module, I fill the role of teacher.

Participants completing 4 modules for credit complete this form when they’ve finished their work, I confirm completion, and sign off on the work for OPD.


One piece that’s different for our MOODLE courses is the location of the discussions. While each module includes a discussion portion, those discussions all live in a single course here. This allows all curious folks interested in discussing a topic to find the forums in one place. It meant an interesting course architecture dilemma, but we’ve got it working.

Open to All

Perhaps a unique aspect of our MOODLE install is that anyone anywhere around the world with an Internet connection can sign up for a user account. Thus, anyone with an account, no matter their district affiliation can work through a module.

We also started the project with an eye on openness and sharing. Each module has been Creative Commons licensed for attribution, non-commercial sharing and uploaded to, the hub for sharing MOODLE courses. If you’ve got MOODLE, you can install these modules and tweak them to your edu-landscape.

Can’t Save ‘Em All

I’m writing this on an airplane. I am on the aisle and looking at the laptop screens of the two fellows across the aisle from me.

They are making hideous PowerPoint presentations that include terms like, “innovation,” “forward- thinking,” and “industry-leading.”

I want to lean across the aisle, tap on their shoulders, and suggest they resist the urge to ask each slide to shoulder a graduate thesis worth of text, eliminate each shaded box, and destroy the 8-stage flow charts.

I want this because I am envisioning their audiences, locked into uncomfortable chairs in poorly-ventilated rooms while slides akin to the videos they showed that poor kid in the latter season of Lost flash on the screens before them.

I’m not.

I’m resisting.

You can’t save ’em all.

Image via Stephanie Booth

84/365 Collaboration Requires (formal) Space

Collaboration, as anyone talking about the evolution of education will tell you, is a good thing. Some will argue collaboration to be a 21st century skill as though civilization would have had any chance at progressing to this point had people not been collaborating for various virtuous and nefarious purposes up to this point.

As we have stumbled upon collaboration again, perhaps we could be more purposeful in its execution.

Nary a school leader will voice opposition to the adoption of a collaborative mindset in their space. Indeed, ask a principal if they want their teachers to be collaborating with one another and you’re unlikely to find any who say no. You are equally likely to hear multitudinous reasons why it’s not happening. Chief among these is some variation on, “Well, I’ve done my best to encourage collaboration among my staff, but they don’t seem to want to collaborate with one another or to take the time to collaborate.”

This is not surprising.

In the schools we need, we must not only encourage collaboration, we must make space for it.

Those same principals who lament the lack of faculty interest in collaboration are rarely mindful of the space they’ve created for such culture shift in their schools.

Proclamation of a collaborative spirit must be accompanied by both physical and temporal space for the implementation of that spirit.

To a principal it can appear that their encouragement has fallen on deaf ears. To teachers, this is often not the case. They have heard the calls for working together to design, execute, and refine new teaching practices, but they are left wondering what, if anything, they can let go to make space for such efforts.

Without the leadership and permission of ending certain practices, then principals’ encouragement to begin collaborating will be heard as asking to do more with less.

To foster collaborative spaces, schools must consider re-designing schedules in ways that allow the breathing room for teachers to work together without the pressure to complete other prescribed tasks. In some cases, this will mean keeping time on the schedule clear of administrative minutiae. In others it will mean moving to privilege teacher time to remove unofficial encroachments on things like duty-free preps or lunch periods.

If collaborative time is to be privileged within a school, then it must be prioritized clearly and without conditions in a school’s schedule.

Similarly, collaborative physical spaces must be designated within schools. These are spaces where teachers know they can go to sit alongside their peers, share ideas, and gain helpful feedback on what they are creating. These are spaces where school’s resources are aggregated, shared, and celebrated to encourage their examination and remixing by anyone interested. For some, this may sound like a school library. For others, it might be a faculty lounge. For many, it may sound like no space that yet exists within their schools. For all, they should be spaces that help to serve as a physical hub of collaboration.

A final space necessary for collaboration is actually that which principals try to create before or in spite of these formal temporal and physical spaces. They hope that some sort of amorphous collaborative space will happen within schools and school days. Such collaborative seepage will happen, but it will not happen if collaboration is not privileged beyond the messaging of a school.

Professing a collaborative atmosphere is one thing. Having a collaborative atmosphere requires the ability to point to the times and spaces where collaboration has been given formal space to grow and leak into the culture of a school.

11/365 Please Save the Kittens

My semester starts this morning, and I’m reminded of a begging pleading feeling. It’s dark and ominous, and I fear it will become unbearable once I step inside the classroom.

Please, won’t you help me save kittens from Edward Tufte?

If there’s a professor in your life, approach him or her gently today – perhaps a soft touch on the shoulder – ask them to step away from their screen for a moment, get down on your knees, and begin pleading that they reconsider the laser transitions, the flash in appearances, the gaudy color schemes. Appeal to their humanity to stop using PowerPoint.

There’s little I can do this semester to avoid the immense blocks of text, the promises of “You don’t need to copy this down; I’ll email it to you after class” (as though that somehow improves my quality of life). No, no it does not. All the emailing means is the bloated files of dubious origin will sit and fester in my inbox or dropbox on the marginal chance I might need to download them again to refer to a point that will no doubt be repeated in a future PowerPoint.

It is too late for me, dear readers. But, perhaps, if you approach an academic with a calm voice and kind eyes, you might save a kitten from Edward Tufte’s vengeful wrath.

Things I Know 330 of 365: This is what I mean when I talk about authentic learning

The closer you stay to emotional authenticity and people, character authenticity, the less you can go wrong. That’s how I feel now, no matter what you’re doing.

– David O. Russell

I met my friend Andrew Sturm a few months ago at ReImagine:Ed. He’s about one of the most kind, thoughtful and creative people you could hope to meet. Among his other duties, Andrew was at Re:Ed to provoke by sharing his work with 5750 Dallas.

5750 Dallas is so named because there were 5750 men, women, and children who were homeless in Dallas at last count. Their goal is to reduce that number while guided by research that supports the idea that the best way to get people off the street is to give them a home and training rather than training toward a home. A model guiding by the organization Housing First.

Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 5750 took to the streets populating public spaces with plywood cut-outs in the shape of homeless people holding cardboard signs with Dr. King’s words on them.

The signs also included things like:

A frozen yogurt store sells $250,000 worth of product every month. That could buy 500,000 meals for the homeless.


For what you spent on your iPod and music collection, you could buy 598 pairs of shoes for those in need.


On Super Bowl ticket gives you a seat for 4 hours. That money could give a homeless person a bed for two years.

The 5750 site has more information on the installation and accompanying next steps they organized for those moved to act.

This is amazing work that combines art, math, social sciences, civics, and English.

Why aren’t projects like this starting in schools? The creativity is there, the knowledge and resources are there. And I’ve  a hunch Sturm and everyone associated with 5750 Dallas would have been happy to work with teachers and students if they’d been approached.

These are lessons and unit plans waiting to be written. The algebra, research, persuasion and design skills here are all nestled snugly in the Common Core (though you wouldn’t worry about that if you were in Texas).

I’m blown away by the simplicity, beauty, and impact of the work of 5750 Dallas. Since I met Andrew, I’ve shared the installation with a few dozen people.

Think about it this way, what would students who designed and executed a project like 5750 Dallas know and be able to do when they were done? What would they feel compelled to do next? How long would that learning last?

Things I Know 291 of 365: Here are my principles for designing a learning organization

As part of my final learning task for one of my courses, I must draft my principles for building a learning organization. Mine are:

  • Processes for organizational review must be explicit and ongoing.
  • Leadership and accountability are shared at and across all levels.
  • Learning must be collaborative
  • The physical and temporal learning spaces must be adaptive.
  • All members are asked to complete quality work.

What do you think? How would learning of adults and children look in such a space?

Things I Know 272 of 365: Sketching a school brought clarity of practice

Architecture aims at eternity.

– Christopher Wren

Tonight, in preparation for our next learning task, the class was asked to think about the physical design of a school or learning organization.

What would it look like?

On the heals of drafting our theories of learning and how we might design for difference, this learning tasks makes sense.

It’s also right up the alley of thought I’ve been strolling down recently. Design has been on my brain.

Interestingly, when the professor gave us time to play and told us to see what we could come up with in sketching out what our schools would look like, I had no previous experience to draw from.

I’ve spent the last 8 years re-tooling, rearranging and rethinking classroom design. For the last 6, I’ve been thinking heavily about the systems, structures and pedagogy that work best to the good of the children and adults in schools.

If you asked me what I thought it would look like to see teachers and students interacting in these environments, I’d rattle off words like caring, collaborative, curious, reflective. Then I’d pepper it with examples from my own experiences.

The thing I haven’t done, that I hadn’t done until tonight, is sit down and sketch out what the physical structure of that place might be.

Part of that is likely tied to the fact that those in schools rarely get input into the spaces in which they teach and learn. Often, it’s a rehabilitated building or one that’s been around for decades. To design the physical space is a rarity.

I doodled for a bit tonight, playing with shapes and trying to piece together the structures I’m drawn to and where my students have told me they learn best.

More than anything, I wanted a set of LEGOs. The paper didn’t do what I wanted it to. I needed something bigger and more malleable.

Just before time was called, my group asked me to piece all of our sketches together for a composite final product. You can see it below.

What I said to me team, and what is still true, was that this space is a place I’d both want to teach in and send my kids to.

And that’s just one the first try.

I wonder what would happen if teachers took five minutes to doodle their ideal teaching spaces and then worked to teach as though they were in those spaces. I wonder what would shift. I wonder how interactions and expectations of the students would change.

I wonder what they would sketch with their practice.

Things I Know 267 of 365: I got some advice on designing for difference

Last week, I was working on an assignment that asked me to define difference as it related to educational design. From there, I needed to develop my principles of school design. It seemed like the perfect chance to draw on the wisdom of friends, so I sent out an e-mail to some designers I know with the question from my assignment:

What counts, or should count, as a “learning difference” in the organization of learning environments?

The paper ran long, and some of the responses came back after I’d shaped my draft, so I didn’t get to explicitly use their responses. They took the time to craft their responses, though, and I wanted to honor that by sharing them here. My text on the question is at the bottom.

I can’t help but lean towards a student (at the scale of one) having the proactive ability to discern useful resources / flexibility found within a given learning environment, rather than just to assume that clarity will be given to them. Thus, how we set up a student to seek such resources / clues (within a test, within a project, within a team, within a community, etc) may therefore suggest a way to measure (or design for) differences.

– Christian Long

We are going to have an interesting conversation on Thursday at the Goldberg Center on “alternative assignments” for students.  that is, rather than a teacher saying “term paper due on Friday,” the students can devise their own ways to demonstrate their knowledge (we will have one example on Thursday of a student who demonstrated his knowledge by choreographing and performing an interpretive ice dance of a novel he had read…)  I can recall a student once who said to me “rather than an exam, I would much prefer to give a speech to demonstrate what I know.”  I’ve often thought that would be an intriguing way for students to own their learning.

– David Staley

What if one of the first thing a learner did was to design how they would be measured and configure their learning experience to match that and then have that be a part of some sort of public “learning identity” allowing their differences to both set up the parameters for their education and encourage peers to understand each other and connect to one another because of their differences?

e.g. I see from Sally’s profile that she is so good at advanced math that she was able to test out and focus on French history – I wonder if she would consider tutoring me in math and whether we could team up on our French Revolution project?

– Andrew Sturm

Listing the learning differences for which we are accounting, we risk inadvertently neglecting or denying a possible impact of a difference. In thinking about possible differences, it is helpful to appropriate Rosabeth Kanter’s (1993) understanding of difference from “A Tale of ‘O’” in which she defines the normative culture as those who are found in large numbers and those who are different as “the people who are scarce.” Different learning tasks create shifts in populations. In a classroom where students are expected to remain at their desks, a student in a wheelchair could be considered part of the normative culture, while the hyperactive child who squirms and wiggles in his seat looking for any reason to move would appear different. This same group of students on a soccer field during a P.E. class shifts the norms of expected behavior in such a way that the former student now appears different while the latter student becomes normative. Context must be considered when considering the organization of learning.

Non-physical differences can also impact student learning. Personal perception as affected by the stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) or a fixed theory of learning (Dweck, 2000) shift student performance on learning tasks. Unlike those differences described above, these internal differences are not easily perceived, nor should they be presumed in students belonging to one group or another. All possible differences should be counted a differences affecting learning in organizing learning environments. This means subscribing to David Rose’s (2011) rejection of the notion of the standard child, and acceptance of variability as universal.

– me

Things I Know 252 of 365: How we shape learning shapes learning

I’ve been thinking about shape a lot lately. Specifically, how the way we shape things shapes how we shape thoughts. I know I’m not the only one to have considered this, but I’m the only one in my head to be considering it, so I’m going with it.

Friday, I visited an elementary school to observe and report.

I saw first, second, fourth and fifth grade classrooms.

In working toward a goal for a learning task in one of my classes, I noted the arrangement of each of the classrooms. My sketches weren’t perfect, but they reflected the general arrangement of each room.

In first grade, there were groupings of five or six tables, there was a carpet by a dry erase board. A teacher desk suffocated beneath papers. A kidney-shaped and a circular table both hinted at where the students might work to complete a collaborative task or work together with the teacher’s help. When I walked in, students were everywhere. Some were at their desks completing math work. Some were reading. Others were working together on the ground to paint what looked like it was the makings of a tree trunk. At one point, students transitioned from their myriad tasks to a whole-class reminder of the previous day’s learning and then community time at the carpet with the teacher.

The second grade class had even more of the frenetic energy you’d hope to see in a place where people are learning. The class’s co-teachers were across the room from one another working with small groups of students in rotation while the other students worked their way through stations where they read, counted using number lines, colored, completed their poetry journals and fitted blocks together to form vocabulary words. Just when I thought I’d gotten a handle where everyone was, they slid seamlessly to another station.

The portion of fourth grade I observed had fewer stations, but the co-teachers worked together to move student learning. One sat at a kidney-shaped table with a small group while the larger class worked on an assignment in organizations ranging from 1 to 6. The task involved manipulatives and the students each used them to find answers to the problems they were addressing and explain their answers to group members who weren’t seeing their logic. Though focused on one task, the room was still abuzz with difference.

Fifth grade took a turn. Groupings of desks changed from a standard of 4-5 to 3-4. The room had a clear front and back. The teacher was at the front. Her desk was at the back. The students were facing her. Focused on a singular task, student shared their answers and the teacher asked if the class thought those answers were correct.

I’ve only got a sampling of four classrooms, but I think I can see where this is going. All I need do is examine the learning spaces I head to throughout the week to see the natural end of this progression.

Each class is a variation on a theme. Scaled up and down according to the room and how many people we need fit inside it. The these horseshoes are where we learn about reforming how students learn. They are where we read about and discuss the importance of collaboration and choice. In these spaces, we examine student- versus teacher-centered practices and question why it is so difficult to move teachers’ practices to the former.

Some professors have attempted to break the space against itself and encouraged group work and movement. But the spaces weren’t meant for this. They don’t invite creative uses.

I looked at the collection of how teachers were using the spaces in the schools I’ve visited this year and noticed a trend.

The learning was different. The lessons were different. The voices and sizes were different. But the spaces moved toward one singular design.

I know where this leads my thinking, and I wonder what kind of thinkers, creators and citizens these spaces encourage and invite. No matter our professed values, are we building spaces that ask students to question, build and move forward?