The Classroom I want to Visit (and someday have)

You walk in and are immediately taken by the number of students either focused and working independently (often with ear buds in) or quietly collaborating. The teacher is difficult to find at first but then you find her, huddled around a whiteboard working out a few different ways to approach a problem involving polynomial equations. The furniture is easy to move and comfortable. Small tables for small groups, single desks scattered around the room, with oversized chairs scattered around as well. The walls are neutral colors, not the standard white that bounces fluorescent light almost as well as a mirror. As you look around a brief, friendly, argument erupts in the corner over why long division of polynomials is more pure than synthetic division. The teacher then stands up, walks around the room checking on students, snapping pictures of student work with her iPad. She then projects some mistakes she found students had done and the class discusses the thinking that led to them. There are rugs, art on the walls, a laptop cart in the corner, and a projector screen towards the front (or what you assume is the front) of the room.

I read an article recently called “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks”. This got me thinking, again, about learning environments. This topic sparks a few questions in my mind:

  • What are environments that I prefer to learn in?
  • What makes an environment conducive to learning?
  • How do you develop an environment that can be easily transitioned from independent work to collaborative work to whole class work and everything in between?
  • How much is my classroom layout getting in the way of learning?

To at least partially answer these questions I don’t think Starbucks is a bad model, in some respects, for what a great learning environment looks like. Obviously Starbucks is more conducive to independent learning, but I like some of the big ideas.

Learning environments should be comfortable

I can see that if you wanted kids to avoid falling asleep you would make the seating uncomfortable. I’d rather make the classwork engaging enough that students don’t fall asleep. I’m not saying we should all work in bean bag chairs. I’d hate doing real work in a bean bag chair. But I’m not everybody and I don’t hate the idea of having options like that for students that do prefer to work in the type of seating.

And comfortable learning environments go beyond just the furniture. Rugs, art, music, lighting, and the teacher’s attitude all contribute significantly to the environment.

Learning environments should be flexible

As technology changes the way content is delivered and the way that students interact with content, the classroom should change. The amount of time a teacher spends lecturing to the entire class should probably be decreasing. This means that the work done by students in class will be more fractured. Some students may need to watch instructional videos. Some may be writing blog posts. Some may be working on a group project. Some may be using computer graphing technology. The teacher may need to work with some students that have been absent. The teacher may need to give a lecture to the entire class.

This is the future of learning. The class setup needs to support this.

Learning environments should be safe

I don’t mean that students shouldn’t feel like someone is going to physically hurt them, although that is obviously true. I’m saying that students shouldn’t walk in and feel like they’re in a place where mistakes are not valued, their opinion is not wanted or their thoughts are better kept to themselves. This doesn’t have much to do with a “Starbucks classroom”, but I thought it worth noting.

In all seriousness, I want to visit a classroom that has these characteristics, so if you teach in Michigan and have a classroom environment similar to the one I described, then I’d love to observe a lesson!

Any other thoughts on classroom environment? Anything I missed? Drop a comment below!

Synthesis of My Design Process

The purpose of this post is to give you a summary of my design process throughout the last few months, and to give you an idea of how what I’ve learned has and will impact my teaching in the future.

The Problem

The problem I was trying to address over the last few months was that teachers are consistently utilizing evenings and weekends during the school year to do school work. The problem with this is that teachers generally prioritize grading and planning (as they probably should) and things that get pushed off are innovating, reflecting, learning new technologies, developing a strong professional learning network, and collaboration. These are all things we want our teachers to be constantly learning, not just when they have a bit of free time on summer break. I’d encourage you to read what I’ve gained from this experience and how I decided to “solve” this problem.


The first phase of the design process is gaining empathy for your users. My “users” are educators, but I found out early on that there are other people (namely administrators, legislators, the general public) that affect how much time teachers have. To gain empathy for these different groups I sent a survey out to educators on twitter and in my district. This, and conversations I had with my colleagues, gave me a better idea of how bad the problem was. It also gave me hints about where I might find solutions. The results of the survey can be seen at this link.

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The readings I did for this phase as well as this activity gave me an understanding of how important empathy is to the design process. We can all find products that were designed without gaining a full understanding of the users they were targeting. Understanding your users, their perspectives, needs, shortcomings, and lives lays the foundation for and is intertwined in the following phases of the design process.


The five why'sThe define phase of design was probably my most insightful phase. As a teacher I suspected a lot of the things I learned from the empathy phase. However the define phase allowed me to get to the root of the problem and to develop a problem statement. It moved me from “Teachers don’t have enough time” to “teachers don’t have enough time because of _____________.” Once you’ve identified the “blank” you can work towards solving the problem at a more fundamental level.

I found that although many people might think teachers are short on time because of lot’s of papers to grade or writing lesson plans, those are symptoms of a more general problem. That is that the people that make decisions about the fundamental structure of a teacher’s work life (legislators, voters, and even administrators) feel that giving teachers more time in a work day to work would not be beneficial. This is primarily because that means a reduction in contact time with students. Although I (and many others I presume) would contend that more contact time is not always in the students’ best interest, it’s a tough argument to get across to people who are not educated in how people learn. Even if giving teachers more time to collaborate and innovate reduces contact time with students, the time they do have with students will likely be of higher quality. In fact, some of the most highly regarded education systems have significantly less compulsory hours than the United States.

IdeaIncubation journal noteste

I think this phase of the design process is how most people think designers spend most of their time. The purpose of this phase is to develop as many ideas for your product as possible. I did things like track all my ideas related to my problem for a week (although I’ve continued doing this), had a brainstorming session in which I explored the power of incubation, and had a collaborative brainstorming session.

From this phase came a lot of ideas (obviously), but also a couple realizations. One of the first realizations I had was that messaging is a significant problem in our profession. This led me to tailor some of my ideas towards changing how the general public understands the life of an educator. I also realized how important leadership is to the life of a teacher. For instance, many teachers are frustrated with meetings or professional development that waste their time. Constantly changing initiatives (or trying too many at one time) is another cause of frustration for teachers. The turnover rate of administrators also makes it harder for teachers to invest time in initiatives because they fear in a year or two all the time they spent will be for nothing. Having a quality administrator that respects teachers’ needs for time (or at least not wasted time) can make the time teachers do have more worthwhile.

My favorite aspect of this phase was that diversity of ideas was valued. I needed to develop a long list of (sometimes off the wall) ideas because this makes it easier to find surprising connections and novel solutions. We are rarely encouraged (or given the time and space) to develop lot’s of diverse ideas to problems, especially in education.


In a lab activity I was given the opportunity to build a prototype representing the meaning of life. This allowed me to explore a concrete representation of a very abstract concept. I found a lot of value in conceptualizing a product and actually seeing the creation through to the end. Read more about this lab activity here.


This is the phase where ideas start to become a reality. This was an exciting phase because I spent so much time in the early phases trying to decide which direction to take for my solution(s). In this phase I was actually able to put together a “product” and put my ideas into reality. I settled on pushing forward with a couple ideas. First I wanted to develop a list of resources that could help teachers save time now. This stemmed from conversations in my brainstorming session in which we discussed the fundamental problem (the general public doesn’t understand education very well) and how changing the public perception, if possible at all, would take a long time. Under that assumption I realized I’d need a solution that could help teachers “tomorrow”.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.03.29 PMThe second solution came from an attempt to address the messaging problem mentioned earlier. I decided to compile some infographics that I would share widely to help the general public understand how much teachers work outside of school, why that hurts students, and the good that can come from giving teachers more time. One problem layered within the messaging problem is that the attention span of many people seems limited. To address this I wanted to get my message across in the most concise, visually appealing method possible (probably not a bad idea in general I suppose). Infographics give me a medium that does both of those things.

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In this phase I put my prototypes out for feedback. There are different ways to test a prototype but I settled on a focus group session with a few of my colleagues. From this I gained valuable feedback on my strengths and weaknesses, what could be deleted, and what could be added to improve my prototypes. Part of this phase was a project in which I created a video that explained how to accomplish the testing phase effectively in the context of education.

This phase is vital because, although it can be hard to put your ideas out there for feedback, without it it’s difficult to see the cracks in them. I should also note that the success of this phase hinges on being well prepared for the testing session. I gained valuable insights from having multiple sets of eyes on my prototypes and they evolved accordingly.


If you’ve made it this far in the post then I’d like to leave you with few thoughts. Design thinking is a powerful mindset for solving problems. I hope that from the above summary and my end products you can see the power in the process. If that alone doesn’t convince you then check out some of my classmates work here and here. The power in this process is that you don’t (or shouldn’t) start with any assumptions about your users. You start open-minded, simply looking to gain an understanding for the people your decisions will affect. Too often, especially in education, we assume we completely understand our users’ experiences (consider students, teachers, support staff, etc.). Once you get a better understanding for your users then you can launch into a systematic problem solving process that doesn’t jump to quick solutions, is reflective, iterative, and above all user-focused. I think if more  of the “solutions” we came up with in education stemmed from the design thinking process then they wouldn’t exist or they’d be in a much more refined form.

A final thought

Every educator is a designer. Every one of us is frequently presented with problems that require creative solutions. I think the power in the design thinking mindset is that the solutions we come up with are more likely to be empathetic, developed collaboratively, innovative, refined, and effective in the long term. I plan to use the designers mindset frequently in the future, especially in the context of exceptionally difficult problems.

The Testing Phase of Design – Education Edition

In my current grad class at Michigan State, Learning Technology through Design, I was asked to create a video describing the testing phase of the design process, especially in regards to how it applies to education (and my problem of practice). The testing phase is important because, as I like to think of it, it’s like a soft opening for your solution(s). It gives you an opportunity to get feedback on your big ideas and designs. This feedback loop will then drive future iterations of your prototypes to something polished and worthy of being fully implemented. The video below describes the testing method I used to test my prototypes and also explains why I think this phase is so important in education.

Reflection on my Brainstorming Session

For this assignment in my Learning Technology through Design course I had to do a brainstorming session on my problem of practice, the lack of time in education. I did this with one of my colleagues one day after school. It didn’t take us long to bump into the problems I’d been dealing with for some time. After I caught him up speed on where I was at with the problem we began jotting down some ideas on a whiteboard. Below are a few images of the thoughts we recorded. We ran into two major problems. The first is the problem of culture. We currently don’t have a culture that really respects the teaching profession. He seemed convinced that this was a problem not worth tackling because who can really change society by themselves. Neither one of us is in any  position to give an “I have a Dream speech” any time soon. Although I’m less pessimistic about this path, he does make a fair point. The second was that teachers, although they may want more time, are unlikely to want to make significant changes to the current schedule. For instance, one solution we came up with was to shorten summer break, maintain the number of contact time with students, and free up more time on a typical school day for planning, collaborating, etc. This way teachers would bring less work home during the busy parts of the school year and would have more time to innovate. He pointed out, and rightfully so, that many teachers really like their summers off. They like that long break. Now I might contend that if the school year was less stressful and we felt like society and the legislature respect our opinions and our work that we might not need 3 months to recover from the school year.

In my next post I’ll lay out what I gained from this ideate module and give some idea as to what solutions might be the most feasible.

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Incubation Journal Reflection

For this project in my current grad class, Learning Technology through Design, I was asked to keep an incubation journal for a week and jot down ideas related to my problem of practice as they came to me. Below is an image of the list I generated. I wanted to reflect on a few things that I noticed while maintaining this journal. I always have a running list of ideas (well a notebook in Evernote) and so that wasn’t really new to me. What was new was the focused aspect of this journal. I had never kept an idea journal for a specific topic before. I liked this and I think I will use it for major problems that come up in the future. It’s a space dedicated to all the good, bad, and crazy ideas related to your problem. It’s valuable because not only do you generate a lot of ideas, it’s a space where they can really flow as there are no wrong answers or criticism. This allowed me to come up with a wide variety of ideas and solutions to my problem. Maintaining my notebook of miscellaneous ideas is valuable, but I’m almost always working on a couple problems at any given time. I see value in keeping idea lists specific to each individual problem.  As you can see below, some of my ideas and solutions to this problem are probably more feasible than others. Incubation journal notes

Think, Write, Incubate, Think, Write, Incubate, Think, Write, ….

The purpose of this activity in my Design Thinking in Educational Technology course is recognize the value in taking time to step back from a problem, give yourself a break (by going for a walk, a drive, or some other low stress activity), and then coming back to the problem. You can seem the outlining I did prior to the incubation period in this image. I chose to write it because I like the freedom of writing on paper. Please also forgive the poor penmanship. A lot of the things I highlight were thoughts I didn’t necessarily develop tonight but were developed over previous weeks.

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OMG! It’s not a Parabola!

For this assignment in my current grad class (Learning Technology through Design) I’ve been asked to explore a problem that was solved by completely redefining the original problem. For some reason I struggled with finding an example for this project. Then, like a sack of bricks, it hit me. One of my favorite youtube channels is Vi Hart’s channel. In the video below she does everything from give math teachers a gut check to making beautiful math art. But the thing that stood out to me had to do with parabolas. She rants about how math teachers spend so much time on parabolas in class and all the different things you could be thinking about while your teachers drones on about them. During this rant she mentions that we often say that projectile motion is parabolic. While for the objects path that we see on earth it can be modeled by a parabola, since the earth is a sphere and gravity is pulling on the object the path is really a piece of an ellipse. Check out the diagrams I made for a visual. (And physics people go easy on me. These obviously aren’t to scale and are only to give a visual that might help solidify the point.)

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Getting to the Heart of the Problem

For my current grad class (Learning Technology through Design) I’m working towards solutions for the problem of the lack of time in education. Over the last couple weeks I’ve spent some time trying to get at the root causes of the problem (you can see some of the techniques I used here). Below is a problem statement that lays out the main causes as well as possible pathways to solutions.
The problem I’m working to solve is that most educators, at all grade levels and subject areas, don’t feel like they have enough time and take hours and hours of work home each week. The root cause of this problem is that there is an outside pressure to increase the contact time teachers have with their students. The problem with this is that it is often done without increasing prep time or collaboration time for educators. In other words, higher expectations and more time commitments in the same time constraints they had before. Teachers need more time in the context of a school day to work on grading, planning, researching creative practices, and reflecting because many good teachers burn out and leave the field in the first five years of teaching. (Did I mention how many teachers are often taking grad classes on top of the normal demands of teaching?) The ones that don’t leave often sacrifice personal time and time with their families for their job.
Broadly speaking I think teaching should be viewed as a creative endeavor. Being creative, planning innovative lessons, and reflecting on those lessons takes time. This means that if we don’t find ways to give teachers time to do the things mentioned above they won’t have the space or motivation to create and it will result in poor learning outcomes for students.
The result of some of my research has lead me to believe that solutions to this problem will vary widely. Almost every teacher has a slightly different perspective or need and this means a menu of solutions should be developed. Some ideas I’m currently pursuing relate to educating the public on the demands educators face and their impact on students, how technology can help free up more time, and how major restructuring of the school day or year could reduce the day to day time pressure put on teachers.

Sniglets: Playing with Words

For my most recent mini-project in my current grad class (Learning Technology through Design) I was asked to come up with a few sniglets. You can read about them in great detail here, but essentially the idea is that you come up with a word for a moment or thing that doesn’t have one yet. Below are the three sniglets I came up with.

Instafasebake (In sta face bake) – adj. This is what happens when you open the preheated oven, bend down too soon to get something out or put something in, and your face gets blasted with a heat that is well over 300 degrees.

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Getting to the Root of the Problem

The purpose of this portion of my Problem of Practice project (the lack of time in education) in my current grad class (Learning Technology through Design) is to try to get to the root cause(s) of the problem. Often times when we explore problems beyond their surface characteristics we learn that this (the surface problem) is really about that (a cause not easily seen). To get closer to the root cause of my problem I did a few activities that I have inserted below.

The five why's

The “Five Whys” Activity

The first activity I did is called “The Five Whys”. The process is to start with your problem and ask why (roughly) five times and see where it leads you. For me it lead me to understand that maybe our problem with a lack of time in education is driven by the fact that the general public doesn’t fully understand how to best educate children and how to best support teachers. I then thought that, although I’m not to this phase yet, an approach to solving this problem may be found in better educating the general public on education.

Why how Ladder

The “Why-How Ladder”

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