As a teacher, participating in this type of research [Design based] gave me the opportunity to work toward solving challenging pedagogical issues in my classroom with collaborators who were experts in the field; it was fantastic professional development for me. As a researcher, I get to see what happens when a promising practice is put into action in a particular context. Everyone wins – students, teachers, and researchers.  -Sarah Hunt-Barron

Last night the Literacy Research Association sponsored their sixth netcast. We focused on formative research and how this translates to the classroom. Two themes kept reoccurring throughout the talk around new metaphors for education.

  • In order to empower teachers we need to consider teaching more of an engineering career.
  • We also using the principles of design thinking, need to rethink the concept of rigor in research.

This new mindset would help transform research and professional development.

Teaching as Engineering Science.

Formative, or design based research does not begin with a question. Instead you start with a goal in mind. Then you develop learning activities, grounded in literature to reach this goal. As you begin the work you take note of factors that enhance and inhibit the goal and enter into a process of iteration. Basically it boils down to, “How can we design something and what can we learn from designing it?”

Education in terms of practice and research benefit when we draw on engineering and a design metaphor. We need to create situations for students to design their won learning and engage in MakerEd. We need to think of our own practices as teachers in terms of a constant iterative practice based on reflection and a goal for the greater good.

Rigor or Vigor?

The panelists also held a wonderful discussion on what should count as rigor in educational research. They discussed the amount of data analysis necessary to do formative experiments well. It involved a constant examination of quantiative and qualitative factors through numerous design cycles. Just like engineers teachers and researchers need to build things and change what does not work.

I found myself on a train during the show so spent more time on Twitter as wifi on Amtrak did not allow me to watch the live. I brought up the idea that maybe rigor does not work as a modifier for research. After all rigor means to be stiff. That does not seem to share principles with iterative design.

Jeremy Lenzi shared a wonderful idea with me. Maybe we need research with vigor and not rigor.

Vigor, mean to life, to be lively, anyone who has spent time doing classroom research knows fidelity can be out of reach beacuse we are talking about lively spaces. The panelists argued that the greater good and the pedagogical goal should drive research. Sounds more like vigor than rigor to me.

Professional Development and Formative Design

Just before the show I also participated in the weekly #edchat on Twitter. We all discussed ways to improve training teachers get once they work in the field. I see many parallels to the panelists talk in terms of improving education through high quality professional development.

Teachers need to design their own professional development. They shoudl create this design cycle around a pedagogical goal. Then over the course of their “learning cycles” teachers can use a process to see whta works to reach that goal and change what is not working.

The goals can from many places. Teachers might have to develop student learning objectives for their evaluation systems. Maybe the teacher and  her building administrator work together to  develop goals after formal observations. Finally teachers might just choose a goal such as improving internet comprehension and seek out opportunities to learn about pedagogy rooted in research.

The design cycle works for professional development. Teachers just need to build iterative design and reflective teaching into everyday practice.

Professional Development Built on Design Thinking

When selecting professional development to attent teachers should make sure opportunities to make, create, break, and iterate are included. There is no need for districts to spend thousands of dollars to see speakers. We have YouTube for that.

Spires & Young (2012)
Spires & Young (2012)

Formal professional development should revolve around the design cycle. For example at the New Literacies Institute we build the class around inquiry. Background knowledge is taught before the conference through learning modules. At the conference itself teachers choose a pedagogical goal. Next researchers work with teachers to  identify digital texts and tools that align to that goal. Using these resources participants  create learning activities that should enhance the goal. Finally they bring the project back to the classroom and iterate.


Design thinking has reshaped my vision of education. Every aspect from teacher preperation, to curriculum, professional development, and research needs new models and metaphors. We need to consider design thinking as a guiding principle, an overarching theoretical perspective. As an end result the act of iterative teaching and reflective practice  will then get ensconced in every classroom at every level.

Many important ideas have bounced around in my head, my writings, and my worlds during the reclaim open initiative.

For those who do not know reclaim open movement (learn more here) seeks to harness the internet so learning occurs as networked events across innovative spaces. When I look across all the conversations happening around reclaim open I coalesce around one common thread: Design Thinking.

Sure open learning involves innovative use of technologies, and  open learning requires a vision  that emphasizes knowledge as  good for the community and not a good to be commidified. Yet after  listening to leaders in the field  I have realized the  transformative power of open learning emerges from  distributed design thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

I am new to this line of inquiry but my nascent reading has pointed me to a history of design thinking that emerged in the fields of architecture and manufacturing. Over time cognitive scientists have (re)desgined many of the ideas. When I translate design thinking into education I borrow heavily from John Chris Jones who put an emphasis on the construct of time:

The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time. Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.

Time. This draws me to the idea of education. In the past we have put so much emphasis on measuring and teaching the past. All this discussion of so-called 21 century skills has made me realize we need to start teaching and assessing for future learning. We need our students discovering solutions to  problems we have yet to realize by using technology that does not exiss. In essence we need to teach a generation of designers.

Design for Teaching

A quick google search as this idea coalesced for me revealed I am not the first one to the design think in education party. In fact the map below from IDEO highlights schools that have made design thinking integral to the curriculum.

Map of design thinking

Teaching as Engineering

My history with examining design in teaching (including stealing the idea for my website tagline) began with my work with David Reinking. Dr. Reinking’s work in literacy research has focused on formative design experiments.  As a fellow with Don Leu’s  New Literacies Research Lab at UCONN we worked closely with David Reinking’s team  to develop learning activities that taught students to read in a learning space that quickly shifted and required each individual reader to construct their own text.

Dr Reinking taught me that engineering, not medical science or agriculture (where many education research paradigms began), serves as the best metaphor for education. We have to start with a pedagogical goal and then identify factors that enhance or inhibit that pedagogical goal.

Teaching as Open

Design thinking not only supports open education but also requires a commitment to open education. I call this the engineering effect. The more we iterate as a community the more we will discover which will lead to even greater iterations and discoveries.

So many scholars  have committed to open learning and this pushes design thinking in education. You have the work of Henry Jenkins, danah boyd, Mimi Ito, Mitch Resnick, John Seely Brown, John Greeno, Howard Rheingold, and Daniel Hickey (to name a few in no particular order) that have helped shaped our belief in open learning.

Teachers have also committed to supporting design thinking by pursuing  open learning. My Twitter feed overflows with ideas from people such as Paul Allison, Kevin Hodgson, Jerry Blumengarten, Starr Sackstein, Ian O’Byrne, and Karen Fasimpaur. In all honestly I could never list all the teachers who regularly think, lead, fail, and learn in the open.

Design For Learning

I debated delineating design for teaching and design for learning. Teaching and learning are inextricably connected. I decided to make the distinction because we learn without teaching and too often teach without learning. I also think we need a consorted effort to design for future learning. This must resonate in our both our  instructional  and curriculum design practice.

Instructional Design

In order to create learning that support design thinking we will have to consider spaces that put an emphasis not so much on targets or skill sets but on the learners. We will need an instructional design that focus on civic problems, engagement, motivation, and of course learning. Creating events that support future learning will be critical. We have come a long way since Gagne.

Backward  Design

Similar efforts to support design thinking have also translated into classroom practice. I see evidence of this phenomenon in the rise of Wiggin’s ideas of backward design where curriculum tries to emphasize understanding over the skills and the content knowledge. There is much debate as to what we should emphasize skills or content knowledge. I believe we ask  the wrong the question. Instead we need to know what pathways get students to deeper learning.

Design for Meaning

Meaning making has always involved the remixing of others ideas. In fact the Greeks originally coined the idea of analysis, literally loosening up, and synthesis, or putting together. In other words “close reading” and “analytical writing” have always involved a bricolage of thinking. The Internet has amplified the speed and reach of these (re)designs of meaning and we see this in the texts we read, the stories we tell, and the languages that emerge.

Design and Text Assembly

As part of my dissertation I spent thousands of hours watching videos of students read online. One of the fundamental characteristics of successful students was engaging in what I called strategic text assembly. These students combined comprehension monitoring strategies and navigational skills to create and read texts that had never existed before. They chose reading pathways that helped them to overcome a lack of background knowledge. They seemed prepared for future learning.

Design and Multimodal Authorship

The signs and symbol systems we use to make meaning have shifted back to the visual, back to the spoken word. The dominance of text, while still the backbone of the Internet, has faded as more traditional non-verbocentric practices have reclaimed a strong position in meaning making. As researchers and educators we need to understand how meaning making when we engage in transmedia and transliteracies practices.

Design and Web Literacies

I am glad all the early talk of Web 2.0, the read/write web, and WYSIWYG editors has faded to the background. I am glad to see such a focus on teaching students computational thinking and coding. We will need cadres of learners who can speak in the language of the web.

Distributed Design Thinking

You do not need to know how to code to be a designer and not all coders,  engage in design thinking. The same reads true for educators. That is my other take away from the reclaim open movement. You can not do design thinking or open education alone.

The issues we face as researchers and educators are too big. The problems too complex. If students are to imagine a future and create things that yet to exist we need to encourage real-time problem solving and emergent literacies in collaborative teams. You can be the idea guy, the coder, the artistic designer. The role really does not matter. As long as students, and us in general, have a shared vision and are willing to reach that goal through multiple pathways of knowledge we will support design thinking in education.