How to Design Think a Classroom, Part 1: “Shoot for the Moon”

Design-Lab: Week 2

This week my students transitioned from the design sprint we engaged in last week to creating digital blogs/portfolios through which to showcase their thinking as well as to evidence the work they’ve been doing through digital photos and thumbnails of presentations, etc. By mid-week we were thinking about our new design brief:

“flexible learning space.”classroommoveablefurnitureitesmccm_02

In this challenge, another design sprint lasting barely two weeks of 45 minute periods, the design-lab students are going “real world.” They are being charged with designing the learning space in our room to meet the needs of their class, my English classes, as well as the teachers (myself and my colleague) who will use the room.

This is no mere decorative makeover. The students are going to build prototypes that will serve as evidence for a grant presentation to our school-district’s foundation. The way I see it, what grant would be turned down if the students are the ones who not only helped write the grant, but they are the ones who created models of actionable ideas?


I began them with this stage prior to building empathy because as users of the system, they are a bit too close to their own ideas of how things should be. Such intimacy with the system biases them in many ways, and those biases will not only block the creation of truly original and creative solutions but will invariably blind them to potential problems.

So I used a Zen Koan to help them recognize their need to “unfilll” their minds of biases.

1.   A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

After they heard me read the Koan, I asked them to “bias sort.”   Essentially, I gave them all several post-it notes and directed them to write down as many biases they felt they had both for and against school climate and culture. After 4 minutes, we posted these on a large sheet of butcher paper. We’ll be sorting and grouping these ideas in a few days, but the exercise does help them to empty their mind and be prepared to accept new ideas.

Our final two classes of the week were devoted to learning about how to people-watch and record our observations. I wanted them to do some sort of unobtrusive qualitative data gathering by watching a few students in other classes, how the observer perceived the environment acting upon the observe, and recording “What” the observee was doing, “How “ they were doing it, and why the observer believes he/she was acting in a certain way (inferencing).

img_3024Additionally, I broke the class down into groups and had them read through one of two articles from this Steelcase 360 document on educational environments. The articles, “Class, Can I have Your Attention” and “Making Way for Making” helped to provide background for the students in terms of research-based observations for how class environment can impact student learning.

Finally, each reading group prepared to present their findings from the articles to the other group. Each group created sketches or short descriptions of the salient points of the article, and then identified the key impact(s) the article had in terms of addressing the newly defined design challenge: img_3033

“How might we design a space that biases learners towards thinking and doing?”
More next week as we dive into user interviews, empathy building, ethnographic research, pattern recognition, redefinition of the challenge, and prototyping.

(Apologies for the quality of the photos.  That’s what you get from an iPad revision B model, circa 2011, with its 720 pixel camera.)

1 thought on “How to Design Think a Classroom, Part 1: “Shoot for the Moon”

  1. Just to clarify…that is not our classroom at the top. (Though, for at least part of it, this would be nice. Node chairs are cool and functional in a way that allows for flexibility and adaptability.)


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