Why Design: Reading and Writing the World.



I was/am an English major.

The confusion in verb tense stems from a shift in how I act within the world. For years I buried my head in books. Fictional worlds allowed me to explore a myriad of human experiences I would never have had the chance to understand outside the covers of books. I spent years in college honing my skills at reading these worlds, divining the author’s deeper motives (if such is even possible) and understanding the intentionality at the heart of writing.

Head over to www.plusus.org/our-thoughts/ to read the rest.

“Only Connect”–They Listen and They Hear


A few weeks ago I initiated a series of blog posts at PlusUs.org (cross posted here, and vice versa) investigating the rationale for using design-based learning as a teaching method.  I wrote I would be delving more into the ways I see design as a method that honors the traditions and goals of liberal education as outlined by Professor William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect”: On the Goals of a Liberal Education.

Consider this blog post the first foray into the connections between the 10 goals of Prof. Cronon (and the great liberal educators who came before him) and design itself.

Some of these posts will be longer than others, but my intent is that, by putting Prof. Cronon’s ideas into dialogue and play with the field of design, we will recognize that, without question, design is a liberal art.  The implication here is two-fold.  First, that the development of designerly minded learners is a doorway to the development of singularly self-directed, self-determined learners.  And, second, that the liberal arts are key to security and prosperity in the future for ourselves and our students.

So, onto Cronon’s list…


Part of a personal Mindmap of Cronon’s Argument in the essay, “Only Connect.”

1)  They Listen and they Hear.

Cronon states that this goal of a liberal education is something you’d think goes without saying.  Essentially, it describes people who “work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.”

There is hardly another goal so clearly linked to design as this one.  Design, like education, is a human-centered endeavor.  Educators like designers must empathize with their students/users.  If empathy is the heart of design, and design thinking more specifically, it seems listening and hearing is a fitting place to start this comparison, and more fitting to this argument that Prof. Cronon begins here as well.

I’ll admit to a good deal of bias here.  I’m a debate coach.  Offering students activities that help them work towards this goal is easy.  Engage them in structured controversies like debates and constructive discussions.  There are any number of debate structures you might employ, with the more formal styles outlined clearly and fully at websites like the National Forensic LeagueThe Pennsylvania High School Speech League, and other such leagues around the nation.  Additionally, teachers can employ structured discussions.  Programs like Paideia Seminars, Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or The Touchstones Discussion Project all offer students opportunities to speak and listen and learn from each other in many different curricula (not just language arts or social studies).

However, for the teacher practiced in design-based learning, the opportunities for practicing listening skills increase exponentially.  Teaching students how to use empathy maps during interviews, or even as ways to track and analyze characters in works of literature help to hone this skill through real world practice or close reading.  Design research of this sort hinges on the key skill of listening deeply and empathetically.

My list is not exhaustive, but I am certain of the solid outcomes each of the different strategies I suggest can produce if a teacher buys into and believes in their individual processes.

And in the end, listening and hearing?  Sure, you can’t test for it, but you sure as heck aren’t building a solid foundation for a democracy if all you focus on is computation and comprehension.   At least by focusing on a goal like “They listen and they hear” we’ll have a chance to erase future episodes of The Jerry Springer Show from our airwaves and promote more civil discourse than what we’ve seen in the world lately.

Featured image: Simon Sinek–Quote Fancy

A View from the Crossroads: Design as Liberal Education

The emergence of design thinking in the twentieth century . . . lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.  

All men and women require a liberal art of design to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.

–Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”

Complexity Rules

The world is not getting any simpler.

Ok, I have a firm grasp of the obvious.  But let’s be clear and clichéd: children today will inherit a world we can hardly imagine  Little of what we teach them will be relevant even 10 years from now.  What, then, do we do to help our educational system, which always changes at a glacial pace, keep up with an increasingly shifting and complex world?  

A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s new book, Empower  (2017) offers a reframing of the issue when they write:  “Our job as teachers, parents, and leaders is not to prepare kids for ‘something,’ our job is to help kids prepare themselves for ‘anything.’”  Such inspiration is wonderful, but what does this preparation look like?  What are its implications for education?

Please check out the rest of this blog post at Plusus.


In the Beginning…

This year marks the beginning of my third year at my high school after 21 years as a middle school humanities/design teacher.  This year marks the beginning of another round of looping with students from 9th grade to 10th grade in my gifted honors English class.  Both of these beginnings are propitious events as they indicate I have made it through yet another year of an American High School, a beast unlike most any  other institution I’ve ever encountered.  But I’ll save my Freireian, Gatto-ian systemic critiques for later.  There’s another beginning to discuss.

This year also marks the beginning of a new class I’m putting together and piloting with our Art Department chair.  Listed under the generic (for now) name of “Design Lab” we’ve modeled the semester-long class as part design thinking workshop, a’la Stanford’s  d.school, Mount Vernon Presbyterian, and countless other forward thinking schools; and part Innovation and Open-Source Learning, as per the work of Don Wettrick (If you’ve not read it, his book, Pure Genius (which it is), describes the what, how, and –for anyone who’s still not getting this whole movement towards inquiry-based, self-determined, heutagogic learning–the WHY for moving towards this type of learning in at least one class in every school.)

Now, I’ve been following Design Thinking (DT)and doing deep divimac_gallery_02es into the concept for over fifteen years.  Possibly this was engendered by a fascination with Apple and how it not only changed the way we interact with the world, but also the way we look at the world.  We’re far more design-minded now than we used to be and one can draw a direct link from Apple to that mindshift.

Of course, maybe my interest was piqued by my fascination with toothbrushes, a fascination ignited by the story of the original Braun, Oral-B Cross-Action Toothbrush and just how large a role Research and Design played in that game changer of a toothbrush.

Whatever the case, I’ve been using design and DT as a way for my students to inquire into the nature of the built environment, read information out of it, and then set about to make it better for a long time.  But I always had to do it in service to another curriculum.  That is, my use of DT and design-based learning has always been as a method to deepen their learning in English or Language Arts.

And while I’ve learned a lot, and while my students have always risen to these challenges in ways that made me proud (see our participation in the Industrial Designers Society of America Design Learning Challenges in 2012 and 2013) I longed for a class where the students and I could just engage in DT for extended periods of time pursuing real world problems they found and wanted to solve.

This year…these past two days?  This is the start of something great.  Steve Jobs once said that he wasn’t happy unless he was starting something great.

Design-Lab is something great (though it’s name is not).

The learners I’m privileged to work with are even greater.

I hope  you read about our journey this year as I update this blog, because it’s going to be “insanely great.”  (Did I mention/allude to Steve Jobs enough?  No?  Here…Not enough people have ever seen this…’Makes me tear up every time I watch it, because he, along with so many other visionaries and Hackers (great book!) made it happen.)