This post introduces some of the ideas that I grappled with in my thesis: developing tools for the creative work that educators engage in. Tools for educators that are akin to how designers use Figma, Sketch, or Adobe.
I’ll start with a brief anecdote before highlighting some of the ideas and takeaways from my work.
RJ has worked with youth in informal and formal education settings for over a decade. In our conversations, she expressed frustration with the constraints of lesson planning: she often thinks through sketching in her notebook and has long felt constrained by the pressure to plan and design learning experiences using only text in a linear format. Text-based lesson planning, often in a text-editor like Google Docs or Microsoft Word can “feel too cemented. It’s not fluid and doesn’t encourage tinkering or changing things up.” In contrast, she explained that the best tools are adaptive….they allow educators to adapt to dynamic realities. To deeply know what you want for your students and be able to be agile and adjust — to engage in what Don Schön describes as reflective practice.
While text-editors (e.g. Google Docs, MS Word) might be useful for writing a lecture, they’re not an intuitive medium for designing experiences that are open-ended, challenging, and exciting to both students and educators.
Designing progressive learning experiences — what some describe as ‘deeper learning’, ‘project-based’, ‘design-based’, ‘creative’, or ‘student-centered’ — differs from more traditional, information-centric models of learning (e.g. lecturing, working on isolated tasks). Teachers in progressive paradigms embrace a different theory of knowledge, of learning, and of teaching — and therefore play more creative roles: they prototype experiences, iteratively design, tailor opportunities to individual learners, and regularly try new approaches.
And while progressive educators hack existing tools (post-its, notepads, whiteboards) to support their work, many of the digital tools they use (such as text-editors) don’t support their goals or styles of working. These tools don’t support parallel thinking, different epistemological styles or approaches to visual thinking and organization, and are difficult to adapt and change. While many educators are able to find work-arounds, our research (interviews, observations, ethnographic research) found that these tools often presented important constraints. For novice educators, unwieldy planning tools made it more challenging to plan and design open-ended experiences, increasing the barriers (floors) to entry. For experienced educators, these tools act as a sort of ceiling: they're not tools to think with.
The Alternative: Creative Learning Design Tools
In my thesis, I introduce the idea of creative learning design tools — tools that are more tinkerable, personal, and collaborative — principles based on the creative work that educators engage in.
I describe how educators use creative learning design tools to iteratively plan, draft ideas, prototype experiences, extend their imaginations, repurpose materials, and organize their thinking in ways that express their epistemological styles (i.e. these tools accommodate different styles of creating knowledge and visualizing one’s thinking). In the process, they can make more of their thinking visible to themselves and others, supporting reflective practice and opening up new opportunities for collaboration. This in turn surfaces bottom-up innovations, produces work that can be readily repurposed, and encourages creative risk taking.
I explain how we repurposed existing tools as creative learning design tools and why we used one in particular (Milanote) over our own tool. Through collaborations with educators ranging from novice public high school teachers in low-resource settings to experienced university faculty teaching in open-ended contexts (e.g. the Stanford d.school), we describe how a creative learning design tool can lower the floors, widen the walls, and raise the ceilings for designing creative learning experiences.
Our research explores how teaching as a form of creative work can be better empowered with creative tools. And makes the case for bringing the playful spirit of technologies for children to the design of technologies for educators.
In the next post, I’ll offer more detail on how we think about creative learning design tools. This will include more on the above principles (tinkerable, personal, collaborative) and reflections on the paradigms restricting the design of current tools used by educators.
Want to dive in now?
Check out my thesis for all the juicy details! The following posts will highlight ideas fleshed out in the thesis.
You can also play with some of the ideas below!