Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

I signed up for the Next Big Idea Club because I wanted to be introduced to books and ideas that may not have normally come my way. This latest shipment included a book that I definitely would not have purchased in the store.

Why wouldn’t I have purchased it in the store? Well, I am horrible at establishing good habits. I can’t seem to keep up with most of what I start – running is a good example. I had actually gotten to the point of finishing 6 or 7 miles without dying and then, BAM, just quit. I don’t know why. So the idea of picking up a book on habits just wouldn’t have been on my radar.

But luckily it was on NBIC’s radar!

This book has taught me so much about how habits are formed, and how to influence those habits (and how to get my fit lifestyle back on track!). As Wood describes it, “Habits make the wildly challenging and difficult seem easy and safe.” Because habits are a kind of action that is “relatively insensitive to rewards,” it is able to run in the background while the conscious mind is still deciding to do something else.

As I read her book, I was thinking… teachers need to know this stuff!! How much better can I be as a teacher by understanding why some routines are successful and others are not when it comes to teaching and learning. And to life!

Cue and Response

Habits are all about cue and response. This is a crucially important piece of information. We talk about goal setting a lot, and self-control (aka grit) to meet those goals, but as it turns out, self-control really has no part in habits. Woods explains:

Goals can orient you to build a habit, but your desires don’t make habits work. Actually, your habit self would benefit if “you” just got out of the way.

Wendy Wood

Wood gives a lot of examples to support this claim. She talks about all the public service campaigns to get people to eat more fruits and veggies; to stop smoking; or to start exercising. Let’s be real – they don’t change our behavior, even though we know that they are important. Even when we swear that this is the year the gym will actually be part of our routine, most of us fail to carry it out. Why?

Cues and responses. The biggest cue of which is our surroundings. Without realizing it, our surroundings drastically influence our behavior. US soldiers in Vietnam had a drug problem. The drug was heroin, and the problem was big. Not only was it readily available in Vietnam, but it served an immediate need of taking the edge off a stressful situation. The government was concerned. How would these drug-addicted soldiers re-acclimate to civilized society?

After being sent to a week detox in Vietnam, soldiers were sent home and monitored. Only 5% started using again. Contrast that with the average drug relapse rate of 40-60% and it’s quite startling. Even unbelievable. So why didn’t they start using again? Change of scenery. The visual cues were no longer present, so the habit was disrupted. It’s why people who need to lose weight are told to rid their pantry of the sweet delicacies that they crave, or a prisoner can seem completely reformed, but quickly fall back into a life of crime when returned home.

Cue and response is important for students. If students always learn math in room 5, and then are moved to room 2 for a test, the disruption will impact habits.The habit to check over the work twice, or to always reduce fractions, could be impacted. Likewise, if a student gets used to giving all green flyers to his parents for a signature, and one week the green paper is out and pink paper is used, there may be less signatures turned in the next day because the visual cue was disrupted.


Visual cues aren’t the only thing to impact habit. Repetition is a big one, too, and probably the one we are most familiar with. If we can just get to the gym every day, the repetition should create a habit… and yet, with my running, I was running multiple times a week and it still didn’t become a habit. Why?

Because repetition isn’t enough. Repetition needs to be coupled with situational control. In other words, the trips to the gym, or to start running, need to be set regularly. People who are gym addicts usually go at the same time every day. Runners hit the streets right after they wake up, or when they get home. They don’t wake up each day and have to figure out when to go, which then requires the conscious mind to step in and make decisions. When we remove the conscious mind from the equation, it actually changes our experience of the activity by making it seem easier.

If there is a repetitive behavior that needs to be ended, Wood recommends creating friction. For smokers, it was easy to buy a pack when vending machines were everywhere. Now that they can only be purchased by asking a clerk to get the pack from behind the counter, and most places don’t allow public smoking, there has been a huge reduction in smokers in the United States. Barriers work a lot more than willpower!

If we want students to be responsible for turning in their assignments every day, then repetition is a great structure. Every day at 8am, assignments are collected. Make it even easier and add cues and responses. Every day at 8am, the red basket will be set on the table in which to place the assignments. If students know that lunch is at 11:00 every day, they will probably get restless a few minutes prior… have an assembly and lunch gets changed to 11:30am? Don’t be surprised if they’re still acting squirrelly at 10:58am. Want to disrupt that behavior? Hide the clock. Habits are like that!


A habit is actually established when it is insensitive to reward. Maybe we initially ran for the medals at events, but now we just run because it’s how each day has started for five years and why stop now? Or we were rewarded with a cash prize for losing weight, but the cash prize was a one time event and the weight quickly returns. Dopamine is a fickle beast!

“To our conscious minds, larger rewards and more certain rewards – ones that we now are coming – are motivating. But habits thrive on uncertainty.” Don’t believe me? How often do you check your phone every day? 25, 50, 100 times? It’s a habit… some people call it an addiction. And yet how often are you rewarded with an interesting tweet or email or funny Reddit post? It’s the uncertainty of the reward that keeps us checking.

This is why grades aren’t motivational for many students, or token reward systems in classrooms. It may appeal to the conscious mind in the beginning, but it doesn’t help students develop a habit of reading before bed every night. Neither does collecting gold star stickers for signed reading logs. The uncertain reward of reaching a juicy part in the story could do it, though, if it was a book that meets the student’s interest.


Variety is the spice of life… but habits are bland and don’t like variety. Consistency is key to habit formation. Running at 6am every day is likely to become a habit. Running at 6am one day, noon the next, and then skipping two days is not going to make it stick.

And when trying to establish a new habit, connecting it to existing cues is an easier way to make it automated. So you’ve got the running set at 6am and it’s working for you? Add on eating a banana the moment you’re finished with the run. Now you’re adding nutrition to the routine. Stacking, as it’s called, takes advantage of the automaticity already in place.

Swapping also takes advantage of the automaticity but it swaps one behavior for another. Bananas have too much sugar? Swap it for an orange but don’t stop the process of eating the fruit right when the run finishes.

This was my weakness as a teacher. I thought students craved variety. I thought routines would diminish my star power. In reality, those routines help students create habits. And those habits free up the conscious mind to focus on what’s important – the new learning concepts. Once they know to turn in assignments to the red basket, adding a short “bellringer” activity to the mix becomes easy. Stack it on! No longer need the basket for turn in? Awesome. Swap it for a Google Form that tells you how they are feeling about the current learning concept.


An interesting thing about habits. Wood explains that, in times of stress, there’s actually a boost in habit performance. Habits are the safe harbors for our brain. As our consciousness deals with mental drain, the habits kick in and keep us moving. One study showed that corporate execs, when facing major business decisions that leave them anxious and under the gun, are more likely to avoid exploring new innovations. Instead, habit kicks in and the decision is to continue the status quo.

Teachers and students have similar responses. When a student falls behind, and is struggling with course content, they may repeat past behaviors, even though they are ineffective. Why not come in for lunch tutoring, you ask them. Because every day at 11:00, it is time for lunch and that’s the habit so the student goes to lunch. As a result, the teacher thinks the student doesn’t care enough to take care of the situation. In reality, the habit brain is taking care of the conscious brain by removing the need for a decision. In situations like this, habit discontinuity is needed. An external force (such as a teacher requirement to come in at lunch) has to shake up the brain and kick the conscious mind into gear.

Heed the Warning

Habits are awesome, but beware… repetition may strengthen our tendency to act, but it also weakens the sensation of that act. If you eat turkey every day for lunch, you may no longer find that you enjoy the taste. Running every day is great, but if it’s always the same scenery, it may not trigger that dopamine release you used to receive. Routines are great, but this is not….

Balance is key! Build the habits for the behavioral routines, and spend the conscious energy on the learning! Your students will thank you for it!

Understanding habits normalizes the trials of changing behavior. The distance between repeated failure and enduring, successful change is not marked by personal fortitude or determination…Instead, you cover that distance through simple steps…to encourage enjoyable actions that meet your long-term goals… This is the promise of a habit life well lived.

Wendy Wood

My daughter Alex gets a quirky partial smile on her face when she’s highly anxious or nervous. I worried that this would work against her when she was in Navy Boot Camp.

Today’s blog explains why…

When Mike Lawrence invited me to his next #HookEd virtual book club talk, I jumped at the opportunity. The book selected was Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell.

Usually, I would read the book so that my post-it tabs could be put to good use, but I’m glad I chose the audiobook this time. Gladwell, when quoting others throughout the book, included the original audio, so in many ways, the audiobook felt like a really long podcast, in which multiple people were invited to speak. It helped make sense of the dense topic he was wading through.

About the Book

But I have to admit, I didn’t love this book. I’m not even sure I really liked it. I did, however, enjoy the book talk, especially when we discussed the “allusion of asymmetric insight.” As the book explains, asymmetrical insight is:

The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.

To illustrate this point, the book shares a simple experiment in which people are given words in which some letters are replaced with a blank. Participants fill in the blanks to form words. When people analyze the word bank of others, they tend to draw conclusions. For example, if most of the words are glum, they might assume the person is depressed, or negative. And yet, when looking at their own set of words, people often state that there is no correlation to their personality, and that the words are just random.

Mike asked each of the book club participants to also complete the word list. A couple participants even asked a few others to complete it as well. And just like in the book, we all ascribed no meaning to our own list, but could easily find connections in others.

Mike had a good insight into this – he said that, as humans, our brain is constantly looking to solve patterns and find meaning where maybe meaning doesn’t exist. I wonder if it’s a remnant of our cave days… staying alive by judging situations and people quickly.

Human Transparency

Which may explain another problem Gladwell brought up – that of human transparency. Gladwell says that we tend to have a “default to [an assumption of] truth,” meaning we think we know or can read other people’s intentions, good or bad. We base much of this on facial expressions. After all, how hard can it be to recognize anger or fear on someone else’s face?

Turns out it is pretty dang hard. Mismatches between expressions and intentions are common. And if you think all anger looks the same, then the Trobiander tribe in Papau New Guinea will convince you otherwise. To them, a gasping face is a face of anger and threats, and not fear.

And when the perceived facial expression doesn’t align with the emotion we expect to be present, it creates a mismatch. And mismatches can lead to incorrect assumptions about the person in front of us. This can be something as simple as, “That person is always in a bad mood” to a life altering guilty verdict because the defendant doesn’t appear remorseful.

I have been a victim of facial mismatching. RBF, anyone?

A photo of a woman with a perceived scowl, with the headline "What is Resting Bitch Face"

So why am I bothering to write about this?

I was talking to a colleague the other day who said that she had been perceived as a less dedicated teacher

How many times do we, as educators, make assumptions about our students, or their families, (or each other?) that are either based on an allusion of asymmetric insight or a facial-emotional mismatch?

Ever think a parent must not be invested in a child’s education since that parent never shows up to school events, award assemblies, or sign homework logs?

I’ve missed many of my daughters’ events because, as an educator, I had to be at events at the same time as they had theirs.

Ever suspect that a child (or spouse…lol) is lying since s/he is avoiding eye contact when questioned about a situation?

I get anxiety when confronted and look away so I can focus on controlling my own emotions before responding.

Ever assume the class understood your lecture because they are all nodding their heads as you speak?

So many times I’ve been off-task or bored and will nod so as to avoid being discovered.

Ever think a student doesn’t care about the failing grade because they smirk when you bring up the topic?

I circle back to the opening, and my daughter Alex with her quirky smirk…

Know Better, Do Better

Here’s the thing – so much of what we know, or presume to know, is based on assumption. I’ve made a lot of (probably incorrect) assumptions about my students and colleagues and community throughout my career.

Perhaps, then, Gladwell’s book had an impact on me, even though I wasn’t a huge fan.

Gladwell writes: “The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet… The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

Or as we say in design thinking, empathy. 😌

Reading Our Way to an Understanding of Racial Justice

A colleague of mine, Andrew Arevalo, posted on Twitter that he had started reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

A Twitter conversation began in which people shared other books that would also be great reads.

Here’s the books that were shared:

  • For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
  • Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nel
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
    By Carol Anderson

Anything else you’d add to this reading list? Any of these books impact your beliefs or actions on matters of representation, diversity, and inclusion?

And if you haven’t yet read White Fragility, or you read it and want to discuss it with other educators, sign up for EquityEDU’s book study that starts in August.

Resources shared after the post published:

Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom by Matthew R. Kay

This past month our innovation team has been fortunate to work with a school staff that is looking to reimagine their library space. Currently a traditional space with plain walls, a large circulation desk, and giant book shelves, the staff is wanting to build a space that reflects the joy of learning they want students to experience every day. In their words:

Imagine a space where students of all ages and adults could create, innovate, and explore the world in an inspiring and natural environment designed to enlighten and change the world! Students need a way to access a variety of learning and discovery spaces in order to respect their age and place in the world and ignite their inner genius and advance the world.

We’ve been using the design thinking process to guide us on the journey, which has been a fabulous way to keep us grounded in the WHY of our work. Today, I realized that a consistent theme kept reemerging during every brainstorm or prototype session – JOY.

Adults design schools. Adults who have been schooled for years on how to build buildings. And then adults come in and furnish those buildings. They paint the walls. They choose the chairs. Somewhere in that process, the children become secondary. And often times, so does joy.

Which brings me to the book Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee.

In her book, Fetell Lee points out that joy isn’t reserved for religious gurus that have attained enlightenment. In fact, it can be found all around us. She summarizes 10 big ideas in which joy can be found:

  1. Harness the power of color.
  2. Live abundantly.
  3. Find your freedom.
  4. Discover harmony.
  5. Fill your life with playful shapes.
  6. Surprise yourself.
  7. Go higher.
  8. Feel the magic.
  9. Spread the love.
  10. Start anew.

Schools, and libraries, should truly be places of joy. They should allow for playful wonder. Fetell Lee explains that “play etches itself deeply into our memories for a good reason: it is the only known activity that humans engage in solely because it produces joy. ”

Play lets us practice give-and-take, through which we learn empathy and fairness. It also promotes flexible thinking and problem solving, which increases our resilience and help us adapt to change. When we play, our awareness of time diminishes, and our self-consciousness fades. Play can put us in a powerful flow state, which allows us to let go of everyday worries and be absorbed in the joy of the moment.

Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Children understand joy. All you have to do is listen to them dream up the new library to know that they can see that which adults often forget. Their vision of the space includes waterfalls, cafes, and a loft… they see color, comfortable seats, and places for both quiet and social gatherings. They hear music and feel texture. They break down the barriers and let in nature’s beauty. They get it.

And so did the adults in the room today. I’m excited for the future wonder and joy that awaits the students and staff as they turn their prototypes into a joyful place that ignites genius and empowers students to advance the world.

Stay tuned…

The overwhelming majority of students today want learning to be active, not passive. They want to be challenged to think and to solve problems that do not have easy solutions. They want to know why they are being… Read More

The Overachievers and the Unengaged

One of the books I received from the Next Big Idea Book Club was Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive by Bradley R Staats.

Reading it was more of an affirmation than a “ooh, I didn’t know that.” What I appreciated about Staats book was the reasoning he gave for the ideas I had already come to believe. Staats background is in behavior science, so much of his book focuses on why we are so bad at being lifelong learners, even though there are constant messages about the importance of continual learning to stay relevant in our careers and in our lives.

Staats shares a few steps in his book for becoming better at learning. They include:

  • Valuing failure
  • Focusing on process, not outcome, and on questions, not answers
  • Making time for reflection
  • Learning to be true to yourself by playing to your strengths
  • Pairing specialization with variety
  • Treating others as learning partners

For me, the bang for the buck was in the valuing failure section. I’ll be honest, I’m one of those people who cringes when I hear phrases like, “Failure is just a first attempt at learning” or “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying something new.” It’s not because I have a fear of failure. It’s because I see failure as the end. Mistakes are part of process, but failure is larger. It’s the point of giving up… as long as trying is part of the process, than to me there is no failure. Just learning opportunities and trials. Therefore, I found the following quotes from Staats book enlightened me, and helped me expand my definition of failure.


“Failure can change how we act. The discovery that a belief we had was wrong can alter how we look for new information. We become more likely to expand both the breadth and depth of our investigation: we might talk to someone different, and we might spend more time considering what has occurred. Since failure is to some degree a surprise, it makes us change our assumptions. We reflect on what happened and how to address it going forward.”

“The reason we need failure to learn is straightforward: learning requires trying new things, and sometimes new things don’t work as expected. Failure creates a powerful learning cocktail, mixing new ideas with novel information and a motivation to experiment.”

“A focus on success leads both to a fear of failure and to an inability to see the failure that occurs around us.”

Fundamental attribution error…. in considering our own failure, we often “overweight things such as luck or the difficulty of the task and underweight our ability or effort… when you assign responsibility for a failure to outside events, you negatively impact your motivation to try to learn.”


To destigmatize failure we need to bring our struggles out into the open. Brene Brown would call this being vulnerable. And Daniel Coyle would add that vulnerability builds trust, which is what is needed to keep that learning-from-failure cycle positive. We also need to shift how we think about acting versus not acting. Staats explains, “We are averse to loss, and failure always brings the possibility of loss. Instead of considering the safety of the status quo and the risk of doing things differently, consider the risk in the status quo and the safety that comes from learning new things.”

After all, “mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all” says Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar. He explains that “they are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”

Book Read: Design for Strengths

“‘You can have all the right answers, but it doesn’t matter if you are answering the wrong question.’ The willingness to circle back and challenge the central question and continue to ask it in a better way – and potentially abandon the current exploration – that is the hallmark of Design Thinking.” – John K. Coyle in Design for Strengths


In education, there is a lot of talk about students discovering their passions, their strengths, their interests, and then building upon those through personalized learning opportunities. What does that truly look like? Although Coyle’s book is not specific to education, there are so many nuggets of wisdom that we can apply to our school culture. 

“Skill gaps are easy – you work at them until you master them. Gravity problems – you accept them, quit solving for them, and then design around them.”

“Step Zero: Acceptance. You can’t solve a problem you are not willing to have.”

“Just because you ‘accept’ something does not mean you agree with it or submit that it is ‘OK.’ It simply means you accept that it is.”

“Most companies hire for diversity of talent, experience, and background – and then they waste it… more often than not, they ask each team member to do the same set of tasks in the very same way… they ignore the unique capabilities and contributions that individuals bring and, in so doing, waste all that unique talent they recruited in the first place.”

“The ‘one size fits all’ fair approach to work task distribution is a recipe for an unengaged team.”

“When all the team members have a reasonably good working knowledge of each other’s strengths, they will – on their own (with a nudge of encouragement from leadership) – start to self-organize for their strengths.”

In all honesty, I probably have Post-Its on every other page in this book and could have put so many quotes in this post. It’d be a great book study for teacher groups looking to better understand ways in which to develop personalized, strengths-based environments for both students and staff.

Design for Strengths
Design for Strengths

Book Read: Building a Better Teacher

I thought I knew the history of American education. After all, I had studied John Dewey in school, and isn’t he the source of all things education? Guess not, according to Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green. Turns out, there was a lot of misguided efforts to create a teacher education program, and a lot of failed initiatives to reform education once there was a teacher education program. It’s an interesting read, as it filled in some knowledge holes for me about math pedagogy, charter schools, and the rise in quality of Japanese education.

A few segments that stood out:

“Changing the way you taught was a major undertaking. A teacher had to revise everything from the kinds of questions she asked to her very understanding of the subject she was teaching.” It’s complex work. It’s easier to do a “redesign, but not an overhaul. The same old wine in new bottles… carry out the activities without rebuilding core beliefs.”

While watching an American videotaped lesson, a Japanese researcher was perplexed by a P.A. announcement that came on during the lesson:
“Were we implying that it was normal to interrupt a lesson? How could that ever happen? Such interruptions would never happen in Japan because they would ruin the flow of the lesson.” Going through all the videos the research team had, it was discovered that 31% of American lessons contained an interruption, while zero of the Japanese lessons did.

In Japan, no teacher worked alone. “To solve the puzzles that teaching posed, teachers needed the push and pull of other people’s opinions.” This is the power of jugyokenkyu, which is a Japanese lesson study used to hone their craft.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who is currently working on school reform, as it puts names and personalities and historical context around some of the practices we engage in today. In doing so, it reminded me why change doesn’t happen overnight, and how important culture and communication are to any sustainable movement.

Beware of the person of one book.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

During lunch today, I was skimming Facebook and came across a post from an awesome teacher friend Autumn with the following intro:

ISO: 21 Generous friends who are looking to bless one of my students for the year!

I was intrigued. I kept on reading…

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 14.07.12Each month I receive the Scholastic Book Club fliers to send home for students to share with their families and purchase books if they would like. Many families cannot afford to purchase books to have at home, especially at various times of the year where holidays and new school supplies spread us all thin.

Here’s the idea I’d like to try out this year:
How amazing would it be for each student to receive one free book every month at no cost to his/her family?
Scholastic has books every month that are $1. I would LOVE for each of my students to be able to bring home one new book every month during the school year from September to May. It may seem crazy and unrealistic, but please keep reading! If I select the $1 book, that’s only $9 per child (for a FULL school year)! Every month I would be able to bless every one of my students with a new free book that they will get to keep, all because of you!

Before I could even finish reading the post, which provided all the logistics for getting involved, it was updated…

**** UPDATE: YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING!!! I HIT MY GOAL within 30 MINUTES!!! Thank you so much for your support! I LOVE YOU ALL!! My teacher heart is bursting with love for you all. I cannot wait to bless my littles this entire year! Thank you from the bottom of my heart! 

By the time I had finished my lunch, I noticed at least five other teachers had copied the post and were fully funded within minutes.  It was like an auction house selling a stack of Picasso originals for $9/each. People were greedily grabbing them all up. I felt lucky to finally catch an opening for a kinder class and signed up to be a book friend!

What an awesome, simple way to work on closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap while promoting the value of reading.

I wonder how else we can play with this generous idea..

  • What if it was set up like Secret Pals and the adults got a list of what the child was interested in, and the adult could pick out/order the book every month?
  • What if a FlipGrid was set up so adults could share their favorite books with the student so as to build a connection with a trusted adult?
  • What if we had volunteers to record themselves reading the books for children who don’t have a literate or English speaking parent at home?

What other “what ifs” could we add?

Have you implemented a program like this in your classroom? How’d it go? I’d love to hear from you.

Blog post title is attributed to Thomas Aquinas.

* Sharing is caring, so share some love with a ‘like’ and then share this blog post with a colleague.*

Designing From The Heart

I have been reading quite a few books on design, but none have actually been designed with the elegance of this human: how to be the person designing for other people by Melis Senova, PhD.  I did not want to finish reading it because I was enjoying the content and layout so much. Luckily, it’s the kind of book that serves as an ongoing reference, which means I will have the pleasure of rereading portions of it many times over the next few years.

this human book page

this human book spread. Photo from:

Senova has an interesting background. Not only is she a pioneer in human-centered design, but she is also educated in both neuroscience and engineering. Oh, and a PhD in design! How’s that for multi-faceted? It’s this diverse perspective, I believe, that equips her with the insight to dig into the HUMAN piece of human-centered design. In other words, how can you design for others if you don’t understand “what it takes to be the human who is doing the designing?” (p. viii).

Senova’s book provides perspective and tangible exercises to help the designer understand the human experience through his/her own personal human experiences. It’s not about empathy mapping and ideating as much as it is about understanding personal biases, creating genuine human connections and designing from the heart.

What’s really awesome is that you don’t even have to be a designer to appreciate this book. There are so many parallels to the work educators do designing experiences for students that I could easily purchase this book for all my teacher friends (except that I’m broke so can you all just go buy your own copy?).

When designing lessons, it’s easy to assume that our view of reality is our students’ reality. The result of this assumption can be manifested in comments like, “I don’t know why they didn’t get it. I TAUGHT it!” or “Not doing homework is a sign of laziness.” However, if we are to design for positive impact, which is the ultimate goal of human-centered designers, than Senova reminds readers that “it is their truth that is important, not yours” (p.3).

With this tenet in mind, it is important that we set aside biases, open communication channels, and truly design from the heart, regardless of whether we are designing temporary housing for flood victims, a can opener for people with arthritis, or a unit to teach students about the role of the Bill of Rights in today’s society. As educators, we should all be human-centered designers every day. This book will help you do so.


I Have Fallen in Love with Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People!

Well, not literally! But I did thoroughly enjoy the book Cad Monkeys. Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People: Inside the World of Design Thinking and How it Can Spark Creativity and Innovation by Warren Berger (That title is quite a mouthful!!). If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that I used up almost all of my super cute Target bin book tabs in this one book!

Book tabs on my book

I truly don’t even know where to start to describe all I learned from Berger. His deep dive into the world of design, and designers, read like a novel – fascinating characters, interesting plot developments, and a universal theme to do the right thing.

You know what? I’m just going to share some of my tabbed inspirations and see where it goes:

* It can be difficult to step back and look at one’s life with a fresh eye, but this is part of what design can teach us: how to view things sideways, how to reframe, rearrange, experiment, refine, and – maybe most important of all – how to ask “the stupid questions” that challenge assumptions about the way things have been done in the past.

* Jumping the fence…attempting to make the leap from the realm of known achievability (what we know is possible) to the much larger surrounding space (what we don’t know how to do yet).

* Everything a business does matters; that every action communicates a message to the world and also has consequences on some level.

* Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase: “There is an over celebration of getting things done” and not enough patience for “thinking as part of doing.”

* Dean Kamen: “We have to do whatever it takes to get ideas out there into the world. Otherwise, you’re just doing science fair projects.”

* Mark Noonan: “Instead of just asking a question, you have to take ownership of it.”

* Bruce Mau: Process enables experimentation. “It’s like a safety net.” People tend to feel more comfortable experimenting with new ideas and venturing onto unfamiliar turf when they carry with them an established method of working and solving problems. It means that even if they don’t quite know what they’re doing, they always know what to do.”

This book is like the Lorax, in that it speaks for design. And even though it’s about design, these quotes also speak to the heart of education. They speak to the work we must do to ensure student learning experiences are relevant to the world they inhabit today, and the future world problems they will be inheriting.

I leave them here, then, without my commentary so that they can speak to you as well. Tell me, what do you hear?

Crafting a Purpose-Filled Culture

BookSnap from The Culture Code

Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be.

Three signals are required to create a great culture, according to Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. One of these signals is crafting purpose.

“Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be.”

Executives at 600 companies were asked how many of their employees could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives estimated 64% would be able to name them. Sadly, only 2% were able to do so. Coyle explained that this is not the exception, but the rule, since leaders presume that the people who work for them see things the same way they do.

This makes me think… As we transform our traditional education system, how do we create a culture in which everyone not only knows the priorities, or vision, but also know how to get there?

One method Coyle describes is to use artifacts. When environments are filled with artifacts that embody purpose and identity, they reinforce the signal of what matters.

I saw a fabulous example of this in a school the other day. As the school embraces the principles of design thinking, the principal has started documenting the journey on hallways throughout campus. Her displays reinforce the priority focus on design thinking while also providing a celebratory, collaborative environment for teachers as they embrace the change. And because the displays are in public, often-trafficked hallways, it’s not just teachers receiving the signal. Students, parents, visitors, and support staff are also receiving that signal. She’s crafting a purpose-filled culture.

In what ways are you crafting purpose for your students? Your teachers? Your school or district?

Sign up to receive one update when I post. Type your email address in the box and click the “Subscribe” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.