Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"Travel" Books: Books I Took on My (Classroom Design) Journey

Whenever I go on a trip, I take along some books to read while I go.  On the negative side, sometimes the books are better than parts of the trip (sleeplessness in a strange bed, travel delays, etc.).  On the positive side, sometimes the books are an excellent companion for the journey, and later when I think of the trip I had, the trip seems inextricable from the book. 

Metaphorically, my design journey has had several books come along for the ride.  I thought I would share some of them here.  What I write about these books is my take on them, which is heavily biased and incredibly inaccurate.  I put words in the authors' mouths because I write mostly from memory.  If I use a phrase the author never used in the book (or never would use), then it is mine.

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
I liked this book but I found it uneven.  It basically starts with one premise: that great ideas or designs are flexible and are open to possibilities not necessarily intended by the creators.  The reason I found it uneven is because the bulk of book is May giving examples to support his thesis.  Some of the examples I found fascinating, but others left me cold and felt a little forced.  You'll have to decide which ones speak to you.  But overall, I loved the premise of the book.  I thought my risers fit this idea of elegance: flexible, adaptable, design transcends even its intent, etc.  (just like the Stratocaster?)
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
I have the same criticism of this book as I do for the one above.  It has basically one thesis and then a series of examples to support that thesis.  The main thesis is that good ideas have to fit within the "adjacent possible" which means that in order for new ideas to be adopted, they have to be close to something that already exists or at least something that is cognitively acceptable.  Johnson says that some ideas do not catch on because they are too far our or ahead of their time.  Ideas have to be acceptable and accessible.   In terms of my design journey, I thought it paralleled the process of my journey.  If you read through my blog, the progress of my journey was a series of connected events, not merely inspiration from left field.  If you haven't read this blog before my journey goes something like this:
  1. Was given a teaching partner unexpectedly
  2. Given an ugly, storage space to keep my belonging
  3. Created a zen lounge as a joke
  4. Teachers loved it and used it when I wasn't there
  5. Could I duplicate this for students?
  6. Saw banks of seats during a family museum trip
  7. Built emulations of these seats
  8. Kids loved them for their agility
  9. Continued to try to de-institutionalize my classroom environment
  10. Have had visitors from other schools, districts, provinces, and now other countries (Thanks Mary and Karen!) come by for a look see. 
So you can see that my journey was a connected evolution of events, just as Johnson describes in the examples in his book.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
This book is like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, but centres on the power of collaboration. The authors make a compelling argument by showing how things like Wikipedia and YouTube have revolutionized the way people get and share information. Not only does the audience select what information is retrieved (instead of an editor or a network deciding what is shown when), but it is also the same audience who contributes to creating and posting the content. For free. Sure there were clubs and newsgroups 20 years ago, but the amount of information that people upload out of the goodness of their hearts is astounding. Tapscott and Williams explain why people contribute and why it is mutually beneficial for contributor and audience. I guess I'm not as altruistic as I thought when I started sharing this design blog because the feedback I have received from strangers and colleagues has been incredibly useful for shaping my design journey. It has been as beneficial as the books I profile here.
The key to allowing collaboration interestingly is a parallel to the Elegance book above: leave things out so that you have flexibility for your idea to evolve as more people contribute. Open architecture provides possibilities for expansion and growth, so create a framework, not a closed structure, not a finished idea.

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Weren't these the names of 2/4s of My Three Sons?)
Hmmm. Another orange business book.  This book takes Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (I liked that book too, but everyone has read it, so I won't talk about it here), and expounds on one aspect that makes trends catch on: stickiness.  One thing I like about this book is that it actually tries to APPLY its ideas.  For example it will show an ad or some copy for a release and will go through it showing why it might not stick in people's minds.  Then it will rewrite the text as if the authors had applied stickiness enhancers (again, my term) such as using the unexpected or appealing to people's emotions.  I don't use this book in design, as much as I use it to help ideas stick in my students' heads. 

Flow by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi
I really enjoyed this book (and I love the author's name.  It would look great on the back of a jersey.  If you had really broad shoulders).  It actually isn't a new concept, but it does explain why traditional teaching does not resonate with modern students.  In order to engage students, we need to tap into their sense of Flow.  Kids will memorize multi-syllabic names of dinosaurs, spend hours repeating a single skateboard move, and go to the end of complex and challenging role-playing video game.  Why is it they can do these things when those same kids forget how to spell "what", won't do their homework for even ten minutes, and give up on a math problem after looking at it for thirty seconds?  It is because none of these latter tasks appeal to their reality, what is important to them, their sense of self, or to their "flow."  We've all been there: in the zone, in the groove, using our mojo, or whatever term strikes your fancy.  When we are in that flow, nothing can stop us and even better, we never want to stop.  Flow is the same way.

Learning Journeys by James Clarke
My favourite book on classroom design (tied with The Third Teacher) actually isn't a book at all but more like a booklet.   I came across it last year when I was googling for different classroom design concepts and I came across the pdf online (that's when I found Isis's cool StepSeat).  Someone recently sent me a hard copy of Learning Journeys.  I don't know if it is holding onto the hard copy or having a few years of my journey under my belt, but I found that the concepts discussed in the book really resonated with me even more.  If you are thinking of investigating classroom design or starting a classroom design learning team, I think that this document would be a great place to start the wheels turning and initiating discussions.  I would love to have a bunch of copies of this book to start a teachers research group on classroom design.  You can still download the pdf at .

If you have any books you can recommend that would help me on my classroom design journey, please let me know.  As you can see they don't necessarily have to do with education or design, but maybe just be about ideas.

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