Creativity in the Classroom

My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.

Adrian Neibauer
27 min readDec 16, 2021

I have a horrible sense of direction. I’ve lived in Colorado my entire life, and I still use Google Maps to get to the grocery store. In fact, it took me four years of living in Boulder before I was able to get around town without GPS. With Google Maps, I don’t need to remember any landmarks or turning directions. I just plug in my destination and hit START. I have lost my sense of directionality. Nicholas Carr, in The Glass Cage, explores the human impact of automation. For example, he describes how Google Maps has made people lazy at reading maps; in fact Inuit Native Americans rely on maps more so today than they did thousands of years ago. Before GPS, indigenous peoples used traditional, handed-down family wisdom. Now, our understanding of our place in the world is that of an explorer: we are always the center of every map we enter into Google. We watch that haloed, stylized triangle as we glide toward our red, inverted-drop-shaped destination. As a result, we don’t have to remember as much or make connections to where things are located in space. As Carr suggests, we are a “ward of our phones” (Cadwalladr, 2015). We become victims of automation. In fact, Carr (2015) goes so far as to say that by relying so heavily on Google’s GPS navigation, we will “rarely, if ever, have to exercise our mental mapping skills” (Carr, p. 137). We are no longer wayfaring; just focusing on the destination.

Teachers have lost their wayfaring skills. They use curriculum maps in the same way we use Google Maps: finding the way when lost.

What is the purpose of a curriculum map? Let’s think about that for a minute. The academic definition tells us that “curriculum mapping is the process indexing or diagramming a curriculum to identify and address academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments for purposes of improving the overall coherence of a course of study and, by extension, its effectiveness” (Hidden curriculum, 2014).

The same phenomena Carr discusses happens to teachers when they rely too heavily on curriculum maps to guide their instruction. Instead of immersing themselves in the landscape of their curriculum content, noticing its unique features and landmarks, they lose their “mental mapping skills” no longer able to make connections between content areas such as how mathematics and science are interrelated. A science teacher may ask their mathematics colleague to introduce a concept that will be needed in science. However, “less frequently do math teachers ask science or technology teachers to apply math concepts” (Bybee, 2013, p. 77). Even less frequently, especially at the elementary level, each subject is taught as separate curricular units instead connected concepts. Teachers create few opportunities for students to make their own connections between academic content.

Unfortunately, with the banal nature of most American public school classrooms, teachers have been so discouraged to be creative, that they have become lazy at collaboration, critical thinking, and facilitating the learning of their students. Instead of designing real-world learning experiences that give students opportunities to connect their learning to authentic problems, teachers are merely presenting pre-packaged content.

Activities and lesson plans

When I put my smartphone away and stop relying on Google Maps, I slowly begin to notice the landscape around me; the street names and how they are ordered; the weather; the mountains and other landmarks. Well-meaning teachers over-rely on their curriculum maps when planning lessons for students. Most teachers have been required at some point in their career to write formal lesson plans that include student learning objectives, various learning activities (this includes worksheets) and a form of assessment. When teachers plan using a curriculum map, they often default to lesson plans that outline “fun” learning activities. Then, if students are bored in class, teachers either (a) blame the students for not appreciating the amount of planning that went into a particular lesson; or (b) add some “game” or craft (more on that later) or other technology tool if they are comfortable doing so. The problem with this type of mindset is that it disregards the dynamic nature of learning. When teachers put away their curriculum maps, they are more likely to notice more about their students. The Japanese have a concept of reason and being called ikigai. It includes one’s passions, what the world needs, and how they all intersect. Everyone has an ikigai. Unfortunately, ikigai is not valued in American public schools. When teachers plan (or even recycle from year to year) lesson plans, they are not structuring learning as a discovery of skills and knowledge; they are organizing their classroom for efficiency and complacency.

Ikigai Purpose Diagram

Chip and Dan Heath understand the importance of creating moments. In The Power of Moments (2017), they discuss how people want to improve the experiences of those they care about. This includes the students we teach and our own children we raise. As parents and educators we want to create memories that matter. At the end of any memorable experience, The Heath brothers found that people do a quick assessment. “We don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations. Rather, we tend to remember flagship moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions” (p. 9). Great experiences hinge on these peak moments. The Heath brothers call them “defining moments: short experiences that are both meaningful and memorable” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 12). If teachers (or any of us) want to create more meaningful learning experiences, we need to be more intentional in our planning. In his book, Culturally responsive education in the classroom (2020), Dr. Stembridge identifies five planning questions that consistently support a process for creating classroom experiences that are engaging, rigorous, and culturally responsive:

What do I want students to understand?

What do I want students to feel?

What are the targets for rigor?

What are the indicators of engagement?

What are the opportunities to be responsive?

When teachers use a curriculum map (or their state’s standardized testing materials) to plan their school year’s lessons, they are missing important opportunities to be creative and engineer better, more equitable classroom learning experiences. Most teachers have a clear idea (even if it is based on their curriculum or state’s test) what they want students to know. However, knowing something (memorizing a discrete fact for an assessment) is different from understanding something (i.e.: what you understand about your family or significant other). Dr. Stembridge’s planning questions invite teachers to create a more holistic experience that involves the students’ emotions and engagement. They also force teachers to plan for opportunities to be culturally responsive (I will write a future blog post about that).

Chip and Dan Heath use four elements when engineering a more meaningful and memorable experience: ELEVATION, PRIDE, INSIGHT, and CONNECTION (they refer to it as an EPIC framework). Moments of elevation are experiences that “rise above the routine. These make us feel engaged, joyful, surprised, motivated” (Heath & Heath, 2017, p. 87). To create them, we can either (1) boost the sensory appeal; (2) raise the stakes; and/or (3) break the script (standardized testing may raise stakes, but does so in a way that causes memorable negative experiences). Moments of pride commemorate people’s achievements. These include recognizing others (e.g.: birthdays) and celebrating milestones (e.g.: retirement). Unfortunately, for many of our most vulnerable and marginalized students, they do not receive many moments of pride or positive recognition in school. Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations. When people have a moment of strong insight, they usually remember it for a long time. Self-insights are rare occurrences in complacent classrooms. Finally, moments of connection bond people together. We see groups unite when they struggle together toward a meaningful goal; they often begin their work with what Chip and Dan Heath call a “synchronized moment” (e.g.: George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement).

These elements are not prescriptive; they do not dictate that teachers must use a prescribed framework. The importance is in reframing the task of planning to teach an activity instead to designing memorable educational experiences. So, what happens when a teacher has an amazing project that they know their students will love and remember always?

Enter PBL.

Project-based learning (PBL)

Project-based learning (PBL) came onto the education scene as a trend for the 21st Century classroom. It’s support has grown mainly because it aligns with John Dewey’s “learning by doing” approach to education (one can even go as far back as Confucius and Aristotle or Monttessori theory founder Maria Montessori). PBL, when understood properly, engages students in collaborative, real-world problem solving for an actual audience of community stakeholders. Projects can be student-centered and organized around a driving question. Students engage in tasks and discussions that help them create a real product, performance, or event, thereby deepening their learning (Mergendoller, 2006). Project-based learning is shown to improve students’ problem solving and thinking skills, while engaging them in authentic learning that is meaningful (Berends, Boersma & Weggemann, 2003; Scarbrough, Bresnen, Edelman, Laurent, Newell & Swan, 2004). This type of interdisciplinary and project-based approach to learning blends the line separating school and the real world (Wagner, Compton, 2012; Couros, 2015; Boss, Bellanca, 2015; Martinez, Stager 2013). Doing so gives students insight into the interconnectedness of various curricular content areas and how they can be used together to solve novel problems facing society.

So, where does that teddy bear project fit with PBL?

Many teachers find a craft on Pinterest and then begin to plan activities around the craft. One of my schools’ most beloved teachers taught teddy bears for an entire semester. She tied it to Math, Literacy, Science and Social Studies. It was actually quite impressive! However, these types of crafts do not inspire creativity, innovative thinking or collaborative problem solving. In fact, many of them are just dressed-up lesson plan activities (counting teddy bears on a worksheet is supposed to be more engaging than counting dots). Having students complete a craft can be a creative endeavor; however not all crafts are creative. Crafts that are connected to non-authentic problems may be fun, but are most likely structured solely for the purpose of assigning a grade, preparing for a standardized test, or encourage student compliance. They are used in the classroom to trick students into thinking that they are participating in an engaging and rigorous experience.

If you search “project-based learning”, you are bound to get a million results for different crafts that are labeled “projects.” Even if they are framed with an open-ended question, which many are not,, the onus of control is still with the teacher. The teacher decides the question. The teacher decides the project. The teacher decides the timeline. The teacher decides the measures for success. The teacher decides the grades.

What about STEM?

STEM Education

Classrooms that focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) shift students away from learning isolated facts, moving towards experience-based inquiry with multiple opportunities for independent learning. By using the engineering-design model as a framework for instruction and lesson planning, teachers advance students’ academic abilities, creativity, and learning by having them design a product in order to demonstrate certain skill sets, content-area standards, accomplish a certain task, or solve a real-world problem. Students can also use this framework as a guide for thinking systematically about a particular problem while focusing on teamwork, emphasizing open-ended design, creativity and feasibility. Teachers can also use STEM to facilitate discovery for their students so that they are engaged within a specific content area. Key words: facilitate and discovery.

In order for teachers to effectively engage their students in reasoning, they must shift their role from that of a lecturer, imparting wisdom for the students, to a facilitator of learning, allowing for discussions and encouraging an open thought process. Teachers need to encourage students to ask questions and evaluate multiple, sometimes conflicting, answers and opinions (Henderson-Hurley & Hurley, 2013; Tsai et al., 2013). Educational philosopher John Dewey believed that students are motivated to problem solve because they have an “innate love of learning” based on their survival instincts (p. 611). In fact, the simple act of discovery plays a central role in learning. When students “become interested in a problem as a problem and in inquiry and learning for the sake of solving the problem, [student] interest is distinctively intellectual” (Dewey, 1997, p. 614). Students who are strong reasoners will grow up thinking critically about problems and making better decisions as adults; they will be creative, imaginative people who understand the world on a deeper level. Students need to make connections between classroom learning and practical, real-world applications. I see creativity on a continuum with PBL (teacher-directed) on one end, integrated STEM in the middle, and student-centered learning on the other end.

Knoster’s model of change

Most change efforts fail in the classroom. Change is hard. Take a moment to think about changes you have experienced in your life. Changed careers? Partners? Living situations? In each case, did you initiate the change, or was the change thrust onto you? As Malvolio says in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” (Act II, Scene V). We can view change in the same way. Did you move because you had to relocate for a job? Did you change careers because you needed more income? Or, were any of the changes in your life inevitable? Unless something prevents them, my children have to change grade-levels at the end of each school-year, whether they like it or not!

How did you react to some of the big change events in your life? Were you anxious? Stressed out? Eager and excited for the change? Knowing how you react and respond to change gives you a keen insight into how you manage change in other areas of your life.

Tim Knoster, professor at the McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support presented a framework for managing complex change in organizations during the The Association for the Severely Handicapped (TASH) conference in 1991. This model originated with Dr. Mary Lippit (1987) and has since been circulated widely throughout organizations (especially education) when discussing transformation and systemic change efforts.

According to Lippit-Knoster (1987, 1991), there are five elements required for effective change: vision, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. Most school-wide or district-wide change efforts often fail because they lack one (or more) of these elements.


Having a clear vision is essential for any change to be successful. George Couros (2013) explains that in his work with schools and districts, individuals that have a clear vision, and can communicate that vision to others, will have a better chance for being a catalyst for change. Having a clear vision “does not mean that there is one way to do things; in fact, it is essential to tap into the strengths of the people you work with and help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common purpose” (Corous, 2013). However, without a clear vision or a Why is change needed? then there is confusion and very little buy-in.

Many teachers do not fully understand why they need to change their classroom practices. They are bombarded with educational jargon (buzzwords) like culturally responsive, differentiation, PBL, STEM, technology integration) and are not given enough time to really sit with these ideas. There is so much pressure in American public education to find that “silver bullet” initiative and will allow teachers to be immediately effective with students, that many school districts rush through training or initiatives without clearly articulating the WHY.


When there are fifteen training sessions that teachers must attend at the beginning of each school year, how does one prioritize the most important information? Which initiative is the most important if they are all deemed important? Teachers need time to develop their pedagogical skills. In The Skillful Teacher (2008) by Jon Saphier and colleagues detail hundreds of evidence-based classroom pedagogical practices. They believe in building teacher confidence because “a teacher’s skill makes a difference in student performance, not only in achievement scores on tests, but also in students’ sense of fulfillment in school and their feelings of well-being” (Saphier, Gower, & Haley-Speca, 2008). When teachers lack competent skills, there is greater anxiety with trying something new.


We are all motivated by incentives (either intrinsic or extrinsic). Most educators entered the profession because they believe that educating children is a calling. I have never heard a teacher admit that they became a teacher for the money! Certainly, teachers are not motivated by pay, but by something greater. However, without intentional incentives built into any new change effort, teachers will resist doing something new. Incentives can also be positive or negative. Positive incentives provide positive assurance that a teacher will receive something they desire in exchange for doing their work well. This could include recognition during an upcoming staff meeting. Negative incentives discourage certain behaviors through reprimands and other forms of penalties (teacher evaluations). How are we rewarding (or not rewarding) teachers to be creative in their classrooms? Most experiences with trying a new creative lesson have resulted in a failure of some kind. Either students were not engaged or the learning was not rigorous. Undoubtedly, these failures seem to always gain the attention of an administrator and result in some form of reprimand. How likely are you to try a new pedagogical approach if it may reflect poorly on your next teacher evaluation? When seen this way, resistance to change efforts make more sense.


Equitable resources in public education has been a controversial topic for hundreds of years. Teachers often say, “My principal wants me to do more with less” or “The district doesn’t support me.” These statements of frustration indicate that there is a lack of resources to help implement new change efforts. Resources do not always mean financial (although many of our public schools are underfunded because of racist practices. There is inequity between wealthier and poorer school districts because education is paid for with property taxes, which, due to redlining, means schools in poorer areas receive less funding than schools in wealthier areas. If you want to understand this more, please read Education for Whom? The Question of Equal Educational Opportunity by Charles A. Tesconi, Jr. & Emanuel Hurwitz, Jr., 1974). Teacher time is probably one of the most valuable resources in public schools. Teachers need time to become better teachers. Most teachers don’t even get a proper lunch period! If school districts analyzed and invested in ways to use teachers’ time more efficiently, they could devote more time to professional development, teaching-related work and learning.

Action Plan

What’s the plan? Teachers are inundated with plans: strategic plans, school improvement plans, curriculum plans, professional growth plans, just to name a few. With so many plans, it often feels like teachers are on an infinity treadmill. They just keep teaching and attending meetings and hearing about plans, but nothing seems to change. In administrators’ zeal for creating action plans, there are often too many plans and in many cases, these plans contradict each other. Having a clear, actionable plan (with representation of all stakeholders, including students and parents) will help teachers gain traction with a new change effort and move forward.


The original Lippit-Knoster chart did not feature agreement or consensus as a necessary element. However, if teachers have a clear vision, the skills needed to be creative and effective in the classroom, built-in incentives for being creative, resources and a clear action plan, but still don’t have consensus — the buy-in for change by the key stakeholders of the school or district, there will be sabotage. What does sabotage look like in public education? This is the unwilling or unconvinced teachers in the lounge that actively work against the willing. They may counter any argument in favor of change and drag everyone down in order to prevent action.

If you have spent any amount of time in public education, you know that we are missing more than one element. This is why change efforts (especially those designed for creativity, equity, anti-racism, and innovation) fail year after year, and why we have the same educational system design used during the post-Industrial revolution. Attempts at creativity in the classroom have run the gamut of initiatives: craft activities, PBL, technology integration, STEM. Each of these initiatives have been filtered through the Lippit-Knoster change framework, and for every failed attempt, there is a detailed binder sitting on a shelf in some office or classroom that explains (in great detail) why the effort failed. So, is it possible to just skip the initiatives and just pump creativity directly into the classroom?

Creativity rules!

Tina Seelig believes that creativity is our own language and that results in ideas that are new. Ideas presented by the teacher are not truly creative. Tina Seelig believes that creative ideas are evolutionary.” She goes on, “we learn naturally as we move through the world, beginning as a baby. We need to be creative problem solvers in order to address all the everyday challenges we face, such as how to dress for a job interview, find a new way to work when there is a traffic jam, and what to make for dinner. In these cases, it usually makes sense to go with the first or second right answer. (Creativity Rules, 2017, p. 132).

Tina Seelig (2011; 2015) has two frameworks that she uses when describing how to enhance creativity as an imperative life skill that is “an endless renewable resource [that anyone] can tap into at any time” (Seelig, 2011, p. 7). Her Innovation Engine takes into consideration the complex nature of creativity and how it is influenced by many factors. For example, knowledge, motivation, and environment are all variables that are interconnected to form creative thinking and problem solving. Seelig (2011) uses the visual of a continuous ribbon for her Innovation Engine, consisting of six parts. The three parts inside are knowledge, imagination, and attitude. The three parts outside are resources, habitat, and culture (p. 15). When teachers see how creativity is an active state where students are doing instead of waiting to be inspired, then PBL doesn’t always work.

Do students need to be inventing in the classroom in order to be creative?

Seelig’s (2015) Invention Cycle framework takes her definitions of creativity a step further, understanding the importance for students to not only graduate public education with a strong sense of their personal creativity, but they should “emerge from school with agency, feeling empowered to address the opportunities and challenges that await them” (p. 3). Her Invention Cycle captures the fluid and hierarchical process of moving from idea to entrepreneurship. For example, “imagination leads to creativity; creativity leads to innovation; innovation leads to entrepreneurship” (Seelig, 2015, p. 7). Each of these elements requires attitudes and actions. Seelig (2015) explains this way:

Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives. Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address a challenge. Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions. Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others (pp. 12–13).

This way, students are not only being creative, but are using that creativity to actually create something that will change their world. This framework can help educators see how “attitudes and actions are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world” (Seelig, 2015, p. 18). As educators scaffold students’ understanding of how to bring an idea to reality, their classroom becomes an incubator for innovation. Students begin to understand that the Invention Cycle can be both individual and collective as they begin to truly collaborate to solve problems as a group. This is the heart of design thinking and what Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, describes as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” (Seelig, 2015, p. 187). A classroom should not be a separate collection of creative ideas, but a collection of interdependent innovative problem solvers, and it is up to the teacher to create this environment and facilitate the learning that occurs within.

Unleashing creativity in the classroom starts with recognizing how creativity lives inside each of us. We are all creative beings; we’ve just lost touch with it over the years. Our society (especially public education) doesn’t encourage or support creativity, so we have learned to push that part of us down and even believe that we are just not creative. Tina Seelig believes that we are creating our lives every day and yet we don’t think of it as being “creative” in the traditional sense (Seelig, 2017). Teachers don’t see themselves as creative designers of learning experiences. They have been taught to view themselves and content masters who distribute knowledge to any student willing to sit long enough to hear it. We all, especially educators, need to start looking at our lives as creative acts, not just getting students to a specific destination. When teachers focus solely on activities and lesson plans, they lose sight of the power of discovery, creativity, imagination, and innovation. These elements are not extra. They are important in developing student agency and this powerful mindset shift is the key to disrupting and reinventing public education.


It is easy to get caught up in the educational destination of our students. Teachers are forced the narrative that we must prepare students for the world by preparing them to enter the next grade level. This industrial conveyor belt design is a disservice to our students. By focusing on the destination, we have lost sight of the journey. Teachers are wayfarers, not automatons. When you refocus your mindset on the process and the experience of learning, then you remain more mindful on your students academic, social, and emotional needs. In the end, these matter more than checking all of the curricular boxes. This is why learning experiences will always be greater than lesson plans.

Equity Defined: The Power of Storytelling

Great stories tell us something about what it means to be human. — Jenn Maer, IDEO Design Director

When Jenn Maer arrived at IDEO seven years ago, she had this idea of blending storytelling with design. At the time, most people were indifferent to the idea of storytelling as a method for creativity and innovation. Her colleagues didn’t really understand how to best utilize her talents as a storyteller in the design of new products and services. Her current title at IDEO is Design Director, though she doesn’t fit the typical mold of designer of things; she’s a writer. Maer classifies herself as a designer “whose medium is words and narrative.” She is fervent that storytelling is design and should not be separated from one another. Now, storytelling is en vogue: companies incorporate it into pitching and branding, and explaining their values to prospective customers.

Maer is happiest when she is creating things that bypass the brain’s radar and go straight to the heart. She teaches IDEO U’s course, Storytelling for Influence because she understands how stories motivate people to take action. Maer says, “stories get people excited about moving toward new futures. Stories bring the unimaginable to life.” As an learning experience designer, this is exactly what I am looking for in a learning experience for my students. Shouldn’t teachers be striving to bring their content to life and inspire their students to build their futures? I believe that Maer’s lessons for compelling storytelling can teach educators a lot about designing amazing learning experiences.

Instead of writing a lesson plan, try creating a brief. A brief is a storytelling blueprint. Don’t think about what lesson you want to teach; instead, consider what story you want to tell your students. What do you really want to say? What do you want your students to feel? What do you want your students to remember (not just for an upcoming test, but as adults)? A storytelling brief has four parts: audience, needs, goal(s), and your big idea.


When designing a student-centered, culturally responsive learning experience, your students should always come first. In storytelling, engaging your audience is key. If you can empathize with your students and show them (through authentic stories) how they fit into the content, they will be far more engaged than if you just teach the facts or present them with a slidedeck.


If you don’t know your students, then it will be impossible to create an experience that meets their academic, social, and emotional needs. Teaching is about finding the underlying need of your students and empathizing with them so that you can meet that need. What do your students care about? If you create with your students in mind, your learning experiences will be far more meaningful and memorable.


What are you trying to achieve with this learning experience? Are you trying to prepare your students for an upcoming event or experiment? Do you want to get them excited about reading? Are you trying to help your student unlearn their disdain of Math? Every learning experience (and story) has an emotional root. You need to take your students on an emotional journey with their learning. As Maer says, “Storytellers can navigate a room through a whole tide of emotions.” Experienced teacher-designers can do the same with 30 students.

Big Idea

What is the one thing you want your students to remember? Your learning experience needs to have a compelling story that captures a problem that you and your students are trying to solve. Many teachers are familiar with posting their learning objectives on the board before a lesson so that students can see the clear goal for the lesson. Your learning experience’s big idea is more than an objective; it is something you want your students to feel and remember as adults, not just for an upcoming test.

By creating a storytelling brief, you are preparing yourself to design an impactful learning experience. This will also give you a chance to reflect on the medium that you want for your learning experience. Many teachers default to worksheets or slide decks. Depending on the message you are trying to convey, different learning experiences will require different media to be effective. For example, maybe you want to create a learning experience that allows students to build self-efficacy in writing. You know your student audience and you know that many of them do not see themselves as writers. Giving them a presentation about the virtues of communicating through writing will fall flat. You need them to wrestle with their academic identities around writing. There may even be some past trauma that students need to work though. The story you want to tell for this type of learning experience will be one of letting go of who they think they should be and embracing who they really are. You will want to connect with your students and help them see how a writing life will serve them well. You may have a big idea of cultivating self-compassion for not wanting to write or resiliency and a growth mindset for pushing through a difficult writing project. Either way, you need to design a learning experience that provides them with psychological safety and fosters their growth.

I have seen way too many teachers pull out a lesson plan from the previous year (or 10 years ago!) and make the necessary worksheet copies for an upcoming lesson. I always cringe at this because when you design a learning experience, there is no guarantee that it will work with your students, even if it did last year. Once you have a storytelling brief, you need to build your learning experience prototype and test it out. Share your learning experience idea with a friend or colleague and reflect on their feedback. As Maer explains with sharing stories, “It’s a vulnerable exercise, and can be a painful one when you’ve poured yourself into a story. But keep in mind, feedback isn’t personable. It’s simply in the service of making your story better.” This applies to learning experiences as much as stories. You may have a great idea for an experience, but you need to solicit feedback in order to reflect on the viability, feasibility, or desirability of the idea. The intersection of these three elements is how IDEO explains where design thinking lives. Your learning experience may sound awesome, but may not be financially feasible. It is easy miss the bigger picture if you don’t test out your ideas.

Soliciting feedback can be a scary exercise, but having some specific questions handy, will make the process more bearable. Here are some from Maer’s Storytelling for Influence course:

What was most memorable?

What do you have questions about?

What moved or motivated you?

What, in your opinion, was the big idea?

Designing a learning experience for maximum impact requires creativity and planning. I have found that some of the best learning experiences I have seen or taught have included almost all of these elements.

Make it personal

Human-centered design thinking requires you to center on those whom you are designing for. Designing student-centered learning experiences requires knowing your students and making the content accessible and personal so that students can see themselves in the learning.

Get emotional — be vulnerable

If we want our students to be vulnerable in their learning, then we need to be vulnerable in our teaching. Students come to us with all sorts of baggage, from racial prejudices to traumatic interactions with other teachers. We need to be prepared to get emotional with our students. Teachers are taught to leave emotion at home when enter the classroom. I hate the axiom: Don’t smile until Christmas. That is crap! You will not be able to teach a child until you can reach that child on an emotional level.

Use anecdote and reflection

When learning experiences contain anecdotes or reflection, students can better connect with the learning and the teacher. An anecdote is a story that Maer describes as a “put-you-in-the-room-moment.” These moments in a learning experience provide students with sensory detail that helps them “see” the concepts you are teaching. A reflection is a part of the story where you help your students make sense of something they just saw or heard. I have seen teachers refer to this as “thinking out loud,” but I feel that a memorable reflection gets your students to actually feel what you are describing, not just hear your thinking.

Make it visual

We are visual creatures. Learning to sketch your ideas is an important skill that can be learned and practiced. Dan Roam, author of Back of the Napkin (2008) and Draw to Win (2016) explains how visual processing works in the brain. He uses visual thinking to help people use pictures to illustrate their thinking, tell better stories, and convey complexity through visuals. This is not about having you or your students improve their artistic ability; rather it is about giving students the confidence to communicate their ideas. Roam explains that if you can draw five shapes (square, circle, triangle, line and blob), then you can draw anything and communicate any idea. The more visual you make your learning experience, the more impact it will have on your students’ learning.

Give a call to action

My favorite part of any keynote is the very end when the speaker gives the audience a call to action. I love feeling inspired as I listen to them tell their stories and share their insights. However, if a speech just ended there, I would feel frustrated because I want to act. When you can motivate and inspire an audience, they crave something actionable. We all want concrete ways to improve our lives or make the world a better place. If you want the learning to continue when students leave for the day, design a learning experience with a call to action. Just wait until the next day when you see what your students did for the optional homework!

Stay inspired

The only way I have found to keep the creative ideas flowing is by gathering inspiration through as many different people and outlets as possible. This could mean attending conferences, but it could also mean reading books, listening to podcasts, participating in webinars, or taking an online course. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be strengthened with practice. If you are feeling overwhelmed about how to start designing a learning experience, reach out to colleagues who you know have high student engagement. You can even do a simple online search for learning experiences and find a ton of great examples that will prime your creative pump.

Public education is a participatory system. We cannot force student engagement. As educator designers and storytellers, all we can do is tell compelling stories and create memorable learning experiences that allow our students to be creative and innovative.


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Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.