Blog Post

01. A Design Exercise: (re)Designing the Everyday

This blog post contributes to HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project.

We change light bulbs.  We stand in lines.  And wash the dishes, pack the kids’ lunches, recycle, and check our email too frequently.  Some of us regularly take student attendance.  And we commute – even if from the bedroom, through the kitchen, and into the home office.  The mundane and the meaningful collide through actions enacted daily.  They are ritual.  And our many roles – consumer and producer, parent and citizen, student – are laced with a doing that, in many cases, is intrinsic, perhaps inevitable, and often inane.  How do we experience these moments?  Are they wasted, or cherished?  Are they multi-tasked and perhaps also multi-placed?  How might they be (re)designed afresh?

These are some of the questions, and scenarios, that inspired “A Design Exercise: (re)Designing the Everyday,” an assignment I first taught in the fall of 2011.  Over these past few years the assignment and my pedagogy have changed, with new iterations and insight altering my teaching practice.  Yet as they say, you never forget your first time.  And so I’d like to revisit the very first implementation of this assignment for the course EDT 585: Designing for Engagement.

First, some context of time and place.  When I first taught this course and assignment, I wasn’t in a classroom – or at least of the type you’re probably imagining.  Students weren’t sitting as desks.  Teaching, in fact, did not occur face-to-face in any “traditional” sense.  EDT 585 was a cognate course for the University of Michigan-Flint’s “Global Program,” a graduate program for professionals earning a Master’s in educational technology.  The program’s purpose, for lack of a better mission statement, was “to make cool stuff and change the world.”  For example, as a graduate of this program’s first cohort, my own final project and Master’s thesis reported upon a year-long partnership with the world’s leading fair labor watchdog, during which time a colleague and I designed and implemented an online economic justice simulation for 
high school students.

But what of the students I eventually taught?  Most of the 24 “students” in the program – and, subsequently, my course – were practicing K-12 teachers.  Some were fresh out of college, with only a few years of teaching experience; others had been teaching for nearly three decades.  In addition to our teachers-as-students, the cohort also featured a few entrepreneurs and education design professionals.  And because this was a “global” program, members of the 2011-‘12 cohort hailed from Egypt, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, and a handful of American states.

It’s also important to note that the graduate program spanned 16-months, including two three-week summer residencies in Geneva, Switzerland.  So while I’d met, in person, all my students during our first residency, our yearlong experience in EDT 585 was taught entirely online.  This was global, distance, and digitally-mediated education at it’s most improvisational, as we co-designed a wiki-based online learning “webspace” to host our various project-based collaborations.  And so it was, from September of 2011 through June of 2012 when we gathered, for a second time, back in Geneva.  It is from this context – of distance, graduate, pro-social, and self-described “evil genius vacation nerd camp” learning – that the assignment “A Design Exercise: (re)Designing the Everyday” emerges.

This assignment was created in alignment with two complementary goals of EDT 585: (1) engaging design from multiple perspectives to foster appreciation for historic and contemporary innovations related to education and learning, and (2) leveraging varied notions of design through popular and scholarly texts, digital resources, games, and other media.  To meet both goals, a two-week “design exercise” was developed to enhance students’ experience of everyday phenomena, such as teaching a class, planning a lesson, even brewing a cup of coffee.  Prior to engaging in the design exercise, students read and discussed online a model description of anthropological fieldwork – Miner’s seminar 1956 “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.”  This reading was coupled with Tim Brown’s (2008) “Design Thinking” in order to situate the (re)design assignment among conceptual and practical perspectives concerning how design is related to everyday informal, formal, and trans-spatial learning.

Following these readings and discussions, students followed an eight-step iterative process based upon the components of Brown’s “design thinking;” inspiration, ideation, implementation.  Briefly, these steps included:

  1. Identifying a personal everyday ritual
  2. Conducting self-focused ethnographic research
  3. Creating enhanced ideas for action
  4. Implementing a prototype for enhanced everyday action (a “design”)
  5. Reflecting upon first iterations
  6. Conducting a second round of implementation (a “(re)design”)
  7. Conducting a second round of reflection, and
  8. Documenting and representing outcomes via the course webspace

To assist their learning process, every student was also paired with a “design partner.”  12 sets of partner consultations were mediated between students via chat, email, Skype, and the course website.  Design partners communicated regularly throughout the assignment.

So what happened?  Inspired by course readings, our online discussions, and partner consultations, students (re)designed a variety of everyday rituals.  Some of the most notable (re)designs of the everyday included: preparing children for their school day, teaching lessons during and after school, commuting to work, shopping for groceries, investing in personal health, journaling about professional struggles, teaching with games, and establishing morning routines.  Complementing the focus of (re)designed rituals were students’ representations.  24 digital media representations of enhanced everyday rituals were also embedded within the course website and included screencasts, podcasts, interactive maps, multi-media wiki pages, PDF documents, and text-based reflections. 

From my own design perspective as instructor, it was critical that students engaged a relevant project focus.  It was important that students selected to (re)design everyday action or ritual that was professionally and/or personally significant.  The assignment was intended to foster meaningful engagement with real-world learning, and students were assessed based upon the degree to which their individual focus attended to substantial aspects of everyday action, reflection, and learning.  As one student noted about how she (re)designed a “vision board,” “Sharing my ‘Vision Boards’ was the turning point for me when I decided to trust the community that is our cohort and fully engage.  I’m glad that I did.  The people in our cohort have encouraged, challenged, and inspired me both professionally and personally.  Thanks to each one of you for an incredible collaborative learning experience.  This is probably the truest ‘community of learners’ I have ever experienced.”

As a means of representation illustrating both learning processes and reflective insight, I also amplified the role of digital media.  Although it may seem obvious, it was important for me – as the pedagogical model – to encourage student production of digital media as a means, and not an end.  Students’ production of high quality digital media representations were not a primary learning task, but were intended as a method to further deepen conceptual understanding of course themes related to design and learning.  For example, after he created a number of digital videos – both machinima and screencasts – one student recalled, “The activities themselves as well as the underlying themes, concepts, and learning objectives helped me to further understand and literally measure their usefulness. The benefits of my own scholastic growth as well as my pedagogical development is something I could certainly see in regards to current learning and I imagine these activities will be a base to build from – into the future.”

Another feature of this assignment’s impact was real world relevance.  Because my students were all professionals – indeed, some had been teaching longer than I’d been alive! – it was necessary that students connect experiences with their design exercise to other contexts beyond the online environment and immediate tasks of the course.  In addition to drawing upon course readings and themes, it was important that students challenged themselves to bridge individual experience with contemporary aspects of education and schooling.  This was demonstrated by one student, who, as a teacher, wrote in their project reflection: “After focusing on design for so long, I have begun to intelligently question the design of everything.  The way I go about my day, the way I grade my papers, or the way I play a board game.  Most of all, I have been questioning the place in which I work.  Is school really designed to help kids understand things? Or is it designed to find out who can withstand the brutal attempts to train one's mind to do tasks?”

Reflecting upon “A Design Exercise: (re)Designing the Everyday,” I will conclude by sharing three final takeaways for others interested in my pedagogy.

  • Encourage students to represent their learning via multiple forms of representation.  Instead of requiring that all students edit a wiki page or record a screencast to represent how they (re)designed aspects of everyday ritual and learning, I embraced students’ multiple approaches to digital media representations of learning.  The particular skills associated with any individual digital media form (such as recording a screencast) were secondary to the primary goal of enhancing everyday experiences through a design process.  By encouraging multiple forms of representation, students could adopt digital media and other technologies they were most comfortable adopting.  Then, students could challenge themselves to adapt these media and skills to a novel task, and – most importantly – still “see the forest through the trees” in order to address our course’s broader curricular focus on design.
  • Provide students with multiple forms of feedback.  Before launching the assignment I described how and in what ways the assignment would progress via screencast.  During project development I provided written feedback on students’ individual website homepages, and their design partner consultation conversations – both helped guide initial assignment implementation.  Following students’ documentation and representation, I first wrote additional comments on students’ individual assignments and then recorded a reflective screencast that explicitly addressed common themes across multiple projects.  The efficacy of these multiple forms of feedback cannot be overstated.
  • Explicitly model relationships between individual student projects and broader course themes.  The unique constraints of online learning demand that instructors establish a sense of community between learners, and across time and space.  One means of establishing community is linking various examples of student work through the identification of emergent learning themes.  As our (re)design projects concluded, I highlighted a variety of unifying themes, whether conceptual (e.g. time, memory and legacy), or about family, sense of self, and attention to daily tasks.

Finally, for those who want to learn more, two brief notes.  The University of Michigan-Flint’s now-defunct “Global Program” has become the Institute for Innovation in Education.  You can also learn more about my teaching at



Your model is strongly reminiscent of Anthony F.C. Wallace's mazeway model, where he understands how we ritualize activities and thereby don't do much thinking about them while we do them. And that is at the heart of his kind of psychological anthrophology. What's particularly interesting is that I'd not thought of Wallace for a few decades until your "problem statement" of why we do things without thinking about them. Given that there are so many more things I now do, wherein it looks like I'm thinking (with links, references, and patterns), it's amazing that my mazeways have gone so far beyond "getting from here to there" with shortcuts from past trips. Do look at Wallace - he is very, very important and goes the the foundation of these kinds of thinking problems.


Thanks for the recommendation Joe, I appreciate the perspective and commentary.