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When teachers view themselves as systems architects, they are able to view potential problems as design challenges. 


What I Learned from Watching People on a Plane

Yesterday, on a flight from Portland to Minneapolis, the flight attendant asked the passengers to check their seats for any belongings and to close the shade on the windows. When I left the plane, I noticed that just over a third of the passengers had shut the shades.

A week earlier, on a flight to Phoenix, the flight attendant asked passengers to do the same thing. However, on this flight, the attendant gave a rationale: shutting the shades would keep the plane cooler. I’d guess around eighty percent of the passengers shut the shades.

But it has me wondering what it would take to get 100% participation. I jotted down a few ideas:

  • Use Negative Reinforcement: Tell passengers that you will not be able to deplane until all of the shades are shut.
  • Give an Economic Rationale: Explain that it will conserve energy and reduce airfare.
  • Appeal to Empathy: Tell people that if they keep the shades down, the next group of people will have a cooler plane ride.
  • Apply Social Pressure: Ask the person in the middle row to double-check that the window person has shut the shade.
  • Reward Them: Tell passengers that there will be a raffle giving a prize to a random row that has their window shade shut.
  • Gamify the Process: Turn it into a competition. Tell the entire flight that they have 90 seconds to get the shades down. Tell them that the previous flight had only three window shades that were left up and challenge them to beat the record and reach a full 100%.
  • Make it a Song: Go all-out with a song. Use jazz hands. Pump it full of pizazz. Include humor. Toss in a few puns and maybe an inside joke or two about the destination city. Invite people to participate as well.

I’m not sure which option would work best. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. However, I would test out either of the last two options because they require no additional money and have the potential to create a positive memorable experience. I’m guessing a song and dance routine might become a viral video (though it has the potential to be annoying) while a gamified version might have the ability to distract people who are sitting on the tarmac waiting for the doors to open. It might be interesting to split test it with several flight crews and see which system works best.

At this point, you might be wondering why I care about window shades on airplanes. The truth is, I don’t. Not at all. But I am fascinated by the idea of systems architecture. This is what happens when you create structures and processes that solve problems. Systems architecture is at its best when people invent creative solutions that don’t require additional time or resources and get full buy-in from users. The best solutions are the ones where people want to embrace the solution rather than feeling coerced to follow it.

The following is one of my favorite examples of this type of systems architecture:

Teachers as Systems Architects

A few years ago, I got on Twitter and whined about bus duty. This was Phoenix, after all, where it can be blazingly hot before and after school.

William Chamberlain responded to my tweet with four words, “I love bus duty.”

I shook my head. Was he serious?

Then, in the next tweet William wrote, “You are the first face they see in the morning and the last face they see in the afternoon. Teachers are always saying they value relationships. Bus duty is one of the best ways to be relational when kids least expect it.”

Truth bomb.

William nailed it.

Over the years, some of the best teachers I worked with were the ones who saw creative constraint as a chance to innovate. Chad and Javi transformed the dreaded summer school into an amazing STEM Camp for kids and lab school for teachers. When teachers were complaining about raucous dance-offs in the hallway, our principal, Raul, created designated dance areas where kids could then vote and have a before-school dance competition each Friday. Raul looked for an opportunity to build a positive school culture when so many people could only see a nuisance.

Sometimes fewer choices can lead to more innovation. The following video explores this idea of creative constraint:

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Some of my favorite past projects began with creative constraint. When I had to teach within the rigid 4-hour ELL Language block, I turned the oral language development piece into a chance to do cardboard challenges and maker projects. I used the hour-long grammar block to do choice-driven blogging and podcasts.

In other words, I had to be a systems architect, working within the landscape to innovate rather than simply dreaming up something new. I learned how to view problems as potential design features.

Systems Architects View Problems As Inspiration for Design

The following are some of the questions I’ve learned to ask when faced with a challenge:

  1. What are some things that I’m still allowed to do? I might have to do bus duty but I’m still allowed to smile, laugh, and be social with students. I can create a system where I will work on smiling, giving fist bumps, and deliberately memorizing students’ names.
  2. Are there any things that I am convinced I have to do that are really just unspoken expectations? There’s actually no official school policy stating that I have to give students homework. Maybe I could make it fun, engaging, and optional. I can create a system where homework is fun to do and totally optional, which might actually allow parents to have more of a voice in the process while also getting students excited about building bridges from the ideas in our class out into their world.
  3. What is a new angle I can approach this with? What if I viewed grading as a chance to affirm students and help them grow? What if I saw it as a way to pursue a conversation? And if that’s my perspective, what if I redesigned grading to focus more on the feedback and less on the inputting of grades? Perhaps grade less but assess more?
  4. What are similar systems out there that work? How can those systems be applied to this problem? Gamification works in other domains. Could it work with window shades on an airplane? Could we make clean-up time into something fun to do? 
  5. What is the hidden opportunity within this challenge? On the surface, grammar is boring. But it’s also content neutral, which means grammar might actually be a cool way to do Genius Hour projects through choice-driven blogging.
  6. How do I get people to want to do this without spending tons of time or resources? I want to give students better feedback but grading takes forever. I just don’t have enough time to do it well. Perhaps I could do design a system where we do student-teacher conferences during student project time.

Think about ballparks for a moment. The biggest barrier to Camden Yards was a giant ugly factory building along with a strange lot size. However, that ugly factory building became the focal point of a vintage-style ballpark and the strange dimensions became the quirky field dimensions that makes Camden Yards so iconic. Similarly, the short dimensions in Fenway Park are why we have the Green Monster.

These challenges proved to be opportunities because architects were able to think differently about the space.

So, what are some challenges you’ve faced within your school system and how have you turned these into design opportunities?

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Janine MacAulay says:

    The lesson for me re: airplane behaviour is know your audience. What is the biggest motivator? I would say getting off that plane. It’s not that there aren’t empathetic, fun-loving people on your flight – it’s that there aren’t enough of them. But 100% of those people want to get off that plane in a timely manner, so negative reinforcement works in that situation. But maybe it needs to be applied every single time, so you’re not changing future practice, just present behaviour. And the task doesn’t demand a high level of commitment or conscientiousness. Would you want to apply the same logic to having a productive staff meeting? Or successful writing workshop session? Probably not! But an interesting problem to ponder.

    • John Spencer says:

      Excellent point! It ultimately comes down to your ability to know your audience and truly understand what they need.

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