Does Your Class Speak Design?

I was at the dLab at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA, yesterday, observing classes in design and mechanical engineering.  A number of sixth graders were busy assembling gearboxes out of wooden parts cut by a somewhat cranky and difficult laser cutter (which curiously enough does not have a name).  The kids were not nearly as ready as I thought they should be for their upcoming display and review… until I saw the drawings, and the skill with which they were assembling parts. A dozen or more kids wielding saws, scissors, knives, a drill press, a scroll saw — all under the watchful eyes of adults, of course —  and making all sorts of mechanical toys that rock and roll and bounce and have spinning parts…

Around the room, bins of parts and materials invite children to dip their hands in and take what they need.  Googly eyes for monsters.  Small blocks for building models.  Tables covered with whiteboard material or IdeaPaint, and generous helpings of whiteboard markers, so kids can draw their ideas.  Large rolling whiteboards for kids to note down their ideas.  Not a place in the room that could count as the “stage” where you, the “sage” can stand and command the room’s attention.

The color of the bins matters, or at least the color of the label.  Green bins say “Come on in! This is yours to do with as you wish.”  Rulers, screws, hammers, nails, washers, googly eyes, pipe cleaners… all sorts of materials for building and imagining.  Yellow bins and yellow tools — saws, blades, plywood sheets, plexiglass and more — all say, “Ask first.”  Red says, “this is already spoken for. This belongs to someone else.”

Circular tables hold computers.  Square and rectangular tables are whiteboard surfaces.  The kids here know to eat or draw or work with glue guns at square tables; round tables are for digital design (work benches in the carpentry room are for serious tools like screwdrivers and things that need clamps and vises).

Symbols on the walls and symbols on the worksheets and symbols on the machines all operate within what is known as a DESIGN LANGUAGE.  Apple Computer’s design language, of sleek shapes and crisp typography, is probably the one we teachers know best.

My classroom doesn’t speak design.  It doesn’t have a design language, and my students don’t know how to read that design language.  Yet.

It will, though.

How about your classroom.  Does your classroom communicate to your students how and where to work without you having to say a word?

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. Hi, Kyle, and welcome.

    Yes, I think I can. Let’s say that in your class, every time your worksheet involves map work there’s a ✪ symbol on the sheet. Every single map worksheet has that logo on it.

    Let’s also say that you’re in a classroom that has limited wall space, but it does have drawers for maps. It also has a computer with Google Earth installed on it. Well, you’d make a big painted version of this ✪ symbol on the wall over the computer, and on the drawer with the maps. Maybe you’d also paste it to the cover and spine of an atlas.

    That way, a little kid will connect the symbol ✪ with maps.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.