Middle school students study on laptops inside a treehouse inside a school cafeteria

Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism

Since reading NeuroTribes, we think of psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to zone work as “Cavendish bubbles” and “Cavendish space”, after Henry Cavendish, the wizard of Clapham Common and discoverer of hydrogen. The privileges of nobility afforded room for his differences, allowing him the space and opportunity to become “one of the first true scientists in the modern sense.”

Cavendish Space

Cavendish Space: psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to zone work, intermittent collaboration, and collaborative niche construction.

Let’s build psychologically safe homes of opportunity without the requirement of nobility or privilege. Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and camaraderie. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Develop neurological curb cuts. Fill our classrooms with choice and comfort, instructional tolerance, continuous connectivity, and assistive technology. In other words, make space for Cavendish. Make spaces for both collaboration and deep work.

One of the more interesting ideas emerging from attention capital theory is the surprising role environment can play in supporting elite cognitive performance.

Professional writers seem to be at the cutting edge of this experimentation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we start to see more serious attention paid to constructing seriously deep spaces as our economy shifts towards increasingly demanding knowledge work.

Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

At our learning space, we provide caves, campfires, and watering holes so that dandelions, tulips, and orchids alike can find respite. Online and offline, we provide individual spaces as well as community spaces so that learners can progressively socialize according to their interaction capacity. Caves, campfires, and watering holes are necessary to designing for neurological pluralism and providing psychological safety. They’re necessary to positive niche construction.

This is my space. It allows me to have control over one small part of a traumatic and offensive world.

AuDHD and me: My nesting habits – Emergent Divergence

Caves, Campfires, and Watering Holes

Make space for Cavendish.

Like Cavendish, we’re autistic. We relate to much of his personal life. He needed his bubble, his cave, his sensory and social cocoon.

photo of man sitting on a cave

He also needed, occasionally, the company of a small set of his Royal Society peers. The Royal Society Monday Club was his campfire, his place where he could lurk at the edges and socialize with a small group on his terms.

The source of this apparent shyness was social anxiety so intense that it nearly immobilized him in certain situations.

It is not true, however, that he wanted to remove himself entirely from the company of his peers; he just wanted to stand off to the side, soaking everything in. Two scientists conversing on a topic of interest at the Royal Society’s Monday Club might notice a hunched figure in a gray-green coat lurking in the shadows, listening intently. Eager to solicit his appraisal of their work, his fellow natural philosophers devised a devious but effective method of drawing him into an exchange. “The way to talk to Cavendish is never to look at him,” said astronomer Francis Wollaston, “but to talk as it were into a vacancy, and then it is not unlikely but you may set him going.”

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Learn about Cavendish’s neurodivergent traits in our glossary.

Cavendish was very uncomfortable in the public eye. He formed an alliance with Charles Blagden, an extroverted and outgoing Monday Club peer, whereby Blagden introduced Cavendish and his ideas to wider audiences. Blagden brought Cavendish to the creative commons, to the watering holes of science and naturalism. Cavendish needed intermittent collaboration.


Intermittent Collaboration

Groups whose members interacted only intermittently preserved the best of both worlds, rather than succumbing to the worst. These groups had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly, yet they preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.

Problem-solving techniques take on new twist: For best solutions, intermittent collaboration provides the right formula

Our cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level and three-speed communication flow used at Automattic and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. All of these facilitate intermittent collaboration, psychological safety, and sensory safety.

The best solutions come from “intermittent collaboration” — group work punctuated by breaks to think & work by ourselves.

Daniel Pink

Neurological Pluralism

Neurodivergent people are psychological safety barometers.

We must build for the psychological, social, and sensory safety of neurodivergent people.

  • Caves, Campfires, Watering Holes
  • Dandelions, Tulips, Orchids
  • Red, Yellow, Green
  • Conversation, Discussion, Publication
  • Realtime, Async, Storage

These reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism. When we design for pluralism, we design for real life, for the actuality of humanity.

Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.

The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity | by Trauma Geek | Medium

Edges Cases Are Stress Cases: Design is Tested at the Edges

An education that is designed to the edges and takes into account the jagged learning profile of all students can help unlock the potential in every child.

From Hostility to Community – Teachers Going Gradeless

Design for agency and collaboration. Design for acceptance and intrinsic motivation. Design for the real lives of disabled and neurodivergent people. We are always edge cases, and edge cases are stress casesThe logistics of disability and cognitive difference are exhausting, often impossible. A necessary part of design is compassion, and a necessary part of compassion is recognizing the structural realities of marginalized people. Design is tested at the edges. We design for everyone when we design for neurodiversity and disability.

“Edge cases define the boundaries of who and what you care about” (http://bkaprt.com/dfrl/00-01/). They demarcate the border between the people you’re willing to help and the ones you’re comfortable marginalizing.

That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.

It’s a test we haven’t passed yet. When faced with users in distress or crisis, too many of the experiences we build fall apart in ways large and small.

Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Design for Real Life

Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best.

At its core, intersectionality is about nuance and context.

Source: The Intersectional Presidency – Tressie McMillan Cottom – Medium

“Essentially, no one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream. I study fish that swim upstream.”

Source: Black Cyberfeminism: Intersectionality, Institutions and Digital Sociology by Tressie McMillan Cottom :: SSRN

Design With, Not For

Even better than designing for is designing with. Neurodivergent & disabled students are great flow testers. They’ll thoroughly dogfood your school UX. There are great opportunities for project & passion-based learning in giving students agency to audit their context and design something better.

And, take my word on this, no one can identify and rebel against an unfair system as efficiently as a kid or adult with ID, except perhaps an autistic person. They know the system is unfair!

PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It? – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Parallel to the topic of who designs for children lies a bigger question: Do children need design at all? Or, rather, how might they be enabled to design the toys they need and experiences they desire for themselves? The act of making that designers find so satisfying is built into early childhood education, but as they grow, many children lose opportunities to create their own environment, bounded by a text-centric view of education and concerns for safety. Despite adults’ desire to create a safer, softer child-centric world, something got lost in translation. Jane Jacobs said, of the child in the designed-for-childhood environment: “Their homes and playgrounds, so orderly looking, so buffered from the muddled, messy intrusions of the great world, may accidentally be ideally planned for children to concentrate on television, but for too little else their hungry brains require.” Our built environment is making kids less healthy, less independent, and less imaginative. What those hungry brains require is freedom. Treating children as citizens, rather than as consumers, can break that pattern, creating a shared spatial economy centered on public education, recreation, and transportation safe and open for all. Tracing the design of childhood back to its nineteenth-century origins shows how we came to this place, but it also reveals the building blocks of resistance to fenced-in fun.

The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids

The School User Experience

What do kids see? What do they feel? What do they smell? What do they hear? What is their experience as they move through your school?

How much more effective we might be if our user interface design was intentional, and intentionally designed to support children?

 Have many fewer rules, and ONLY have rules you can successfully defend in a debate with a student

Eliminate lunch detention and no recess punishments. Those are cruel punishments which demolish your credibility with every child.

Working graffiti is good.

Your School’s UX. What is it? And where to start.

We had been talking about our journey from opening up a few walls to building truly flexible spaces, from offering kids seating and writing choices to a move toward eliminating single-teacher classrooms, but our presentation was, indeed, geared toward building.

“Everybody always has a building project,” I finally said.

Because every school should be changing all the time. And should be changing with a purpose — moving from adult centered teaching spaces to child centered learning spaces — moving from static environments to flexible environments — moving from controlling design to inspiring design.

Every school needs a building project every year, because you don’t need contractors and bulldozers to change a school environment — you just need commitment.

So if you can’t do the expensive stuff — you can still do the effective stuff. So here are four things you can do to change your school’s space.

One: Give your kids the gift of daylight.

Well, in order to maintain healthy attention kids need three things that are often in short supply in schools — fresh air, large muscle movement, and daylight. One of the easiest to fix, in many schools, is daylight.

Two: Get rid of teacher desks.

The teacher’s desk is an ugly remnant of a time when uninvolved teachers led ineffective classes, they really need to vanish.

Three: Keep all of your classroom doors open.

The most obvious way to build transparency and openness into your educational environment is to open classroom doors and create the notion of ‘the commons.’ Opening doors will make your school noisier and more active. It will convert corridors from waste space to instructional space. It will allow kids who need a different kind of space to have it and yet — remain supervised.

Obviously it will do something else. The talk we gave to the architects was titled “Space that forces change — Change that forces space.” Opening doors will make your teachers change what they do. Noisier environments mean that teacher voice must change. You can’t really yell over it, you have to talk under it, and thus move away from mass instruction.

Four: Let kids sit where they want, if they want.

We have this saying, “if a kid can’t walk into any classroom, kindergarten through 12th grade, and choose where, how, or if to sit — we aren’t teaching them to make decisions, which means we aren’t teaching them very much at all.”

This is important. The act of controlling seating, like the act of controlling toilet use, or food and drink, is an act which shatters the possibility of real trust between teachers and children.

Source: How Will You Redesign Your School Over The Next Six Months?

We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won’t turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the “how” our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.

And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That’s true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths – and those are important, and it has a committed caring component – but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.

SpeEdChange: Writing for Empathy

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning | A Space for Learning

It is our responsibility to provide every learner with real learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs, which not only allow their cognitive energy to be focused on learning but helps students to develop the contemporary skills needed to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work. This includes the availability of multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies as well as assisting students in understanding and creating a variety of learning products which demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

No child within the Albemarle County Public Schools should need a label or prescription in order to access the tools of learning or environments they need. Within the constraints of other laws (in particular, copyright) we will offer alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies to provide access for all learners to acquire lifelong learning competencies and the knowledge and skills specified in curricular standards. We will create classroom cultures that fully embrace differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs and capabilities. We will apply contemporary learning science to create accessible entry points for all students in our learning environments; and which support students in learning how to make technology choices to overcome disabilities and inabilities, and to leverage preferences and capabilities.

Seven Pathways

Comfort & Choice and Student-Created Context

“…while sitting in that chemistry classroom, I asked, ‘Does anyone here have furniture like this at home?’ I guess that began our Choice and Comfort Pathway.”

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

We believe in scaling great ideas, theories, and strategies across our schools rather than trying to scale up programs. Not everybody’s going to build a treehouse in the cafeteria as our kids did in one middle school. That was a school‐specific desire. A group of middle schoolers in another school decided to build a high‐altitude balloon apparatus and send it to the outer edges of the atmosphere. Not every middle school needs to do that. Some kids may decide to do something that seems less ambitious and build a nine‐hole Putt‐Putt golf course using cardboard. The projects, and the form of the learning environment, need to build on the passions, and build from the experiences, of both students and teachers.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

We are learning that Making to Learn allows the children themselves to create their own engaging context.

Making has a simple role in schools, my friend and colleague Chad Ratliff says, “it is putting content into student-created context.”

SpeEdChange: Getting to Making, Getting to Education which actually Works

Under former superintendent Pam Moran and former technology and innovation director Ira Socol, Albemarle County Schools embraced BYOC, student-created context, open technology, toolbelt theory, and universal design for learning. They are innovators to watch and emulate. Follow them on Twitter — and read their blogs.

Their book, Timeless Learning, is an important part of our journey at Stimpunks. We cite it all over our website.

As a result, the culture of learning has shifted from a more traditional one‐size‐fits‐all “sit and get” model to multiple learning pathways grounded in project work, choice and comfort, making, Universal Design for Learning, instructional tolerance, connectivity, and interactive technology applications.

We have learned from this work that children need control in their environment, choice in how they learn, different options for locating themselves comfortably in space, and trusting relationships with adults and peers if they are to become learners with voice, agency, and influence.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

First we say “Project-Problem-Passion-Based Learning.” This starts with that teacher generated (perhaps choice of) project(s), in an attempt to make the meaningless in a curriculum appear relevant. Then, Problem — still teacher generated — say, “how might we filter water?” or even, “how might we clean water?” with student agency taking a foothold. Then Passion — to us Student Passion, not teacher — as in “What interests you? What could you read/do/write/make?” And suddenly the classroom changes.

Finally, the term we use is “Maker,” and for us that means Student Created Context. The learner knows where she/he wants to go, and we ride along, fitting important skill development and knowledge in where appropriate.

Within all this, “technology” — meaning contemporary information and communications technology — is essential, as are all other kinds of tools. And that technology needs to be open and under student control, or it becomes a limitation instead of a key to the world.

“Personalized Learning” is an expression of teacher and school power, just like “Project-Based…

Contemporary learning doesn’t happen by chance. As we work to seamlessly migrate learners into digital environments, we also work to strengthen their active engagement in physical spaces that provide them with choice, comfort, and connectivity as they construct learning. Moving students out of desks in rows and teachers away from the dominant teaching wall has occurred intentionally and represents broad team efforts to design user experiences that bring tools, curricula, and pedagogy into alignment as learners acquire lifelong learning competencies essential to success in homes, communities, the workforce, and as citizens. This work has formatively evolved from years of study and efforts to advance the work, some of which were successes and others not.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

What can you change that would give you an opportunity to extend choice and comfort in your environment to others? Seating? Work choices? Tools?

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Within a year of that day she had changed the culture and space of her classroom, not just the use of new tools. The space became one of the first DIY classrooms in the district. By the end of the year, she had shifted at least half of the chairs out of the room and replaced them with comfortable seating and set up the concept of choice in how and where learners worked on and off their devices. She had that first group of sixth graders bring their own comfort in her room, so she had one wall where kids stacked up all their pillows and stuffed toys to use as they worked in writers’ workshop.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Rearrange your room to provide learners with standing desk options. Add some soft, comfortable seating or active seating and encourage different kids to try it out. Ask them for feedback.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Imagine contemporary learning spaces that challenge every convention of the places we built as schools in the twentieth century. Imagine gathering spaces that encourage young people to work and play together in natural learning communities supported by teachers who create pathways that guide them towards adulthood. Imagine a merger of transparent natural and built environments that allow learners the delight of multisensory inputs through access to natural light, fresh air, and green space. Imagine a continuum of flexible spaces designed to create an atmosphere of choice and comfort as students pursue their interests and passions through transdisciplinary learning that fosters collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

This Twitter moment captures examples of choice, comfort, and student-created context.

When we create spaces in which children can choose to extend their learning, their investigations, for as long as they desire, we breed empowerment and ownership. By providing a variety of accessible learning pathways, kids develop a remarkable breadth of capabilities. If we trust in childhood and believe that we can help them learn from mistakes, they take off. Kids who have given up on school become leaders; kids who have felt invisible develop a sense of voice. When we choose trust, we grow hearts and minds. Setting aside our controls and filters gives students space to develop their own. They begin to seize opportunities to personalize their own learning in response to their own questions about how they learn best. As adults we can learn about the intersection of personalization of time, comfort, and choice as we watch children engage in the process of making learning decisions. How do children choose to place themselves in space to work? Are they naturally inclined to sit, to stand, to lounge on the floor? Do they choose to work around an open table flooded with natural light, beneath the table in a quiet nook, or outside under a tree? How do kids use time differently when organizing it for themselves?

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Hacking Schools: Getting Ourselves to Yes

The challenge of getting past “yeah, but” to “what if” can be pretty difficult.

We have learned that getting to yes is the first step in the change process of really reimagining every nook and cranny…

Because of our educators getting to yes and making it safe to try out new ideas, our schools are now different.

We’ve built makerspaces and hacker spaces.

We’ve taken down walls and removed lockers and made design studios, and what I see all over our schools today are kids who no longer are having to check creativity when they enter our schoolhouse and doors.

Sometimes soon somebody’s going to come to your office and they’re going to pitch to you their idea for their version of a tree house.

Be ready, and just say yes.

Hacking Schools: Getting Ourselves to Yes | Pam Moran | TEDxElCajonSalon

Stimpunks Space

In designing our learning space, we use zero-based design and said yes.

stream of data

Online: Bringing Safety to the Serendipity

Online, we bring safety to the serendipity with our distributed community and communication stack. Chance favors the connected mind. Our learners connect using 1:1 laptops and indie ed-tech. We give our learners real laptops with real capabilities, and we fill those laptops with assistive tech and tools of the trades.

A Black non-binary hiker stands on a wooden deck with their cane, looking out into the surrounding forest. They have a shaved head and wear glasses, a peplum shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes.

Offline: Fresh Air, Daylight, and Large Muscle Movement

Offline, our learners enjoy fresh air, daylight, large muscle movement, and the freedom to stim and play. Ensure there is quiet space and outdoor space that people can access at any time.

Man sitting in the mouth of a cave with open sky and mountain showing beyond the cave

Cavendish Space: Caves, Campfires, and Watering Holes for Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids

We provide psychologically and sensory safe spaces suited to zone work, intermittent collaboration, and collaborative niche construction.

Hands overlapping with a heart painted in the middle

We Believe: Human-Centered, Trauma-Informed, Self-Determined, Equity Literate, Interdisciplinary, Open Technology

Learning is rooted in purpose finding and community relevance.
Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success.
Dehumanizing practices do not belong in schools.
Learners are respectful toward each other’s innate human worth.