Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Design the Real ‘Box to Dream In’ for High-Powered Learning

Written by: Bryan Henderson

If you could create a box for us to dream in, what would it be like?

When I think of designing a “box to dream in,” my mind drifts toward a school of the future, where learners really can dream and take action on those dreams. I will be the first to qualify that what I am about to write faces myriad practical obstacles, but you’re more likely to begin down a path if you first imagine where you’d like that path to take you.

In Jim Gee’s Teaching, Learning, and Literacy in Our High-Risk, High-Tech World, the concept of "affinity space" is particularly instructive when imagining design elements of a school where students can truly dream.

An affinity space is a place where people with a common interest come together to solve problems. This might be a physical space or a virtual space. Interactions might be in real time or they might be asynchronous. Take citizen science as an example. Important scientific contributions – such as the discovery of comets or the protein fold responsible for AIDS – have been made by people without “official” scientific credentials.  They may not have had PhDs.   But they did have was a space to share an affinity with others.   Examples include star parties where people gather at a physical location with all their gear to observe the night sky; a computer game where players virtually compete with others to find the optimal fold for different protein structures.

In an affinity space, those with more experience can provide judgment systems for newcomers.  Feedback on proper steps to take, for example, or advice on the sequencing of those steps, and insights as to what degree a problem has been successfully solved.

A key idea with affinity spaces is motivation. Motivation is crucial for real, lasting learning.  To be honest, I kind of empathize with why students lack the motivation to pay attention in traditional classrooms. When a teacher begins a lesson by saying, “Today, we are going to talk about XYZ,” they often proceed to provide answers to questions the students haven’t asked. For all the student can see, the reason the teacher is talking about, say, chapter 4, is because it simply comes between chapters 3 and 5. That’s a far from compelling case to instill a natural motivation to learn.

Making matters worse, many of today’s schools are considered centers of “official” learning.  To keep an “official-looking” veneer, they are disconnected from more informal affinity spaces. This isolation means learners cannot connect with as many peers with common affinities as they could in more distributed learning systems. The school of the future needs to move students through a combination of physical and virtual spaces, where virtual connections help better distribute learning beyond the physical classroom.

The school of the future needs to be multi-purpose, where the projects learners have an affinity to work on determine how space and teaching faculty are optimized. Gone would be teachers and spaces devoted to specific, isolated topics over a prescribed amount of time. Instead, learners enroll in different projects facilitated by teams of teachers.  They gain content knowledge from different disciplines as necessary for progress on their projects. Learning gardens, educational games, and learning through serving others are all ways to span disciplines. Covering everything in textbooks would be replaced with learning the skills necessary to be successful on projects. This promotion of quality learning in contexts learners actually care about helps develop collaboration and creativity – for society to solve our most difficult problems, we need to dream, and we need to do so with others.

The celebrated psychologist Jerome Bruner began advocating in the mid-20th century for a spiral curriculum.   There, students iteratively revisit topics at various stages in their cognitive development. By melding physical and virtual spaces that connect learners with common affinities, the future should be designed to offer a more distributed version of learning, where students can move between – and loop within – authentic affinity spaces to promote development in the true spirit of a spiral curriculum. Better late than never.  


About J. Bryan Henderson

 Bryan's research agenda at ASU focuses on designing learning environments where students feel more comfortable and motivated to talk and interactively co-construct scientific understanding with each other. Dr. Henderson believes strongly in the notion that students possess many ideas about the natural world prior to formal science instruction, and that by providing them a safe space to play with those ideas, ask questions, or admit confusion, more frequent, authentic, critical, and meaningful engagements can occur between students amidst a new era of science curriculum.  He is a co-founder and research director of the non-profit Braincandy, which allows students to participate anonymously in class, and then teachers can make discrepancies in student thinking transparent to the entire classroom through visualization tools.  Learn more at .  Dr. Henderson utilizes Braincandy in every class he teaches, where it is very popular.  The student body has named him a recipient of the ASU Centennial Professorship Award for outstanding teaching, leadership, and service.