You’re a Designer, I’m a Designer, We’re All Designers — An Interview with Dr. Matt Koehler

Outside of the fun I’m having with this research and writing, my intention is to bring something useful to the educator who reads this. (And those people are numbering in the near double digits. It’s not just my mom any more!) So, like a good teacher, I’m working to personalize the lesson.

I’m doing this in a couple of ways. First, I chose an article by one of my professors in the MAET program then I begged and pleaded — though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t necessary — for him to contribute to the post. He agreed, of course. The result is that we will look at the article by Michael D. DeSchryver, Sean M. Leahy, Matthew J. Koehler and Leigh G. Wolf (2013) titled, “Technology, Learning, Creativity, and Design: The Habits of Mind Necessary to Generate New Ways of Teaching in a Career of Constant Change.” Although this already looks like it’s focused on practical applications, I’m going to refine that even more and zero in on those very practical uses.



Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by

Here is a just a bit of background on Professor Koehler (click on his name to link to his webpage). One of the foundations of the MAET program is the TPACK framework. It’s a ven diagram of the confluence of technology, content and pedagogical knowledge and, when it comes to together, it forms the ideal balance of these principles in the classroom. Along with Punya Mishra, Koehler has helped to develop this framework. He is currently a professor at Michigan State University in the College of Education and is available for hire to do weddings and bachelorette parties. (That last part might not be entirely correct.)

Much of the “Habits of Mind” article focuses on the principles that underlie the third year of the MAET program at Mich State, but if these foundational ideas can’t apply to our classroom teaching then what use are they in an education program? None, I say, none. Below are a few questions I had for Matt about “Habits of Mind.”

Matt Koehler:

Some caveats, and resources before I begin.  This article “The habits of mind necessary to generate new ways of teaching in a career of constant change” talks about how important skills such as creativity are infused throughout the third year of the Masters in Educational Technology (MAET) program at MSU.  Although I am a co-author, and I’m interested in topics of creativity and the MAET curriculum design, I’m not the expert on either of these things.  My involvement in the article is focused on my leading of the capstone portfolio experience, which also plays a big part in the third year curriculum.

For all things creative, interested readers should definitely follow up with the Deep Play Group at (the other co-authors are all core members of that group).

For all things related to the design of the MAET program, readers should consider the special issue of TechTrends dedicated to the design of the program: or follow up with the other co-authors:

Designers of curriculum

Can you explain why creativity in teaching is important?

Creativity is an important skill in teaching for many reasons. One of the most tangible stems from recognizing that teachers are designers of curriculum. Even when the curriculum is mandated, teachers still at the level of implementation make decisions about how to teach an idea and whether or not to use technologies to do so. They decide how to arrange their classrooms, how to structure group work, sequence assignments, and how to follow-up on students’ questions.  All of these decisions are design-decisions, and two different teachers can make two different designs in any situation.  The importance of creativity in all design processes is well known: creativity is essential to good design. That applies to views of teachers as curriculum designers as well.

Second, teachers are bombarded with new technologies every day. This includes new hardware such as desktops, portable devices, and smartphones, but also apps and software (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Vine, etc.). To keep up with technologies, teachers have to be willing to creatively play with new technologies in order to figure out which technologies are suitable to their classrooms. Most of the technologies used in classrooms weren’t designed for education (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc.), but were adapted by teachers who could see educational possibilities within these new technologies. Accordingly, when faced with new technologies, teachers can make any tool an educational technology by re-designing it, or maybe even subverting the original intentions of the designer. Teachers need to creatively approach these technologies, and play with educational ideas. This helps illuminate additional possibilities for teaching and learning.

Third, 21st century views of teaching and learning are increasingly emphasizing the role of skills like collaboration, creativity, and problem solving over knowledge of facts and procedures. Many teachers see the value in teaching these important new 21st century skills to children.  For the same reason these skills are important for children (because they lead to better outcomes consistent with the world we live in), these skills are important to teachers.

The problem, I think, with my teacher friends that are hesitant about technology use, for example, is that they have unrealistic expectations of themselves. They are too hard on themselves about not being technology “experts” and that feeds into an anxiety about using technology. I think this relates to what you call big-R and little-r revolutions. My teacher friends expect themselves to generate big-R revolutions in relation to their technology use, which is to their detriment. Can you say more about big-R and little-r revolutions?

Big R revolutions are those that try to change the world, or at least see it differently.  Big-R revolutions are tough to accomplish, although many people try.  The failure rate is high.  You can go through any news site from five years ago and look at all the stories claiming how “this is going to change _____ forever”.  Very few actually did.

We advocate for the little-r revolutions that are in every teacher’s grasp. Little-r revolutions are those technology-facilitated revolutions that are specific to individual classrooms and contexts. That is, teachers approach their work as designers and innovators and try new things.  They try one specific lesson a new way, perhaps with a new technology, or structuring student interaction differently using technology. Perhaps, in this one lesson, students create a video instead of turning in a written essay.

These little-r revolutions are within every teacher’s reach, and with some practice, and help developing their skills in design and creativity, teachers can become even better at it.  Stringing together several little-r revolutions can start to transform a curriculum or teaching practice.

What tools and/or methods would you suggest for teachers outside of the MAET program to challenge their ideas of what creativity means?

To be clear, I think our MAET program is the best place to do this because nowhere else are their activities specifically designed for teachers to confront issues of creativity.  Oftentimes, teachers feel that they “aren’t creative,” or that it’s hard to see how it applies to them. The MAET program is very well designed to help teachers see that they are creative, and that creativity is important.

Outside of the program, perhaps the best way to challenge ideas of creativity is to just demystify what creativity is. Too often, all of us come with “commonsense” notions of what creativity is or is not. For example, we think we are creative or not, and there’s not a lot that can be done about it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a very good book that helps demystify the nature of genius and creativity.  In contrast to commonly held beliefs in the “aha moment” that leads to innovation, there are actually 13 skills underlying such moments, each of which can be developed.  I recommend this book as a great starting point to challenge commonly (and, mistakenly) held beliefs about creativity:



What importance does creativity have in relation to using technology in the classroom?

Creativity is a key skill in developing those little-r revolutions that teachers can, and should, strive for. By trying new technologies, new approaches, in specific lessons, teachers create these small-r revolutions.  If strung together, these little-r revolutions can transform a classroom and a teaching practice.

Creativity is also key to helping teachers effectively combine technology with what they teach and how they teach (see more about this at Teachers are essentially curriculum designers, as they are the ones who have to implement any curriculum in their specific classrooms.  As teachers consciously, or unconsciously, combine technology, pedagogy, and content to accomplish a lesson plan, they will find that creativity is a key underlying skill in that process.

The article mentions the importance trans-disciplinary thinking. Can you explain this?

Trans-disciplinary thinking is looking at common strategies and habits of thought in any discipline (content area).  That is, to eschew distinctions between art and science, applied and pure knowledge, to focus instead on approaches that work across disciplines. As we argued in a 2011 piece, these can be boiled down to seven key skills: (A) Perceiving; (B) Patterning; (C) Abstracting; (D) Embodied Thinking; (E) Modeling; (F) Deep Play (Creativity); (G) Synthesizing.  You can read more about each of these in the 2011 article at:

I’m not sure the idea of design, as a creative process, would be well understood by my fellow instructors as it applies to teaching. I’m sure they know what it means to design a test, but this is a different concept. Can you explain how they are connected?

Words other than design may seem more accessible here, including make.  Teachers make lesson plans all the time, and they make decisions every time (several per minute).

So when a teacher makes a lesson, they are being a designer.  When a student asks a question, the teacher could respond,  “I don’t know,” to “what do you think?” to “look in your book,” to “do you know how we could find out?” or any number of other responses. In the process of deciding which answer to give, the teacher is designing an answer.  When teachers physically arrange their classrooms, they are consciously or unconsciously designing their classroom learning environment.

So, when we say teachers are designers, we mean that teachers make important decisions all the time (about lessons, students, environment) that have important outcomes in the classroom.

As academics, we like to be a little more precise, so we use the word “design” over words like “make” or “make decisions”, because it clarifies few things about this process:

  1. Design is a process, not just something that happens or one does. It’s a messy process, but it’s still a process.
  2. Design is active, whereas “making” can seem more passive or as a simple “enactment.”
  3. Design is iterative (it’s a cycle).  Once you try a lesson, you can tweak it, change pieces, start over, and evaluate it again.
  4. Design does not have a “right” answer – only different designs.  When a teacher decides how students could be grouped to complete an assignment, there are many ways to group students. None of them are “right,” they all have different strengths and weaknesses.


Change one part

I question whether many teachers stretch themselves with risk-taking in their everyday teaching. What can you suggest to encourage instructors to do this more?

I encourage teachers to start small. Find one lesson you know could go better, find a piece of it that could be changed and just try something. You already know this lesson could be going better — what do you have to lose?  Just try to change one small thing (a small-r revolution), like student interaction, the format of the work students turn in, or the role of the teacher (less talk, more guiding).

Just try to change one part of one lesson, that’s it.  The more creative or outside the box, the better. Just be sure whatever you try fits your particular classroom.  Go for it!

In the article it is said, “We argue that in a time of constant change, being able to look forward is as important as what to do now.” What is meant by this and how does that apply to everyday teaching?

Hard to know for sure what I was thinking back in 2013, but I’m guessing I meant two things.

First, specifically about the capstone portfolio course, is that we want students to think about future learning as well. It’s just not enough to reflect on what has happened in the past, but to be thoughtful about their approach to technology in the future. Pragmatically, after the course is over, students won’t be in the MAET program anymore, and it’s important to have habits or a plan in place about how graduates will engage thoughtfully about educational technology going forward once program supports are not explicitly in place anymore.

Second, there is a more general stance about educational technology. Technology is changing at an ever-increasing pace. It’s easy to see how teachers can be overwhelmed trying to keep up with the technologies being introduced, and whatever tools, hardware, and software are being introduced by their schools, districts, and ever-changing standards.  One way to deal with this maddening pace is to rise above the specifics of this tool and that tool, and generally “stay ahead” of the curve by emphasizing the skills we talked about today – being able to creatively play with new technologies to figure out their implications for classrooms.  Rather than worry about the latest app X, Y, or Z, a teacher looking ahead knows they are able to play with technologies, if and when they need to, and have the confidence in being able to creatively adapt these to their classrooms.  The teacher is who is able to creatively play, isn’t worried if there are 2, 5, or 20 apps out this month – they are more concerned about “inside the apps” that matters for their classroom.

Anything you would like to add?

I would just like to emphasize again: Just try to change one part of one lesson, that’s it.  The more creative or outside the box, the better. Just be sure whatever you try fits your particular classroom.  Go for it!

If you would like to know more, feel free to contact me: or Punya Mishra: or the Deep Play group:

Things to think on:

  1. In your teaching do you consider yourself creative? Why or why not?
  2. As an instructor, do you consider yourself a designer? Why or why not?
  3. Do you challenge or stretch yourself in your teaching? When was the last time you did that?

Tools that I used for this post:

Adobe Photoshop for editing the photos.

Google Docs to share the interview questions with Matt.

Pixaby for the photos.


DeSchryver, M. D., Leahy, S. M., Koehler, M. J., & Wolf, L. G. (2013). The habits of mind necessary to generate new ways of teaching in a career of constant change. TechTrends, 57(3), 40-46. DOI: 10.1007/s11528-013-0661-1

Thanks Matt for sharing what little time you have to spare. And, as always, thanks to Mark for proofreading!

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