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Educated By Design Blog

Filtering by Tag: 21st-Century Competencies

Five Ways Multimedia Can Help Teens Tell Their S.T.O.R.Y.

Michael Cohen

I’ve been working on developing a framework for teaching more effective storytelling.  Storytelling is not just for kids books or a fun hobby. It is a method of communicating ideas in a way that is so concise and crystal clear that your audience immerses themselves in the ideas shared and Ken to an extent visualize them.  I would say that this is probably one of the most critical skills for the next 50 years. 

Read more on my S.T.O.R.Y. Framework on


Why Empathy Just Might Be The Most Important Skill You Teach This Year

Michael Cohen


This is a follow up to a previous blog post on Empathy, and why it's the buzzword I hope never goes out of fashion. 

Empathy Applied

While I advocate for more empathy in the classroom, I want it  to be the start of any problem solving process involving others. With that said, it cannot come at the expense of success. It also doesn't need to followed through via the Design Thinking or any other model. Simply put, being empathetic is a good thing across the board. Regardless of approach, if applying empathy comes at the expense of research and common sense, then the process is flawed from the beginning. Putting all resources into empathy and trying to then develop a solution that isn't sustainable or flawed helps no one. Empathy is only as effective as the effort and ideation putting into developing a high-quality solution.

Years ago I took a Design Thinking MOOC from Stanford. They introduced the course by sharing a story of a think tank sent to help drought ridden African communities develop a more effective way to collect and maintain their water reservoirs during the summer months. Their solution, a light weight plastic storage container that could be buried was completely rejected by the community. This was a teachable moment for the group's use of empathy, or lack there of.

They learned, and all who watch understand that products and solutions, even the highest quality ones will receive very different responses from people and communities based on their culture, lifestyle, and past experiences. As an educator, how many of us can relate this story to moments in our classrooms over the years? How many times have we, or other education professionals design high quality learning experiences that were altogether rejected by their intended users, the students, because they did not consider the students needs, desires, and passions? No one consciously tries to remove empathy from the problem solving equation, but many times our own experiences and expertise can blind us from effectively helping those we are striving to best support. Empathy can actually allow you to be more success not just in ideating, but along the entire design process of a learning experience. By understanding that empathy can and should evolve during the problem solving process, we can empower ourselves to be more flexible and agile as we support student success.

I want to highlight the power of empathy by sharing a personal story. As a Director of Education Technology, and now a consultant and trainer, I have the opportunity to deliver a fairly significant amount of workshops and other professional development experiences. In designing workshops, I realized that although my approach, design, and delivery were always well received, I was designing my work for them. I knew that there must be a better way to support those attending my workshops who were either looking to grow, or forced to grow. While reflecting on this, I realized that a simple pre-workshop survey gave me the space to get to know participants, their passions, and understanding their vision for their professional growth on a more personal (and hopefully more effective) level. I was right! But hy do I do this? With no complaints and generally stellar feedback, why would I shift my approach in delivering training? Better yet, why would I make more work for myself? What if I needed to significantly redesign already amazing workshops and sessions? I did it because, I believe in helping people. I did it because I believe that my skills and ability can help others develop their own skills and abilities. I want to teach people how to fish, not give them fish. Especially if they want tuna, and I am coming with halibut. This means as a facilitiator of professional development, if you come into a school, introduce to them what is cutting edge, and show them how to transform the teaching and learning in their classroom you should consider asking them what they think at the start, not the end. Where is the empathy in that? The end is their thoughts on you. The start is their thoughts on what will be best for them.

This realization strengthened my core mission as a trainer and facilitator. It gave me a new found determination to empower educators to feel confident and capable of utilizing technology in their classroom in a meaningful and sustainable way. Notice that “my expertise” or “cutting edge tech” are not part of the mission. As a trainer, workshops must be developed with a sense of empathy and compassion for faculty and the realities they face in the classroom.

If you do not have a pulse on what it truly means to be in the "trenches" of a classroom, you should not be instructing education professionals on how to hone their craft.

To be effective in the professional development space, you must understand their needs, the school culture, the challenges they face with access to resources, support, and above all time and expectations. Now stop for a moment. Are a manager, administrator, or director? Do the individuals that you lead believe that you strive to support them with that level of empathy? Remember, regardless of who you are supporting or servicing, the client whether student, teacher or parent are kings because it is that feeling that will make them an active participant who will fulfill their role in the success of the institution or organization. 


In 2014, I wanted to help a 3rd-grade class learn a little bit about empathy. Working alongside a colleague we designed a project where students would do research on a specific topic, then digitally publish their work. Their published work would then be used as a resource for the rest of their class to learn from. The question the students needed to answer first, was what medium allowed them to learn their best? Through their own discovery process they came to the conclusion that some students like video and photos, while others liked sound, and everyone seemed to enjoy the ability to navigate and interact with a information on their own. During the entire process from brainstorm to product design,  students focused on how their learning and technology could facilitate learning for their peers. This no innovation of mine, but the way it which I packaged the experience for the students was something special. Imagine how this type of scenario could play out in your class. Begin by askin students how they learn best. Ask them what engages them. The end result was a nice moment where students learned about themselves, but even more learned about others as they tried to discover the answer to the following question:

“How do you think others learn best, and how could you help them learn?”

With the “I like” and the “works for me” out the window, students struggled to proceed. That is the moment you want to have. Empathy needs to enter into the creative process when people are stuck and surrounded by unknowns. This is where learning gets awesome. In the end, they solved it, mastered it, and engaged their peers. Everyone was so immersed in the learning that recess was passed up by over half the class. These are the moments we want and the moments like these begin with one word - Empathy

Be Empathically Aware

As I said before, empathy doesn't magically end during the design process, but there needs to be a point where you are ready to move on and try to develop the product or solution further. So what are ways to know that empathy is in the equation? A few questions below might stimulate an answer:


  • What is the culture of the individuals involved?

  • What are their values and what values have they been taught?

  • What are their struggles as a group and as individuals?

  • What resources do they have available?

  • What is their history of embracing change?

  • What levels of collaboration and social connectedness exist in the group?

Empathy might seem simple to actualize at forest, but many times we confuse empathy with understanding or awareness of someone's behavior or challenge. You might feel you are empathizing with the person but are in fact empathizing with the struggle itself. As a designer, I struggled with this regularly as I needed to help clients and their client base as well. To support someone, service them, design for them, or teach them, you have to know them intimately. For many, this is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Remember, before you can truly define or attempted to ideate a solution to the problem for someone else, you need to be aware of the angle they are coming from. In truth it takes a bit of humility to put your expertise and experience aside for a moment to figure out how to best help someone in need. So I leave you with the question:



Why Functional Fixedness And The Fear Of The Unknown Are The Greatest Obstacles Of Creativity.

Michael Cohen

So if we are open to shifting our thinking, what is the next step? It lies in a famous quote from Steve Jobs who said “creativity is connecting things”. The ability to connect things lies in how we look at the relationship between people, places, and ideas. It's in how we overcome one of the greatest obstacles to creativity - Functional Fixedness

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The Secret To Learning With Technology Is Not What You Think. It's Why You Think.

Michael Cohen

When I was eight years old living in Southern California, my parents bought a video conferencing system to talk with my grandparents in Philadelphia. To this day I could never figure out how my grandfather, set it up on his end. The mammoth devices used a combination of wires to connect to our house phone and television delivering a blurry 200x100 image of my grandparents whose movement was delayed by 45 seconds as they their voices echoed through the telephone. It was at that moment through a mixture of “Hi Michael” , long pause, and a 45 second delayed handwave,

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4 Ways Soft Skills Will Prepare Students To Overcome Hard Challenges. #4 Will Surprise You.

Michael Cohen


In education today, there at times can be an overemphasis on the value of specific skills. It is these skills that then define the success of our students. We then expect students to automatically appreciate and value these skill sets to the same degree as we do. Just last night I was discussing the value of memorization with a new colleague. He was adamant that memorization helps build capacity and allows for great problem solving skills later. While I agreed with him, I questioned memorization as a skills and ability rather than a rote process. I can recite to you the preamble, tell you where just about any country in the world is located, and even name drop a couple elements from the periodic table. For what?!? Why do I need any of that? Is it to be considered well rounded? Intellectual? Please. If my entire learning experience 4th-12th can be googled then what do I need school and learning for? This is NOT what we want our students to be able to say.  

The struggle in education is that our reference point worked for us, but it simply does not work anymore. Technology has developed a tool for knowledge access and that is a threat. It's the same level of threat as the pencil was to Socrates and the Greek methods of learning. What we need to do is step back and look at the essence of these skills that we are programing, I mean preparing our students succeed with are similar to mini Google search engines. The problem is that Google is way better than any student could ever become. Remember, a good robot stores and recalls information efficiently, executes commands within a hair’s breadth, and does not deviate from its pre-programmed parameters. Sound like the “ideal student” right? In the end, we are teaching students from a very young age not to think for themselves, discover on their own, and more importantly take risks knowing that those risks could help them reach a higher level in their learning. That is why it is critical to help students develop a mindset that focuses not just on skill and ability but on how they output and manage their learning experiences. As an educator we need to aid students in rising above these standardized skills as the sole method of success. This will also allow them to better understand technology’s role in helping them reach greater heights.  


Now there are dozens of ways that technology can help us in teaching and learning. I have found the following four to be impactful but most importantly scalable. Yes even creativity is scalable. 


Artifacts of Learning






This is one of the most critical areas of learning. Where is the evidence? How is success measured?  How do I know you learned something, or better yet how do you know you learned something? In general this area is addressed via worksheets, quizzes, and cumulative tests. It's all about the sumative. While there is nothing wrong with these assessment tools, they tend to rank low on the engagement scale, high on the anxiety scale, and give you a very standardized and even limited glimpse into the minds of students, only to the point of knowing they can regurgitate pieces of information and forget it after the test successfully. There are many ways in which technology is able to completely redefine how learning can been showcased as an artifact. These articles of learning can not only demonstrate students understanding but can also be used to support the learning of other students. The reason why I tend to describe student work as artifacts, is because I want student work to have life to it, and have substance. I want their work to tell a story. I want student work to be something someone can look at, learn from, and appreciate. I have never seen a worksheet achieve that, but you never know.


Artifacts of Learning in Theory

Traditional evidence of learning is found through essays, worksheets, and tests. Consider how technology can empower students to development artifacts that can provide evidence of understanding. 

Artifacts of Learning in Practice

Using social engagement as a reference point, consider what excites students in today's world. Look at how visual, audial, and interactive media outranks almost all other experiences. Look at how students could create a video, graphic poster, or interactive publication or game that provides the same or even greater level of understanding than traditional work. How can we design learning so that student output is used to facilitate the learning of other students? I share some lessons in depth in one of my iBooks here


The creativite process seems to be purged right around the 3rd grade when students then become inundated with standardized and constraining learning experiences. We define creativity as a talent rather than a way of thinking and approaching problems to solve. These problems could be your own inter struggle of expression, or those affecting others. So how is creativity manifesting outside of our schools? Think for a moment about the massive success of social media. What is it that makes it so contagious? Two words, Creativity and Shareablity. At one point social media was about “what you ate for breakfast today” or “that awesome vacations to Tahiti”. The main players in the social media game Snapchat and Instagram have shifted their strategy to that of telling stories, and storytelling is ALL about creative expression. Creativity is about promoting ownership, choice, and knowing that others will benefit from or enjoy your work. Creativity pushes us to go the extra mile and challenges us to create a product or solution that makes an impact. While it's ok to set limits and create guidelines, it is beyond vital to bring creativity back into the classroom. When I was in 9th grade I taught myself how to use Photoshop 6.0. While 1998 might not seem that long ago, it was still years before Youtube or Google, so my skill development was limited to experimentation, asking a friend, or Photoshop 6 for Dummies to master this complex software. Still, I was driven by a thirst for creativity and control, and drove me it did. Nearly 20 years later, I have taught Graphic Design courses to 5th graders, High Schoolers, and even at the College level through the lens of creative freedom, opportunity, and experience.


Creativity in Theory

Creativity is about challenging ourselves to thinking in a non linear way to solve problems, communicate ideas, and help others. It give a person pride and ownership that can be shared and seen by others. This is a powerful ingredient for the classroom.

Creativity in Practice

There are so many ways to engage creativity in the classroom. Students can use photograph, film, animation, and design to create projects that are unique. Further they can use strategies like Design Thinking to understand how 50 ideas synthesized together will solve a challenge to a greater degree than one or two ideas. Take a short movie or graphic poster for example. Such a project not only shows student learning but it can be used as a resource for others to learn from unlike a student’s filled in worksheet.



It all started with someone drawing in a cave. It might have just been some scratch paper, or maybe a manifesto for generations, but one thing is for certain. Humans are designed to connecting and communicate. Two of my favorite communication quotes are “Communication is key” and “Communication is a two way street”. It's not enough for our students to simply understand their teacher They need the space and the ability for their teacher to understand them as well. This is one of areas in a classroom that is critical to foster a potentially positive and successful learning environment. Verbal, written, and even visual communication all play a role in how we connect and share information with each other. Our ability to communicate with students effectively and give them a voice as well will directly enhance the other areas of life and lead to an increase in student’s academic success. 


Communication in Theory

Communication is one of those differentiation challenges every teacher faces. How, when, and to whom we communicate with is very complex. The question that should be asked is how can technology or other methods of instruction besides frontal teaching allow for communication to change or be enhanced.

Communication in Practice

Two amazing examples of how communication is redefined in the classroom is through the use of technology and student leadership. Technology can allow for discussions to take place in a way that students who are introverts can feel empowered to contribute to a conversation, or be used as an archive for reference later. Remember, you can't be paused yourself, and while recording a lecture is one way of using technology, it does not produce a very engaging artifact. The second is student leadership which beyond clubs and the extra curricular, should be about identifying students who can be lead learning in the classroom. Instead of enriching advanced students with “extra work”, challenge them to help their peers. This is a nature always demonstrate their level of understanding of the material. 



There is a double edge sword with efficiency. Efficiency doesn't mean getting done quick or being first. At times, it might mean extending an experience to ensure that later down the road things will run quickly and smoothly. It's where their short long road and the long short road meet up. In education, we are so focused on the short long road because of our ability to measure success more often. Many times in fear of not covering all the curriculum we rush through areas of learning, or feel that technology and other tools, methods, and process can not be incorporated for fear that we won't meet curricular objectives. That is because efficiency is about quality AND quantity. Therefore it is critical as educators to ensure that we are making the best use of time, being properly organized, and clear in our expectations.


Efficiency in Theory

Efficiency allows for us to not just get work done, but complete it in an organized and effective way. This has two benefits. One is that it allows for work to be completed at a faster pace allowing for more learning to occur and second it allows for students to learn at a self paced rate allowing for enrichment for strong learners and support for struggling learners.

Efficiency in Practice

Mapping out learning is critical for success in the classroom. It isn’t enough for you to have a carefully planned lesson or unit outline. Students need to have this as well to allow for them to best organize and plan out their learning. Consider creating a week long list of objectives that promote student choice in how they are completed rather then you being the exclusive guide of the learning process.


These four areas should focus on complementing or enhancing your teaching practice and student learning. We sometimes compartmentalize teaching and learning. The crossover between the two is where meaningful learning occurs. These teas are meant to enhance the learning culture of the classroom to allow successful learning to occur. It also gives a foundation when considering how other models such as SAMR, TPACK, RAT, Design Thinking, and PBL can be used in the classroom to avoid extremes or overstauration of progressive models that can support learning. These are some of the fundamental skills to prepare students to succeed. In the end no model will achieve success without a high quality, passionate, and self-sacrificing educator in the room aka you.


The Reason Why Teachers Are Afraid Of Technology, and 2 Ways We Can Help Them Embrace It.

Michael Cohen

When I was eight years old living in Southern California, my parents bought a video conferencing system to talk with my grandparents in Philadelphia. To this day I could never figure out how my grandfather, set it up on his end. The mammoth devices used a combination of wires to connect to our phone line and television, delivering a blurry 200x100 image of my grandparents. It was quite a scene. With a mixture of movement delayed by 45 seconds and their voices echoing through the telephone, I felt as if I was in a 14.4K internet induction program.

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