Wayfinding through course design with some habits of mind

I’m lost but finding my way. There’s sort-of-a-plan and a bit of a map but I’m wayfinding my way through. I keep checking the GPS and re-calculating my direction. I think I know where I’m located and I somewhat have a sense of where I’m going.

I’m working on the design of a new course, one that will be available for online learning at the Faculty of Education. I have guide markers and workflow maps while I create this new learning landscape. Designing in digital spaces is not new to me, but I’ve collected and distilled content and activities primarily for use in face-to-face learning places. Thinking about teaching teacher candidates within an online space is reshaping my work. I’m influenced by the Community of Inquiry framework and my Humanizing Online Instruction – #HumanMOOC experiences. While walking, wandering and wondering my way through these new instructional spaces, I’ve discovered that systems thinking and habits of mind are important considerations.

image of twelve habits of mind in systems thinkingLinda Booth Sweeney writes about Thinking about Systems and the 12 Habits of Mind required for ‘systems thinkers’. I’m considering these habits from the perspective of a designer of an online course – it’s a system of bits, pieces, interrelations, interactions, inter-activities and events that shape the whole. Each part needs to be arranged for ease of use, to capture interest, to trigger learning. The habits of mind can help guide my work while designing the whole course. Sweeney identifies the 12 habits: see the whole, look for connections, pay attention to boundaries, change perspective, look for stocks, challenge mental models, anticipate unintended consequences, look for change over time, see self as part of the system, embrace ambiguity, find leverage, and watch for win/lose attitudes.

I’ll consider each of these habits from the course design perspective.

See the Whole: It’s challenging but I keep stepping back and taking a bird’s-eye-view in terms of designing interrelated “wholes” or systems, rather than as single triggering event, or snapshot. I’m crafting the map of the course as I create and traverse the terrain.

Look for Connections: I’m going into this course design by assuming that nothing stands in isolation. Each element fits into the whole design and connects in some way to what comes before or after. I’m looking to build connections from digital to physical and natural spaces. I’ve been pulling threads into the course design to connect people, problems, or events to the learning objects. I’m designing so connecting students comes first.

Pay Attention to Boundaries: Understanding the semi-permeable and hard barriers of time and space will help me “go wide” when using and checking the course boundaries. Clarity in wayfinding will help students maximize time within the course boundaries. Examining and engaging time parameters helps me define the sequences and be critical to what is included and not included.

Change Perspective: By examining elements, activities, information, and sequences when changing the perspective to that of a student can increase my understanding. It’s essential to know what students see will depend on where they are in relation to the course content.

Look for Stocks: As I design the course I need to take stock, look for hidden accumulations (of knowledge, readings, resources, media) that can create delays and inertia or can spark new directions and interests. Strategically locating the ‘easter-egg’ and course hints can help me ensure that students find their way through challenging sections.

Challenge Mental Models: It’s difficult to design a course without challenging my own assumptions about how the course should work. My mental models come from my own online learning experiences and may limit my thinking around where, when, or how to introduce, explore or delve deeply into course elements. Examining mental models will ensure that cognitive dissonance and overloading content or activities is managed carefully.

Anticipate Unintended Consequences: This one is the most challenging for me since the design process is dependant on the ‘unknown’ student. Keeping a generic audience in mind, while walking through the loops of cause and effect and asking “what happens next?” can help me anticipate potential unintended consequences.

Look for Change over Time: It’s essential for me, as the course designer, to take a sequential walk through the course, finding the clearly marked or hidden pathways. As I wayfind, I need to see experiences as a result of previous events that lead to future activities. Maps and scaffolds will ensure successful change over time.

See Myself as Part of the System: As I design, I look for locations and options where I can potentially influence students from within the system, focusing less on blaming myself for making errors and more on how my responses (or my interrelationship with students) can beneficially support or scaffold student learning. I need to remember to design myself into the course since I will be learning with and from the students.

Embrace Ambiguity: As I design this course, I become more comfortable holding the tension of paradox and ambiguity. While time commitments exist when developing a course, it’s important to stand still at times and try not to resolve problems too quickly. The only assurance for me at the design stage is that ambiguity will occur at some points in the course and that I can and will embrace it when it happens.

Find Leverage: Within the design of an online course, I realize that solutions may be far away from the current problems I’m facing. I can track issues and work toward resolutions with an organized work-flow plan. With creative problem solving, I can look for areas of leverage, where one change can impact on the look & feel of the whole system.

Watch for Win/Lose Attitudes: This habit of mind challenges me to be watchful for elements that include a “win/lose” mindset. Keeping universal design for learning principles as a standard way of planning, interacting and creating course content will ensure all students can ‘win’. Knowing where student may feel they will not succeed is where I need to design into the course situations of high interdependence with peers and their instructor.


Course design is a systematic process where humans create learning spaces for other humans to enter, engage, interact and gain knowledge. Habits of mind when humans, such as myself as I work on this design process, create knowledge building spaces ensures that the iterative, interdependent and emergent properties of course design are grounded and meet the needs of the humans who enter the system. As I wayfind my way through, I learn more about the application of the design principles for wayfinding in online spaces.


Booth Sweeney, L . Thinking about systems. http://www.lindaboothsweeney.net/pdfs/systems_literacy_lbsweeney.pdf


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