In June of 2014, The Atlantic magazine published a piece by David Zweig: “How You Know Where You’re Going When You’re in the Airport.” The piece was a short profile of Jim Harding, a designer who created the “wayfinding system” at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. His specialty? “The process of designing cues — from signage to lighting and color, even the architecture, anything at all — to help people navigate a built environment.” Harding’s system ensures that travelers can smoothly navigate from point to point in the airport, be it from one gate to another, from baggage claim to the taxi queue, or from security to the nearest restroom. He melds sophisticated technology, like the trains that whisk passengers from terminal to terminal, and small but critical details, like the font on bathroom signs, so they cohere into a kind of invisible hand that gently pushes the traveler around the airport without unnecessary distractions or diversions.
Harding’s work helped me think about the demands placed on learning in the 21st century. Harding does not create the environments in which his wayfinding systems live; he is handed a complex system — an airport, a mall, a hospital — and asked to simplify it for the user. More importantly, he has found that his systems are “most effective when they function as a kind of transient, touching just the most superficial (or perhaps, conversely, subconscious) part of our brains, conveying information without drawing attention to the conveyer.” Travelers’ minds are fixed on their own journeys and destinations, as they should be. Harding’s challenge is to leverage that intrinsic motivation as he wayfinds, creating a system flexible enough so travelers feel they are forging unique paths.
The core demand of 21st century education is that students learn to navigate an incredibly complex global society. This includes connecting across distances, gaining skill with technology, and developing problem-solving skills that can be applied to real-world issues. The system through which students must travel has grown more difficult to navigate. In education, we are accustomed to a certain system, a model defined by the four walls of a classroom, a reading list, a syllabus. Locating learning in these small, controlled environments doesn’t adequately serve our students anymore. Instead, we find ourselves in a position similar to Jim Harding’s: we’ve been handed a complicated system, a bigger and broader and richer learning landscape, and been asked to help our students navigate it.
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