The Blank Plan

Change the "filled-in" aspect of the start of school by purposefully creating blankness to prompt creativity and calm.

Photo of Dominic Randolph
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The Why:

At the start of the school year there is a tendency in all of us to fill up paper with plans, to plaster walls with posters, to fill up every moment with activities, to believe that we can only think well when our minds are ticking away furiously.

Overview: (What’s this idea about?)

Inspired by many others and different ideas, we propose that we all create some blank space and "habits of blankness" in our schedules, on our walls, in our planning, in our school lives and in our minds. This can take the form of a space for an open-ended project during the semester, a blank area of wall that can be painted as a white board or a place where students and teachers can post ideas using Post-Its, 2 minutes of silence at the beginning of the day or at the start of a class, "pause time" during a class discussion,  or a moment of reflection at the end of a class to write down what was learned. The Blank Plan is a simple toolkit that can be used in lots of different settings. It is very flexible and can be hacked in many different ways. 

Often when there is a spirit of "filling up", there is also a lack of feeling of agency.

Potential For Impact: (Why is this an idea that creates a culture of innovation?)

This short toolkit will help inspire students and teachers to feel more agency, more creativity, more of an investment in the generation of school culture, and create more possibility and calm in their lives.

Value Prop/Pitch: (How would you pitch this to other teachers in your school? Your principal? etc.)

We have found in some of our design thinking work that students do not feel empowered to participate in the construction of the lessons and courses that they take, in the life of the school. That much of school is out of their control. Some blank areas that are their own would make them feel more part of the constructive soul of our schools.

Our lives our overly filled and in the excitement of the new academic year we all like to feel prepared and organized. In the midst of our routines of planning, organizing and getting started, let us carve out some space that will inspire independence, creativity and participation in our school cultures.

Sometimes we view quiet moments of blanks as moments needing filling as though nothing is going on in those "blank moments". I would like to see us reframe "blanks" in our school lives as similar to "negative space" in a drawing. That we actively create blank moments that are energized with potential meaning. So, as we are beginning the school year, let us think of the most dynamic, energizing and productive blank spaces we can create in our routines to help everyone have some space in our learning communities.

How’d we get this idea off the ground?

Practice what you preach! Look over the toolkit and try to bring the Blank Plan and blank habits into every day in school. There are seven easily used ideas in the toolkit and room for some "blank ideas" of your own. Try it out and see if it does create possibility, creative space, more investment, and a calmer balance in the school day. 

How you can get started?

Download the attached Blank Plan pdf and bring blankness into your lives!



Evaluation results

13 evaluations so far

1. Potential for Impact: Imagine this solution had near perfect implementation. To what extent would this solution bring about a culture of innovation within a school or classroom?

A lot! This solution would greatly bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 61.5%

Somewhat. This solution would somewhat bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 30.8%

Not much. This solution might help with other things, but I don't see it really bringing about a culture of innovation within schools or classrooms. - 7.7%

2. Feasibility and Fit: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: If this solution were available to me right now, I would be able to use it with relatively low investment. (i.e. money, time, or skills).

Strongly agree (this solution strongly aligns to my/my school's current capacities). - 76.9%

Agree. - 7.7%

Neutral. - 0%

Disagree. - 15.4%

Strongly disagree (this solution would take a big lift in resources to pull off). - 0%

3. Adaptability: I could imagine this solution working well in a variety of school and classroom contexts across a diverse set of needs.

Absolutely! I could see this working for a variety of schools and classrooms with different or unique needs. - 76.9%

Somewhat. I could see this working for many schools and classrooms, but it might need some adjusting to fit a broad diversity of contexts. - 15.4%

Not a lot. This seems like it might be better suited to only a few contexts. - 7.7%

4. Scalability: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: This idea could be adopted by an ever-growing number of teachers or students without requiring significant changes.

Strongly agree (this solution could easily scale without any significant changes). - 76.9%

Agree. - 0%

Neutral. - 7.7%

Disagree. - 15.4%

Strongly disagree (this solution would require significant changes in order to properly scale). - 0%

5. Desirability: Do you wish this solution were available to you right now?

1 - Not a lot. There's not a big need for this right now and/or we use something already that fulfills a similar purpose in my school or classroom. - 7.7%

2 - 15.4%

3 - 0%

4 - 23.1%

5 - A lot! There's nothing like this already and I'd love to have it in my school or classroom. - 53.8%

24 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

This is BRILLIANT Dominic -I love how you laid the whole thing out! 2 things I thought of as I read through.
Blank time at the beginning of the day - yes! How about at the end of the day as well? To bring some quiet and blankness to the end of what was probably a very rushed day - we do this in kindergarten with a morning meditation in the beginning of the day but also at the end before dismissal - it brings a lovely peaceful energy to the room and seriously, we could all use some of that!
Also, how about a blank page for each student at the start of a class (or at the end!) - similar to the idea of a blank wall but this would be individual to each student. they can use it for whatever (it doesn't have to be for writing thoughts, although it could be a journal page, or for drawing or working out an idea , it could become a paper sculpture, who knows? or it could stay blank ) - do they put it away? do they collect it? do they take it
I have blank mini books (made out of xerox paper) that the children can write in all year - and they can either save them, share them, take them home or recycle them once they are done with them.

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

We are going to install a "blank space" - really just a whiteboard - on a wall in the faculty room of the early learning building on our campus - with no instructions . I am curious and excited to see what, if anything, happens!
What about creating have blank blackboard walls - paint it with blackboard paint - or white board walls (like Dominic has in his office). Post a question - maybe about curriculum, maybe a design challenge, and see what responses and comments they come up - maybe we should ask them how to create "blank times" in our schedules!!! what would they take away and why?

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

In Kindergarten, we start every year with very little put up - the walls are a blank canvas on which students slowly start putting their work and their words and in the process, taking ownership of their space. I like the notion of having blank spaces in our schedules where nothing is fixed and we can allow children the time and space to just "be" or maybe even to "ideate"!

Photo of Dominic Randolph
Team

I love what you have been doing with "design thinking" and embedding it into Kindergarten. I do think that the idea that these small humans are designers is a very strong idea that begs more and more good experimentation. I think that you manage to make your classroom a representation of everyone of the souls in the space. Bravo!

Photo of Paula Marra
Team

Hi Jyoti,

I also teach Kindergarten, my boards also start blank, however, I have been the one choosing what goes up! This year I will ask my students which work would they like to see displayed. I believe that I will end up with quite diverse board and I like that a lot! Unfortunately I am not able to have my boards lowered. In our class we do a lot of "what if" and "hmw"like in yours!

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

Hi Paula,
I can't lower my boards either unfortunately! I have one low space on a wall which I love using for my students to be able touch and see at eye level but it is so not enough!

Photo of Tom Sayer
Team

Hi Dominic and team,

As we look to take these ideas forward, which of these would you lead with? All are linked through the idea of free space (whether that's physical, time or mental) but if this were to be implemented in your 'average' school, which would you focus on and how would you get started? I think that pitching less content (in order to get the time as per the discussions below), teaching mindfulness and asking for blank wall space could lead to the principal / administrator feeling overwhelmed. As we become more concrete in the evolve phase, do you think one of the ideas could take the status of first among equals and be prototyped?

Photo of Richard Brehl
Team

My co-teacher and I started discussing this and we are exploring two main approaches to pursuing the spirit of this idea. We already try to work in the ways described below but we want to get more intentional and explicit about it.
First, we plan to designate and reserve sections of our classroom walls for student-generated and inspired content related to current learning in each subject. For example, at the start of a new learning unit in math, the designated wall space will be empty. As we teach and learn we'll solicit feedback from students to help generate posters and displays (we'll probably make some and we'll also have the kids make some, depending, but either way the content will be from them) listing helpful references (models, examples, procedures, etc), vocabulary, noticings or conceptual discoveries, open questions, etc. suggested by the kids. We'd set aside separate sections for student-generated content of this sort related to current learning in each subject.
Second, we hope to set aside blank time for self-directed learning related to each topic in each subject that we are exploring. Example: we're studying the Silk Road in social studies and one kid who plays an instrument is really fascinated about the music. Maybe that kid wants to learn some traditional folk songs from the Silk Road. Maybe another kid gets obsessed with Marco Polo and has questions about how he spied for Kublai Kahn. We get questions all the time that we can't fully answer in class because they'd lead us into a whole separate mini unit. Maybe this will be time for kids asking questions like that to independently search out answers with our support as needed. Maybe a another kid wants to make a statue of the Buddha in clay. Some students might want to work on something in a group. The fruits of these explorations could be shared with the rest of the class and everyone would benefit from a deeper understanding of the topic.
In both cases one could argue that it's not truly blank space, because the wall space is designated for content related to current learning about a specific topic/subject, and the blank time is designated for self-directed exploration related to current learning about a specific topic/subject. It's not totally open-ended space or time. That said, we are still excited about the possibility of moving further in these directions because we expect they will encourage more student ownership, passion and inspiration in learning.

Photo of Meg Krause
Team

Dominic

Great to see that your idea has moved on to the Evolve phase.

Here's an idea to launch "Blank Spaces" ( borrowed from educator, Thomas Maffai): on the first day of school start with a task that asks students to fill in a blank space (an unlined blank piece of paper). Ask them to close their eyes and listen carefully., and visualize the world. The entire world. Every city, country, continent. Every river, lake, ocean. Every mountain, peninsula, island. Ask them to create a detailed picture in their head. "What does the world look like to you?" Next the students open their eyes and start drawing what they see. Pencils should be moving for 10 minutes (vary time according to age) without stopping. Everything drawn should be labeled. Explain that there is no wrong answer.

This activity strikes be as powerful and disruptive. Students are used to googling anything they want to know. They are used to information instantly. This activity forces them to slow down and think. It forces them to pause. It forces them be okay with no knowing. It forces them to entertain blankness.

A couple of places to extend this idea:
1) Ask students to look at their map and think about what they want to know more about.
2) Ask students to compare their maps with a partner. Why might the maps be different?
3) Use this activity as a way to help students understand that taking risks and failure is part of learning.

Meg

Photo of Richard Brehl
Team

I'm intrigued by the whole of this idea, but especially by the idea of "blank time". So often students surprise us by taking ideas and learning in completely unpredictable and extremely valuable directions. However, we're not always able to pursue these inspirations as fully as we'd like (and should) due to schedule/time constraints put into place months before. Blank time would allow for us to delve into questions and develop passions that arise from our learning, but which cannot be predicted and planned for in advance. The question is - where does this time come from? Should we think about making room for this blank time in our schedules by committing to "less" (material/coverage) so that we can engage the learning goals we do commit to with more depth and with more time for pursuing ideas and passions that arise naturally and unpredictably from the learning?

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

If one looks at learning in terms of big understandings and conceptual underpinnings - coverage loses meaning and we can then find time to have those black spaces, no?

Photo of Dominic Randolph
Team

I also think that the idea of time could have the strongest affect in the end. As we have been finding teaching some mindfulness techniques to children can have extremely positive effects on their development and ability to thrive. d

Photo of Richard Brehl
Team

Good point - thanks Jyoti! I certainly agree in principle, but I still have questions about implementation. Please bear with me while I lay out my thought context, and apologies in advance if I over-explain.
I'm assuming a well-designed curriculum will designate exploration of specific content/topics chosen to lead to acquisition of certain big understandings and conceptual underpinnings. For example, we teach (cover) the Silk Road (topic) as a context for engaging the essential question, "How are humans connected across time, space and belief systems?" Across our grade level, all classrooms "cover" this topic of the Silk Road (and we have lists of topic areas that we all cover in all subjects, all of which are inspiring, connect to each other, and support teaching of big ideas/concepts in beautiful ways). Of course, we don't "cover" the Silk Road in the pejorative sense of rote learning/information transmission. We all teach it in our own ways and in multiple modalities, the kids actively explore it from multiple perspectives, constructing their own understandings, etc. Nonetheless, it's true that we all commit to covering this and other specific topics, and I'm fine with the idea of having set topics for each subject area that we all "cover". Pre-defined curricular topics/content maintain some consistency in terms of what kids know and can do, and more importantly, what big understandings and conceptual underpinnings they leave a grade level with. What I'm seeing in Dominic's idea for blank time on the schedule is an impetus for considering a reduction in the number of specific topics that we commit to teaching in order to tweak the curricular balance. On one hand we have a valid concern for grade-level consistency of topics that we use to anchor/contextualize/teach big ideas and concepts. On the other hand we desire time for individual classes and learners to explore their own passions and and avenues of inquiry that call to them specifically and uniquely. By culling the list of anchor topics/content, we might free up blank time and shift the balance. I don't know where the perfect balance between curricular consistency and time for more open ended exploration lies, but I feel sure it's worth looking critically at our curriculum through this lens.
Then there is the question of specific, concrete knowledge and skills that we need to teach and assess with some degree of consistency across grade levels, and which play essential roles in construction of big ideas and conceptual understandings. A defined set of topics in a curriculum provides a framework that helps ensure those knowledge and skill areas are addressed. But here again, by scaling back the list of topical content areas we commit to, we can continue to work on consistently defined skills while allowing for more blank space with which we might follow through on inspirations that arise organically throughout the year.
Does that make sense?
P.S. I really love this whole idea, Dominic (and not just the time aspect;-).

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

totally makes sense Rich - you explain it really thoughtfully! I do agree that there are probably topical content areas that can be scaled back that will not take away from big understandings or skills - or that can be just touched on rather than explored in depth. As we were working on the Science curriculum with BSCS, there was a lot of conversation around this~

Photo of Meg Krause
Team

Dominic, Richard, Jyoti

This is such an interesting thread. A number of ideas resonant for me- here are two .

1) The idea of reducing the amount of content coverage and freeing up some "blank" time, sounds a little like passion time or 20% time, where students get to pursue a personal interest. I would like to see this framed in the form of a design challenge- how might we.... and the challenge could be large or small depending on children's interest. I have read about one school that freed up Mondays for passion projects. The thinking was making starting a new school week exciting, and one day is 20% of the week. Do you think a large block of time is more effective than a spattering of times across a week? How do we carve out this time? Alternatively, we could stay within our curricular topics and open up time for exploration. For example, we teach activism all year long. Our first social studies unit is about Boston 1775. Maybe we give some time "blank" time each week for exploration within the construct of Boston 1775?

2) Mindfulness in the classroom. This is my new interest. As I read about giving students more agency for their learning and moving away from the need to fill up the day, I wonder if this would help students slow down and learn to be more attentive to the present. Of course, I think the teachers need to experience and model how to use black time in interesting and creative ways.

Photo of Jyoti Gopal
Team

Meg
1. hands down, large blocks of time are much better than shorter bits scattered across the schedule. I am constantly fighting for my schedule to have less specials sprinkled in throughout the day so my students can just STAY and BE in their room. Certainly for younger children like my kindergartners, having the large blocks of time really allows them to sink into the experience of what we call Work Time so that they can fully engage and dive in. Having to constantly clean up and shift gears is exhausting and takes away from whatever they are working on. This year it just so happens that I have one day in the week where I have my kids all day (no specials!) - I am so excited and psyched to see how this will play out!
There is also the notion that a blank space/time could be just that - a time for absolutely nothing scheduled and see what the children themselves come up with. It will probably change and evolve as they get used to having that time in their schedule and I wonder what they will do with it?
2. thinking about the bigger picture for the whole year- you mentioned activism- is definitely another way to not feel stretched for time. So in K, number sense or environmental stewardship, as 2 examples, would be concepts we work on all year and I do not worry about having to "get it done" by a particular time or period. We weave it in throughout the day almost everyday. Of course, it's easier in K when we have less "topic coverage" to deal with.

3. so true about mindfulness - helping students to slow down and be in the present and also helping them to be aware of the fact that mindfulness is also being responsive to the needs of others and their space.

Photo of Richard Brehl
Team

Jyoti- it's funny - I was thinking of the science curriculum work you did as I wrote. I felt sure you lived these questions in that work.
+1 for large blocks of dedicated time. The same principle that makes devoting a week to project based learning so effective. Great idea to give kids blank time in the context of a topic. Reminds me of a blank page in a book that already has a title. We could provide selections of books, tablets, laptops, crafting and making materials and workspaces, then set them free to research, explore and mess around with ideas related to the topic. Make a skit, research a question, debate, write a story, solve problems, write a poem, paint a picture, build models of historical buildings or recreate inventions, etc. Kids could journal or blog about their explorations, share questions, etc. An app like Evernote might be great for compiling notes, images, digital resources, etc all in one place.
But...while situations vary between schools, grades and classrooms, I think that in most cases something will have to give in order for time to be freed up for more of this kind of learning. As things stand for most of us, teaching days are generally quite full, and you can't squeeze blood from a stone. You're so right that covering fewer topics is only one approach to providing more time for spontaneous and/or student-directed learning, and in some cases "topic trimming" may not be the solution, or may not be needed.
Specials: Tightening integration with home base curriculum and having specialists push in more are two approaches that I have seen producing great results. If you were setting up a "blank time" for open exploration of the Renaissance, for example, wouldn't it be great to have an art teacher on hand to work with kids who wanted to dive deeper into that aspect of the topic?
+1 on the idea of mindfulness. One major challenge presented by blank time as independent or open-ended exploration would be helping kids to manage themselves, the spontaneity and the independence - manage the time, manage their interactions, (pursuing passions can be quite a passionate business) and following through. Allowing experimentation and play would be an important component. That said, I assume we'd want to see them ultimately latching on to a project, a line of inquiry, a debate, etc, following through, constructing new understanding for themselves and expressing that learning in some kind of product or demonstration (now I'm thinking assessment). For any learner of any age, mindfulness is a huge part of making that happen independently.
On the other hand, in some cases the blank time might not be used for independent learning at all, be it completely open-ended or contextualized by topic. It might be used simply for whole class lessons, activities, projects etc that teachers see as beneficial for the class based on observed performance or expressions of interest by the group as a whole. Maybe the key point of "blank time" is that it makes room in the schedule for the teacher to tailor learning opportunities for the class based on how things are rolling for that particular class at that particular time in the year.
Thanks to all for the excellent conversation.

Photo of Paula Marra
Team

YES! Starting together, designing reflectively. I have an area where they can reflect on their learning. The other boards we go on building together throughout the year. Unfortunately my boards are way too high for my students to see. The place where they reflect on their learning is low and easily accessible.

Photo of Dominic Randolph
Team

We have put lower boards in some of our classrooms. Odd that no-one has tried to commercialize this...LowBoards! Cheers, Dominic

Photo of Gel Hannan
Team

This is a very powerful idea, Dominic! I love it. There is so much 'noise' in every day life - students and teachers alike would benefit from a bit of 'quiet.'

Photo of Dominic Randolph
Team

Thanks, Gel. Really appreciate it. Dominic

Photo of David Harrington
Team

There are many components to this post and comments worth mentioning:
importance of physical space (doesn't have to cost much)
student-owned surroundings (kids imagined it, built it, live with it)
boards need to be accessible to all (short/tall)

I would like to see this idea expand past a class or school but have the district lead the charge and provide the example. Some of the schools I work along side have a "sample" media center that schools can come and visit.

Photo of Niranjan Vasireddy
Team

Dominic, I am just curious - Now that it has been one week in class, how do you see the white spaces being filled. Do you propose for this to be a one time activity or a weekly/monthly activity? How do you propose and make sure that teachers get to items that are put on the board by children. Let us say a 1st grader says, I want to learn about Iron Man or Elsa. How do you propose the teachers handle this request. How do you propose that the activity rather than being a one time ice breaker/ wall filling activity, become incorporated in to the school/class routine without effecting the curriculum?

Photo of Meg Krause
Team

We made the decision this year to start day 1 with an "undecorated" classroom. We want the kids to feel the agency to make the classroom theirs and to feel that their decisions have value. To help do this, and as part of our tip-toeing into the makerspace culture, we will have a classroom makerspace. Part of the makerspace section of the classroom will include a wall covered in Writeyboard Dry Erase Paint.