The spread of COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on our delivery of instruction and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If you lose access to a large swath of in-person tools, you really need to think carefully about how all of your tools work in order to maximize the impact of those tools you have left in the toolbox. The problem is that we take most of our tools for granted. They are part of systems of action that we have maintained and adapted over the years from older tools. We rarely reflect on the way these very tools shape our actions. Covid has smashed many of these assumptions but even without the virus a reckoning with our expanded toolsets in both learning and innovation was way overdue.

This project is an effort to map how we teach each other and how various tools help or hinder efforts at communicating ideas, both in a traditional educational setting as well as within companies trying to stimulate innovation. Innovation is nothing more than learning at scale. To understand innovation, we must therefore first understand teaching. To understand teaching we must first understand how our conversations are shaped by the mental and technological tools we use to shape understanding.

Take the Teaching Toolsets Triangle Survey

Take the Teaching Toolsets Triangle Survey

a draft exploration of connecting Laurillard’s Conversational Framework with defined sets of tools. The Survey is intended in part to update and refine this thought exercise.a draft exploration of connecting Laurillard's Conversational Framework with defined sets of tools. The Survey is intended in part to update and refine this thought exercise.

Even with the best intentions, teaching often struggles with inadequate or badly-matched tools. It is only when we have some understanding of our pedagogical departure points (real or desired) that we can then start to evaluate the impact that our various learning environments and their constituent toolsets have on our success or failure to execute our teaching strategies within them. Until very recently these toolsets were extremely limited by the technology available to us. Classrooms consisted of blackboards, maybe some sort of projection device (e.g. overhead projector), desks and chairs. There wasn’t much opportunity to customize the environment that students operated in under these circumstances.

Over the last 20 years, however, we have seen an explosion of new tools, both physical and digital. However, their selection and implementation have often been subject to haphazard processes. We have built our educational environments like we were building a car one piece at a time. When physical campuses suddenly shut down in March 2020, we essentially put the petal to the metal on this jalopy, crossed our fingers, and hoped for the best.

One of the lessons that has become obvious throughout this experience is that learning is not perceived as a collection of parts.  Environments are not perceived as collections of various technologies. The experience is viewed holistically by the learner. Implicit and subliminal cues provide a general impression of the purpose of any space, whether that is physical or digital in nature. These spaces all send messages about what is important and what is not. As an artist I have a deep understanding that the intention behind a message is rarely the message communicated, assuming that there was any coherent intention in the first place.

Even spaces and technology that are explicitly focused and coherent can unintentionally bias what goes on there in particular pedagogical directions. Conway’s Law states that, “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.” In other words, organizational processes rather than intentional design often shape the design of the toolsets available to teachers and that in turn shapes the product, learning, that emerges. The results are predictable. Systems of space and technology shape the boundaries and expectations of what is possible within a given space or using a particular tool. Most teachers and students will tend to adapt themselves accordingly instead of insisting that the environment conform to their needs.

There are a vast number of interactions that occur in the learning process, whether that be in the classroom, online, or in life in general. In order to start solving this puzzle in any sort of rigorous fashion we first have to deconstruct our pedagogical strategies in order to understand how the kinds of conversations that are going on between teachers and students shape the intended shape of learning.

Second, as we plan to confront the crisis and maintain our economic and educational futures it has never been more critical to understand the expanding universe of tools now available to us to communicate and share ideas with one another. This is a process that the Teaching Toolset Triangle systemizes. It is designed provide a rubric for evaluating and selecting tools (and collections of tools) that have the capacity to reshape instruction and organizational innovation.

In the short term these strategies can be directed toward making instruction more antifragile in the face of institutional and societal uncertainties such as the pandemic spread of a virus that unexpectedly shuts down large portions of our physical infrastructure. Nicholas Taleb coined the term “antifragile” to define systems that are more than resilient, but that actually thrive and grow in times of crisis. It would be compounding tragedy if we did not learn from this time of adversity and use it to examine those parts of the system that don’t make sense anymore. Those organizations that do so will thrive. Those that don’t are likely to be crippled by the experience of the new realities of a post-pandemic world.

There are three steps to walk through. First, we must define how we are trying to communicate. Second, we must define how our tools shape what is possible. And, finally, the Toolset Triangle is used to connect meanings with the means to form mindfully constructed strategies to humanize learning (and innovation):

  1. Hierarchies of Conversation – Our methods of teaching are every bit as much of a tool for learning as any blackboard, computer, or online system. Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework gives us a useful model for understanding how these conversations take place and how they impact systems of power in our learning conversations.
  2. Defining the Tools – We can categorize our sets of tools for communicating ideas into three broad categories: Physical, Virtual, and (soon) XR.
  3. Connecting Instruction with Tools – An introduction to the Teaching Toolset Triangle and its accompanying survey.

The Teaching Toolset Triangle (T3

Teaching Toolset Triangle



Key Sources:

  • Conway, Mel, “How Do Committees Invent,” Datamation (April 1968), pp. 28-31 at
  • Laurillard, Diana, Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies(London: Routledge, 2002).
  • Laurillard, Diana, “Pedagogical forms for mobile learning: framing research questions” (2007) at
  • Laurillard, Diana, “The Pedagogical Challenges to Collaborative Technologies,” Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (4/2009), pp. 4-20.
  • Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Muller, Michael J. and Allison Druin, “Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI,” in Julie A. Jacko and Andrew Sears eds., The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications (Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2003), pp. 1051-1068
  • Papert, Seymour and Idit Harel, “Situating Constructionism” in Papert and Harel eds., Constructionism (New York: Praeger, 1991)
  • Papert, Seymour, Mindstorms (New York: Basic Books, 1980, 1993)
  • Protopsaltis, Spiros and Sandy Baum, “Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise: A Look at the Evidence and Implications for Federal Policy,” at