Two educators explain why visual collaborative tools, like Figma, are making learning more accessible to everyone, and why teaching by the book is a thing of the past.
Illustrations by Mathieu Labrecque.
Now three decades into her career as an educator, Lisa Highfill remembers how different her classroom felt when she first started teaching for the public school district in Pleasanton, California. “We used to call them robot students,” she said. “They would come in, sit down, and do exactly what we told them to do. They would ask ‘how many points is this worth? When’s it due?’” That was where the students’ investment in their own learning ended. Lisa wasn’t exactly in the educational driver’s seat either back then. With readymade lesson plans and rigid standards, she felt limited in her ability to engage her students. “I wanted to become more like a designer in the classroom because I knew that if I was designing [lesson plans] purposefully, I could give kids choices and help them build agency by the way I asked them to learn.” In fact, Lisa became so invested in shifting this classroom dynamic that she spent the last eight years as the district’s tech integration specialist, helping other educators integrate new tools and technical skills to make learning more dynamic. She even created her own digital lesson plans called Hyperdocs in 2016, based on the explore, explain, apply learning cycle adapted from the 5E learning model of student-driven inquiry. When the pandemic descended on Pleasanton and the entire world, Lisa suddenly stood at the cutting edge of a critical skillset for remote and hybrid classrooms filled with students struggling with anxiety and depression. Teachers flooded Lisa’s inbox looking for tools to help them get kids more connected and engaged.
More than two years since the height of the pandemic, K-12 education in the U.S. is still contending with crisis. The 2023 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also known as “the nation’s report card”) shows historic lows in math and reading scores for 13-year-olds, and schools across the country are struggling with teacher shortages caused by low morale and pay, health and safety concerns, and serious burnout. The number of kids in school dealing with disabilities has increased over the last two decades. And a recent Pew study found that 40% of parents of students under 18 said that their kids’ mental health is a major concern.
The pandemic exacerbated the challenges facing education, but the problems existed before Covid. In fact, NAEP scores have been rocky for over a decade, as public school funding fell in the 2000s and struggled to recover, pulling down both test scores and college attendance rates along with it. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report found that K-12 students back in 2018 were already facing a wide range of serious mental health stressors, including a crushing pressure to excel. The report urged educators and policy makers to take a more “holistic approach to adolescent development,” and look at sustainable ways to address individual student needs at scale. Those “robot students” that Lisa remembers were laser-focused on grades and checklists, not learning in their own healthy ways. And yet in the years since, spending on standardized testing has only gone up. The reasons for what’s happening in our schools today are complex, but one message from all this data has been loud and clear; a one-size-fits-all mindset isn’t working for today’s classroom.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
First developed in the 1990s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and but popularized later on, Universal Design for Learning is an educational framework that champions multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement in order to make learning goals accessible to and achievable by students with diverse needs, backgrounds, and abilities—often within the same classroom.
5E Instructional Model
The 5E Instructional Model grew in response to research that found that students need to learn more than the facts about a concept to understand it; they also need to understand the organization of those facts and their relevant applications in the real world. First articulated in 1990 specifically related to science education, the 5E Model has five distinct guided phases for learning that are more cyclical than linear: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. Other methodologies have branched from there, including the explore, explain, apply cycle.
The good news is that the move to virtual and hybrid learning during the pandemic, and this moment’s mental health crisis has accelerated interest and research around teaching approaches that open doors to all kinds of kids from different backgrounds with different learning styles, needs, and emotional situations.. What’s more, growing evidence shows that an inclusive classroom—where students of different educational and emotional needs learn together—can benefit all students, not only those with special needs. And teachers like Lisa and districts like Pleasanton United are leveraging frameworks to give students greater access and agency in the classroom, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), The 5E Instructional Model, and Project Based Learning. These methodologies guide educators to start lessons with diverse and multi-modal forms of information—like videos, books, photos, and illustrations—that students can use to find their own path into a learning concept, getting them more excited about the subject matter and more committed to problem-solving no matter their background or skill level.
Project Based Learning
In Project Based Learning, the project is the organizing structure for students to explore a concept through real-world problem-solving. Teachers serve as facilitators in this methodology, with students driving the inquiry and investigations. Some recent studies showed that both elementary and high school students who learned a topic through Project Based Learning could outperform students working with a more traditional instructional model.
Lisa is glad to see new methods translating to more engaged students at The Pleasanton Virtual Academy, a hybrid K-12 learning environment the district developed out of the pandemic, where she teaches today. Kids attend The Virtual Academy for different reasons—from health concerns, to bullying, to educational needs—and Lisa and her colleagues are leveraging Project Based Learning, UDL, and the explore, explain, apply model in their philosophy and practice. “The students have more ownership and buy-in, because it’s more their choice,” Lisa says. “They express to me that they feel in control of learning. And they start to care about their work more. I'm seeing how it really turns students around, especially after pandemic times when they did feel very out of control.”
In Newton, Massachusetts, Meredith Greene is taking a similar approach as a special education teacher in an inclusive classroom. She starts her lesson planning with UDL principles—representation, expression, and engagement—and then customizes the design for each student and their unique learning needs. That could mean creating an image bank instead of a word bank for a child struggling with literacy, including audio clips for a student with low vision, and hiding parts of a lesson for kids working on executive functioning. “The way they’re accessing the learning objective might not look the same as their neighbor, who’s a general education student,” Meredith explains. “But it’s still an entry point that meets the curriculum and the standard.”
Meredith also finds that it’s not only her special education students that benefit from multi-modal content. For example, she’s noticed that when she sets up her kids to record short videos in order to participate in a class discussion with general education peers, “other students see the video and it can spark their creativity. They’re like, I want to do that too! It really creates an inclusive learning environment, where all students are engaged and feel welcome accessing the curriculum.” Most kids with district-official Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, that appreciate alternate ways of learning. Multi-modal lessons “also strengthen the general education teachers’ knowledge about how to incorporate Universal Design to help their students with different learning profiles,” Meredith points out.
New methodologies require new tools, and while the pandemic fueled a burst of platforms and technologies for the classroom, every new option comes with its own learning curve. “I try to stick to only five tools at the most for students,” says Lisa. “Because jumping from platform to platform is too much for them, even our oldest students. And my goal isn't to have them online all the time.” Not to mention the fact that the teachers are also stretched extremely thin. Meredith finds it cognitively draining to try to learn multiple platforms to identify the constellation that will work for her and her students. Plus, costs can be prohibitive when districts require approval and budget processes to get teachers access to tech. “As a special ed teacher, you end up spending a lot of your own money on platforms that provide visuals that are 90% or less of what you want it to look like. And that can be draining for the students, for your wallet, and your time,” she says.
Lisa and Meredith have found that flexibility is the number one requirement for a tool they can use as a workhorse in their unique school environments, with enough features to support different students, lessons, and styles. So far, FigJam has fit the bill for them both—and the free price tag doesn’t hurt either. At The Virtual Academy, Lisa has used FigJam for everything from a simple shared whiteboard in one-on-one tutoring sessions to a virtual gathering space for the school’s morning assembly of 300 students. “It was magic to watch their cursors flying, to have all these kids all over the place come together and come up with innovative ideas for what they want to add to our community,” she remembers. “I'm not the only one up at the whiteboard with the marker anymore, and that's pretty special.” She’s excited to use the tool for lesson planning too: “Because I can add voice, video, and written instruction, I can really design with UDL principles.”
No one-size-fits-all lesson works for Meredith’s special education students, and for lesson planning, Meredith has found that FigJam’s open canvas offers the diversity of resources she needs. “Always having a plan B, C, and D, when you design a lesson is important,” explains Meredith, reflecting on what she’s learned over a decade of teaching. “It’s beneficial to have a lesson that spans multiple cognitive backgrounds—especially at the beginning of the school year when you’re getting to know your students and their learning profiles.” With FigJam, she’s loved having all the options in her back pocket. “If you get to a section where the student’s supposed to type something and then they're not feeling that modality for whatever reason, you can offer them a voice memo instead, or ask them to search the internet for a picture that represents the answer—copy, paste, done.” Meredith also uses FigJam differently for her younger students, who may not get as much out of looking at their own screen. “You can start with a big FigJam on the whiteboard, so all the students are watching it,” Meredith says. “Then the students go and work in small groups and then come back together with that FigJam open as a reference. But we’re communicating about what we just learned using all those real life skills.”
Educators like Lisa Highfill and Meredith Greene are going above and beyond with alternative teaching methodologies to help students feel more in control of their learning at a critical moment in U.S. education when the stakes are solid mental health and educational access for all types of kids. But not every teacher has the time, energy, and go ahead to figure out how to do things differently—in fact, many are understandably burned out and in urgent need of support when their schools or districts don’t have it to give. Methodologies like the 5E model and UDL are accessible for any educator out there today—and flexible tools for teachers and students must be too. As for Lisa, she’s figuring out how to leverage FigJam at The Virtual Academy with the same openness and sense of curiosity that she encourages in her students. “I've given myself permission to just learn one thing at a time, to try it out and be messy. I say that upfront with the kids: If it doesn't go well, I’m going to learn from that and do it again. I'm learning more by jumping in and trying than I am from thinking I need to master everything before I get started. I think that's a good tip for learning anything.”
Learn more about how we’re expanding our partnership with Google for Education to bring Figma and FigJam directly to K-12 schools across the US and Japan through Chromebook, the country’s most popular personal computing device for students, and Google Workspace for Education. Districts can now apply across the US and Japan to bring Figma to their classrooms.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist living in San Francisco. Her essays have appeared in MIT Tech Review, The New York Times, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Her short fiction has been published by Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, and Cleaver Magazine, among other journals.
Building a digital-first future for every student
After a year of exponential growth and a successful beta, Figma and Google for Education are doubling down on the promise of bringing design and technology tooling on Chromebooks to K12 students across the US and Japan.