Michael Liang

Reflections on design. Living a creative life, fully. Putting ideas into words.

Third Teacher, Lucky 13, and Up Rock

Third Teacher, Lucky 13, and Up Rock

What I’m Reading:

One morning at Bank Street, an advisor caught me curled up on the hallway couch reading Make Space, a book that advocates designing one’s physical environment to promote creativity and specific human interactions. “Have you read The Third Teacher?” she asked. I admitted I hadn’t, although the title had been popping up on Amazon as a recommended reading. I finally picked it up this week, and I can see why she suggested the book.

The Third Teacher examines how the classroom environment affects teaching and student learning. Within the first chapter, it becomes pretty clear that today’s classroom design—a vestige of post-World War II architecture and learning theory—doesn’t match student needs nor prepares them for 21st-century realities.


My favorite section discussed the link between physical activity and learning. When we fidget, for example, we're stimulating the brain to resist physical and mental fatigue. How and where we sit affects how we learn. One solution is to provide ergonomic and adjustable chairs. We accept these for adult working environments, so why not kids? Like adults, kids too vary greatly in height and size. 

I recommend picking up the book every now and again for inspiration, rather than trying to read it cover to cover. The graphic design reflects a key message: explore and follow your curiosity. While constant barrage of sobering statistics can be overwhelming (e.g., “The air is unfit to breathe in nearly 15,000 schools” ), the solutions are practical and accessible at any level within an institution.

What I’m Making:

Lucky 13

I’ve tried all sorts of fitness apps over the years to promote healthy exercise habits. Some are quite good (Nike+), but I’ve also been trying to lessen my screen time. I wondered if there could be an analog way of keeping track of my fitness. (As a past example, when I ran more consistently, I developed a simple system for my hill workouts. At the start and bottom of a hill, I’d make a small pile of, say, 12 rocks. Each time I ran up and down a hill, I moved one rock over to a new pile. It was quick, simple, disposable, and very gratifying to watch one pile grow larger as the other grew smaller.)

Mark and I sat down one evening to discuss our summer fitness goals and come up with an accountability system (he is SO patient with my need for structure). Some of the design criteria included a visual representation of our progress, flexibility, and separate standards for our respective fitness levels. I came into the conversation imagining some sort of strict calendar—on Mondays we’d do tennis and on Wednesdays we’d do yoga—or perhaps some sort of biometric line graph. Mark nailed the solution when he mentioned the point system for Weight Watchers. What if different activities could be worth different points? After a few sketches, we came up with the “Lucky 13”, with 13 points being the goal for each week.


We listed out our preferred exercise types and individually assigned points. It didn’t matter the order of the workouts; as long as we hit 13 points each week, that would be a success.

We've tested the system for a few weeks and, like any prototype, are making adjustments. The big one is that I overestimated my points while Mark underestimated his. This, of course, has made hitting 13 more challenging for me, especially when traveling. Also, the system doesn’t really take into account the length of the workout. Should we get more points for a 90-minute yoga session versus a 60-minute yoga session? In the end, I’m not sure it matters. At this point, we’re just trying to establish habits. Stay tuned to see how we do at the end of 8 weeks.

Up Rock

One of my favorite camp games is called Knock Rock. Developed with my friend Dusty, we set up a target—a cairn, stump, or boulder— and then step back and throw small rocks at it. Whoever hits the target first, wins. Basically, it’s just an excuse to throw rocks at things.

Yesterday, Mark and I were at the beach, and after a few rounds of Knock Rock, we came up with a new variation we’re calling Up Rock. Here, the point is to build something that can withstand the waves. If the surf knocks over your structure, you lose.


For our first variation, we had to make a cairn of three rocks: two of our own choosing and one rock from the other person. For our second variation, we had to use three rocks to build a Stonehenge-like structure: two vertical posts and one horizontal beam. And for our final variation, we wedged a small stick between a rock and one of the large beach boulders. (For those keeping score, I won all three.)


Perhaps my reading of “The Third Teacher” primed me to think about the value of unstructured play. Yes, Up Rock is silly, but we had so much joy and laughter watching and anticipating which wave would dismantle our creations. I’m sure we learned some architectural principles, too, but play doesn’t always have to have a point.

Gatherings, Plastic, & Seasonal Training