Every day I think about the future of learning and work. My full-time career is dedicated to discovery, design, and entrepreneurship in youth education. This dissertation is a mix of personal and academic interpretations about the roles of technology and stories in student-centered learning.
I update this daily!
a. How to Read This Website
This dissertation is a long, one-page web document. The Table of Contents can link you to different sections and subsections of the dissertation. Every section is written as simply as possible, and specific jargon is italicized and underlined with a hover pop-up like this to explain it. This dissertation is written in the first person.
In the Table of Contents, ✨means that section has been recently updated. 🌱means it is a new section.
Some sections have blue, red, or yellow square tags, which mean that within that section, there is a different kind of content. Yellow means that section contains a thought from a thinker I admire; blue means a tech travelogue piece; red means a personal essay or story. Understanding these pieces hopefully makes reading the dissertation more clear, personal, and fun.
"Jenny Reads" Academic Research
Sections with this yellow are clippings from other thinkers I admire. These range across the disciplines of literature, sociology, design, psychology, and computing. To help myself understand these dense texts better, I like to record myself reading and discussing sections aloud in Cloudy Read Alouds. Thus, these sections come with a sound clip of me reading the papers, theories, and thoughts at hand!
If you read the "Jenny Reads" sections on their own, you will get a collection of thoughts from academia to ground my work—plus the audio file of me actually reading it.
"Jenny Travels" Field Notes
Sections with this blue are my travelogue field notes about technology use and literacy. As I visit schools and other new communities, I write "Jenny Travels" pieces to document my observations in the U.S., China, Mexico, and parts of Europe. I review my conversations with students and educators, focus groups, product tests, and local ethnographies. My reflections motivate the topics in that dissertation chapter.
If you read the "Jenny Travels" sections on their own, you will get a series of my first-hand case studies about digital interactions in the 21st century. Feel free to use the insights for your own work.
"Jenny Types" Personal Essays
Sections with this red are personal statements about my own relationship with learning. These pieces are often reflective vignettes from my life.
If you read the "Jenny Types" sections on their own, you will get some of the essential writings about my growth, like a blog or diary.
I define some basic terms I use throughout this dissertation, in order of relevance.
A series of experiences, events, or information. For example, an Instagram or Snap story.
Plot or Storyline
The pattern that connects experiences, events, or information together, start to end, through cause and effect.
A type of plot that involves personal growth, understanding, and progress of a protagonist.
Seeking knowledge for personal growth or to better understand and progress the world.
The theatrical art of reality-building and storytelling by improvisation, or without preparation. In improv, building a story setting is called establishing a base reality. The plot or storyline is called a game.
A person in a plot, storyline, game, or journey.
The player who the plot follows.
A person's perception of the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of the way things in life are. Informed by their story, plot, and journey.
Reflection activities to practice discovering the journeys in a person's education and life story.
The visual interface that shows a story, plot, and journey over time. The y-axis measures the amount of self-awareness and personal growth of an experience.
Someone whose cookie trail you admire.
Seeing how a past experience in your story can be a plot point.
Seeing how a future experience in your story can be a plot point.
Conscious knowledge of how your story shapes your feelings and actions.
Earth's To-Do List
The database that reframes a career as a goal-oriented task to aid human flourishing. The Aristotelian definition of human flourishing is "activity in accordance with virtue."
2. Who's Jenny Liu Zhang?
My name is Jenny Liu Zhang, and I'm a businessperson and designer. Throughout my life, balancing my explorative hobbies with an academic and social identity generated a lot of anxiety for me. Today, my responsibility is to turn my own coping mechanisms into accessible self-reflection activities. Building Plot Twisters is like designing a gift for my inner child.
I grew up in a townhouse in Washington state with my Chinese immigrant parents, who worked hard to pay my tuition at a Montessori elementary school until I was 10. After that, I hopped around public schools in the state and had the privilege of trying many hobbies, from ballet to painting to theater.
My favorite pasttime was creating digital art for my favorite online games. By 12, my after school ritual was to play with Photoshop, HTML, and CSS on the family computer. In high school, I used my skills to design newsletters and websites for community organizations. I also tutored kids and worked at a screenpress after school. My favorite subjects were history and English.
For college, I attended the University of Southern California's Iovine and Young Academy on a scholarship. There were 21 of us in my major, which was called the "Art, Technology, and Business of Innovation," and we took many of our classes together. Some of the projects-based courses I completed included typography, database architecture, founder case studies, and pitch sessions. I also minored in "Narrative Structure" in the English department, in which my favorite classes were film studies and creative writing.
When I worked for Adobe, I researched and ideated on products for their K-12 education team. I observed the ways kids expressed themselves to the world, whether through social media, fashion, or writing. They paralleled how I used design, poetry, and improv to reflect on my own identity too. I saw an opportunity to make these personal storytelling and world-building skills a conscious practice in the classroom.
"School is the beginning of a child's life work."
Though I did not set out from birth to create youth education products, all my interests growing up involved art, technology, stories, or kids. After seeing this pattern, I knew the most fulfilling work for me would continue to revolve around personal storytelling in education technology. Finding this story about myself encouraged me to further explore how I specifically could add value to this world in a way that no one else could.
It is often a privilege today to find work that truly aligns with our identity and values, but I believe that we have a right to discover that storyline in our lives, if we want to. To find meaning in what we learn, we must first understand ourselves and our personal journeys. Then, we can see why that knowledge is relevant to our background and setting. The right to be the protagonist of our life story must be accessible.
My goal is to increase the access each person has to their potential, no matter their background or circumstances—and as a disclosure, I am a debt-free individual with the privileged circumstances to pursue this goal full-time. Countless mentors invested in me along my journey, as a designer, writer, student, and teacher. I believe everybody deserves the same encouragement to be confident. I hope you can join me on this adventure.
"Show me how proud you are of what you have learned, and I promise I will do the same."
3. Student-Centered Learning
a. Following the Child
The models of learning that inspire me most are those of Maria Montessori. Montessori designed her education to "follow the child," meaning lessons are introduced to a student when they express interest in it. Curiosity is a sign of readiness. ("Developmentally Appropriate and Following the Child").
"Education is not something which the teacher does, but a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment."
A Montessori education is designed around the following core qualities:
The models of learning that inspire me most are those of Maria Montessori. I can trace many of my learning rituals back to Spring Valley Montessori, which I attended between ages five and ten. Though I can only speak for the person I am now since childhood self-awareness is selective, I believe specific elements from my youth education shaped my curious and creative impulses by design.
b. Internal and External Literacy
c. The Nodal Imagination
d. Journey Learning
Journey learning is a method of student-centered learning. Journey learners study a skill or seek knowledge as a part of a larger process to achieve a goal or mission. A journey learner's education always has a bigger reason. Journey learners are the protagonists of their education.
How does a bird fly? Why do we dream? What is anger? Does the sun have a birthday? As kids, we’re full of curious questions. In fact, following these curiosities led to the progress of many domains and disciplines, from physics to poetry.
Yet today, seeking knowledge has lost its goal of understanding and progressing ourselves and our worlds. Instead, education is often a hurdle to making money, filling a resume, or achieving status—not a journey for a sense of purpose. Without that goal-oriented curiosity, school, work, and life can feel unfulfilling and useless.
Journey learning reframes education as studying for a goal, especially to follow our natural curiosities. By seeing our education and life experiences like a journey, we can better understand every up, down, test, and wisdom. With new skills, we earn a sense of purpose and stability: healthy aspirations, especially in a world of so many questions.
Journey learning asks us to draw from our past experiences and look for patterns in our work styles, attitudes, time management, and subjects and roles we prefer. What kinds of work trigger a flow state? Are there topics I care more about than others? What’s my stress threshold? Do I work well with others? Am I hard to please? As we ask questions like these, we grow more aware of the causes and effects in our lives so we can better play along.
We all have patterns in how we react to our education, career, and life experiences. There are infinite dots to connect and stories to tell about ourselves. Discovering these journeys and taking advantage of them is a skill we all share. Even our myths and movies consistently show us that this process is natural to our shared, human experience. To understand our journeys and how they change is to discover who we are and what we’re made of.
a. Life's Creative Microcosm
Theory from improvisational theater is relevant to any creative space. Classrooms and workplaces alike require (Besser 3)
b. Base Reality and "The Game"
2. Plot Twisters
I am creating a digital world of personal metrics, metaphors, mnemonics, and storytelling tools to help to reveal the cookie trail of your experiences. Growing up, balancing my explorative hobbies with an academic and social life generated a lot of anxiety for me. In my conversations with others, describing experiences from stress to takeaways of an assignment seemed to be missing a standardized language. Therefore, I invented a quirky, mnemonic-based language to improve self-reflection.
There are no cohesive resources or tools in education to document hindsight. Through metaphors that quantify and qualify the lessons we learn from our lives, we can see clearly the experiences that have shaped us. The Five Axes below are categories of the abstract, implicit lessons learned in school:
- Control of Emotions
- Playing Along
- Defining Contentment
- Eliminating Waste
- Intentional Growth
Every Plot Twister connects to at least one of the five axes and clarifies our relationship to it. Each student should understand their work styles, habits, and tendencies, and be self-aware enough to direct that knowledge toward their academic and social responsibilities.
Stylistically, Plot Twisters is inspired by Highlights Magazine, Mad Libs, Neopets, Club Penguin, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster—some visual staples from my childhood. Because this aesthetic is not found in the visual palette of today’s youth, which is largely saturated by social media and gaming. Visually the activities are memorable, which was corroborated by 24 user tests with students in elementary through high school.
Besser, Matt, et al. The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. Comedy Council of Nicea, LLC, 2013.
“Developmentally Appropriate and Following the Child.” Montessori Teacher Training and Parent Resources, 5 Mar. 2012, ageofmontessori.org/developmentally-appropriate-and-following-the-child/.
6. Astronomical Thanks
Every day, my journey proves to me how graceful people are. These are a few people who, along their own journeys, took time to water the flowers on my path in one way or another: Aditya Aggarwal, Amanda Curtis, Andrew Jiang, Avni Barman, Ben Stanfield, Matthew Manos, Monique Manaloto, and Suraya Shivji.