In the world of design, it is widely believed that form follows function – meaning that you design with the purpose in mind. For instance, if you are designing a new kind of milk container, then it better be able to hold liquid.
Legendary designer Frank Stephenson, on the other hand, would beg to differ. To Stephenson, who created iconic automobiles for BMW, Fiat, McLaren, and Ferrari, “form doesn’t follow function…form equals function.”
In other words, the two elements – the form and the function – must work together.
What can this philosophy teach us about unit design?
Difference-making design, for automobiles or classroom instruction, requires creativity in all areas. For educators, the fundamental elements (the standards, the enduring understandings, the learner outcomes, the assessments) are just as important as the day-to-day instructional practices: the compelling provocations, the differentiation, the modeling, the captivation, the sense of student agency, the self-reflection, and the overall magic that the teacher brings to the classroom (the commitment, the relationships, and the compassion). One end of the process should not dominate the other.
Frank Stephenson explains that he didn’t conceive his cars from the outside-inwards: he didn’t envision some kind of aesthetic shape and plop it down onto the engineering. He worked with the engineering. “What we decided to do was take the hard points on the platform, on the chassis. Those hard points where the suspension mounts are, where your vision angles are established, your bumper heights and headlight heights. Put everything where it needs to be and can’t move, and then use those points in space.”
In other words, you can’t just find a great idea for a lesson and force a connection to the learning standards. That’s like designing a car with square wheels – looks neat, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Instruction is founded on the learning objectives/standards and must align seamlessly with them.
Conversely, you can’t focus all your energy on the big-picture process and then slap something “Engaging!” overtop of it. That’s how you end up with the equivalent of the Tesla Cybertruck or the Pontiac Aztek – an engineering marvel on the inside and a “station wagon stretched out by a car bomb” on the outside.
Or worse, you create a vehicle that successfully gets the passenger from A to B, but is instantly forgotten.
Let’s consider all parts of the unit planning process so that we get our passengers to their destination, and make the journey unforgettable.