Super Themes

a decorative rainbow line

Though we have partitioned this work into four modules, the team is aware of the downside of taxonomies, siloes, or categories that artificially tie things together or separate them apart as though they do not intersect and influence each other. On the contrary, this work is deeply intersectional, deeply interdisciplinary, and deeply impacts individuals on all levels of education, having an impact on institutions, culture, and society. To capture some of the threads that are stitched throughout this work, we have identified twelve “super themes.” These are core concepts and themes that are woven throughout our exploration. They are not all encompassing nor exhaustive and will not ever be “complete” or “solved.” They are themes that are interconnected and multi-layered, and not a stand-alone list of siloed concepts. We’ve noted below how these themes weave across and through the four modules of this work.

Questioning and Uncertainty

Mismatch, Misfits, and the Average




Vulnerability and Re-Framing Failure


Critique: The Art of Critique

Wellness, Time, Support: In an Age of Overwhelm

Soft, Opposite of Rigorous


Friction and Tension

Questioning and Uncertainty

A floor of rocks seen through clear water
Figure 1: Photo by Randy ORourke on Unsplash

When we let go of our notion of clarity, completeness, and correctness, we see (and think) differently. What questions should we be asking about education and learning? Why is there a capacity limit for classrooms? Why are textbooks and learning materials so costly? Why are prerequisites often rigid and inflexible? Why must students defer to professors? Why are classrooms still designed in a theatre-like structure with an audience and a stage? Why aren’t all educators taught how to teach? All educators and those being educated should question and explore the history that helped get education to where it is. When we explore the history, we can unveil how decisions were made: by whom and for whom, what biases were at play, and whether the decisions are still relevant now.

When we neglect to question, interrogate, and critique the past, we stay stagnant and can give assent through silence. Stability is not stagnancy; and educating is not stagnancy. When we don’t teach instructors how to teach or give them tools to pause and be reflective, many may follow the ways they were taught, and change won’t occur. How can we support meaningful change? How can we “innovate” and explore new ways of doing things? How can we experiment pedagogically, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding but always reflecting? How can we build flexibility into our teaching practice so that we can adjust and adapt when things succeed or fail?

What works in one situation or for one class might not work in another situation or context. We need to acknowledge the value of building in flexibility and agency into the process of teaching, considering its impacts for everyone involved. This reflective flexibility invites us to continue to question the decisions we make and can be done in different ways. Our colleague in the Open movement, Jesse Stommel, tells a story about interrogating his own syllabus by appending “because I said so” to the end of every sentence in his editing. This simple technique, of adding a patronizing phrase, helps Jesse sniff out those mandates in the syllabus that are arbitrary acts of power over another and not necessary. For example, write a four-page essay about your experience “because I said so.” Must it be four pages? Must it be a written essay? Who did we limit? Whose creativity did we constrain?

Tweet by Jesse Stommel that reads: “I’m reminded of the ‘because I said so’ game I introduced at a faculty development seminar. I asked folks to imagine adding the words ‘because I said so’ to each of our syllabus policy statements as a way to think about tone and what’s at their root. So much of it is arbitrary.”
Figure 2: Tweet by Jesse Stommel, September 20, 2019,

Regardless of discipline, regardless of level of education, questioning must be a central act. In questioning, we can further understand why some are excluded unfairly and why we say that “nothing is neutral.” Upon this understanding, we can then begin to design an educational environment that supports all learners — by recognizing humanity in education.

Genuine questioning requires that we be comfortable with uncertainty. We don’t know what the answers or outcomes will be. Throughout the co-design sessions of this work, the theme of uncertainty was raised across various tenets of teaching and learning, especially with respect to not knowing what challenges or barriers may arise and not knowing what the outcomes will be. Part of uncertainty rests in knowing there isn’t just one right answer or one right path in teaching and learning, and that the answers will be context and people dependent.

Mismatch, Misfits, and the Average (unpacking the “best” winning, etc.)

The idea of “right” and “best” is pervasive throughout education. Answers are either right or wrong, and rubrics are checked off or not. In order to humanize learning, it’s important that we reconsider definitions of “right” and “best.” How often has a change in perspective resulted in a shift in what is considered correct? Part of this also involves the shift to appreciation of, and emphasis on, process rather than product — the process of learning and exploring vs. the product of showing what you know on a test or the final product of an essay. Should we abandon the currently popular label of “best practices”? Whenever we hear this phrase, perhaps we should be asking, “Best for whom?”

One outcome of the focus on “right” and “best” can be that of “othering.” When something is right, then something else is not right, and this can extend to people when they get categorized. When we talk about education, it is easy to lump people into discrete groups: instructor, student, administrator. But fundamentally we are the people who, together, make learning both possible and meaningful. Together, we give context to education and determine its process and method. When we talk about each other in the abstract and as a role rather than a person, we lose the opportunity to learn from each other, to explore our differences, and appreciate our diverse experiences and perspectives. This is a great loss socially, culturally, institutionally, and yes, individually. So much of what this co-design team is emphasizing is that we should understand the individual as embedded in all this complexity: within the systems that make up the spaces where educating and education happen.

In education the current equation of process and success could be written something like this:

We design success by showing achievement over time through ASSESSMENT. And in most cases, this means outputs, scores, and grades — we quantify (ASSESSMENT), track it over time and label it (ACHIEVEMENT), and reward it (OPPORTUNITIES). But what if some part of our neat and tidy equation is wrong? Is it possible that the assessment is mistaken? And then the opportunity was given to the falsely deserving? So, we build in tricks, watchdogs, surveillance, and anything that can give us a sense of SAMENESS and RIGOUR, not fairness nor equity. Instead of focusing on the student with integrity and building relationships of trust, communities of practice, and an ethos of care, we have created an “us” and a “them” in competition with each other. This equation underpins something fundamentally flawed in the ways we currently treat people in education.[1]

What if instead of focusing on rule-followers or imagined rule-breakers, we focus on students as people with pasts, constraints, advantages, and disadvantages, and emphasize the process of coming together to form a diverse, mixed community? Then we can begin to interrogate what “equity in education” can look like. Then we can begin to question and reflect on our assessment and an opportunity to track and find ways to redesign it to, in fact, disrupt it.

One of the co-design fellows stated that “Choosing sameness is not a neutral act.” We each want to be seen and heard. What does an educational system that does that look like?


In our rush to the quickest solution, we miss opportunities to interrogate how we do the teaching and learning about content — we wind up only teaching and learning the content itself. When we do this, we miss opportunities for thinking about how our current practice of racing to the solution/finish has an impact on outcomes: on sustainability, on longevity, on society, on individual well-being, and more. We have found that building in time for reflection can have an enormous impact on how you understand things around you, how you understand yourself within the context, how you interact with the content, and how your own ideas change over time. If part of the goal of education is to help people learn and grow personally, then how better to authentically measure that then through reflection?

How can we ensure that our reflection is meaningful? How can we ensure that our reflection helps us to enact change? Reflections are personal and can follow diverse processes, but one thing they have in common is pacing. Slow reflections that aren’t rushed tend to be richer in terms of what they reveal. In our current societal structure, we seem to be in a state of perpetual overwhelm; it feels like we are running from thing to thing — from one to-do list item to the next. The collaborators on this project listed “lack of time” and “lack of uninterrupted time” as major barriers to a consistent reflective practice. We need time to process properly, and this means we need to press pause on our to-do list march.

Representation/Co-Creation/Design (“co-creating the table” rather than “seat at the table”)

Consider the following scenarios: you apply to attend, I invite you to attend, I engage with you from the beginning to determine what and how we will all participate. Regardless of what the engagement is, each of these scenarios result in different communications about your value in participating.

You apply to attend: You must prove to me, or some group of people like me (the ones in charge), that you deserve to attend. You start at a position of “less-than” and must climb up from there. This is often where systemic biases or generational starting places influence how far you can climb or if you get the chance to climb at all.

I invite you to attend: Now I have blessed you with my picking. You attend because of my extending an opportunity to you. I am still in the position of deciding, and you are now in the position of feeling “special” or “suspicious” about having been invited. Special if it matches your own story about who you are and where you should be; suspicious if you are at risk of being there for tokenistic reasons.

I engage with you from the beginning to determine what and how we will all participate: Finally, here we are co-creating a space (we can’t even use the word attending anymore). Interestingly, we have to define it as a collaborative space because it is co-created from the beginning. This is the scenario where a diverse group of people come together to co-create a table or a circle (as is paramount in many Indigenous cultures) or a meeting space. This co-created space sits as much as possible on neutral territory so we can begin anew. Rather than assume common mores and practices, rather than inviting “others” to a table already constructed and codified with “ways of doing things” and “histories,” this approach authentically brings people together to build something together.

However, this is not the approach that is routinely in practice in education. The phrase “a seat at the table” is often used to mean that there is representation — that folks from diverse backgrounds are present, with the assumption that sitting at the table also means they will be listened to and will have a voice. But we need to note here that many different types of tables exist, constructed by different people for different purposes. Which table are you sitting at, who built it, and does it need to change? The answer to the question, “Does it need to change?” is often yes if it was built by those in positions of power and privilege[2]. Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, stated that “sometimes we need to destroy the table and create a whole brand new one,” and Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives, stated, “It is really important that we ask ‘What is that table oriented toward?’”

Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, stands looking forward. Beside her reads "Sometimes we need to destroy the table and create a whole brand new one."
Figure 3: CBC Podcasts. “What a ‘Seat at the Table’ Means in the Black Lives Matter Era.” CBC, October 14, 2020,

Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives faces forward. Beside her reads "It's really important that we ask, 'what is that table oriented toward?'"
Figure 4: CBC Podcasts. “What a ‘Seat at the Table’ Means in the Black Lives Matter Era.” CBC, October 14, 2020,

To move to a learning environment wherein it is possible to co-create tables, it means that we have to be willing to breakdown some existing structures and processes. Maybe we are making the table bigger and adding more chairs; maybe we are changing the shape of the table; or maybe we change the materials that the table is made of. The key aspect here is that all people need to have space and support to contribute input on what the table should be and how it should function.


We see here another aspect that appeared above: that of time and slowness. Trust is built over time and can’t be rushed. To trust we need to see words and actions over time with some consistency and authenticity. In education, building trust cannot be a checklist, an add-on, or a scripted activity — it cannot be planned for a particular place and time or with a one-size-fits-all approach, and it cannot be hierarchical.

Students report that a climate of genuine trust and transparency affects their motivation for learning. Some of the collaborators on this work echoed the importance of having safe havens for learning that are centred on trust. Other collaborators spoke of how they felt like they were “tight-rope walking” and unsure of behavioural norms when there wasn’t an atmosphere and expectation of trust. Since trust is established over time and with each interaction, every moment counts. The way the syllabus is written can build trust or otherwise reinforce power and punitive dynamics. The way the instructor walks into the room and begins the interaction with students can also have a deep impact on establishing the foundation for building trust. Team member Jess Mitchell has written about the importance of those first few moments in disrupting and rebuilding the classroom dynamics: An Attempt to Disrupt Education.

Vulnerability and Re-Framing Failure

Trust has a close relationship with vulnerability and re-framing failure (additional super themes in Humanizing Education). Although it can be difficult to know how or when or how much to make ourselves vulnerable, it is one of the ways we show our humanity and our flaws. Failure and struggle are normal parts of the human experience. In fact, failure is critically important to the process of learning. However, it is not something that we deliberately teach students in our courses. In academia, failure is often interpreted as academic failure, referring to failing a test or failing a course. However, failure in the role of learning is more aligned with struggle and resistance. In the context of higher education, we need to ask how we are framing failure: Do we talk openly about learning from mistakes? Do we encourage our students to embrace and learn from failure? Do we have structural supports in place to help students reflect on, and bounce back from, failures? How do we understand the notion of “completion” in activities that do not have a distinct start and end point — the human, social activities? What do we do with discomfort? Do we avoid uncertainty? All of our responses to these questions speak to our comfort with vulnerability. And our vulnerability speaks to our ability to be transferable and open — to make connections with others.

Re-framing failure starts by normalizing the existence of failure. If we can model the process of learning from failures and mistakes to our students, then we can help to decrease the stigma students feel about failure.[3] We can highlight that failure is both a normal and critically important part of the learning process by including flexibility in our syllabi that allows for revision assignments or exam wrappers. We can be transparent with our students about our histories as instructors and mistakes that we have made. We need to pause here, however, to highlight how the words that were just written above can seem vapid and hollow if not accompanied by structural supports. It’s easy to take risks and failure if you know you have a safety net — if you know you’ll be getting second, third, or even fourth chances. It can be insincere to tell students to embrace failure when the institution penalizes academic failure with permanent transcripts and inflexible course drop deadlines and structures. Is there space within the institution where we can create a safe haven for risk-taking and failure? Instructors in a position of precarity may not feel that the classroom is a safe haven wherein they can discuss their failures if they do not know how that will impact subsequent student evaluations of teaching and, potentially, subsequent employment. A lot of the discussion around “who is allowed to fail” also aligned with the discussion around “who is allowed to be vulnerable.”


Purple crocuses sprouting out from rocky soil.
Figure 5: Photo by Raphael Wild on Unsplash

One lesson from the last few years is that we can adapt and change (and quite quickly when we want to) and we cannot predict the future. No one in education guessed we would all be switching to online teaching because of a global pandemic. No one knew how we’d return and no really knows still. There are some that are embracing what we gained by permanently embedding flexible course supports into their courses or shifting their courses to online formats (synchronous or asynchronous).

Something that works in one context may not work in another. It’s important to remember that we all have our own context and look through problems and opportunities through our own lenses that are informed by our contexts. The same is true of students and how they engage with our course material.

Context, as we are exploring it in this discussion, underpins the fact that there is no one approach that will fit all learners and instructors. This is core to the concept of humanizing — the process and approach we take needs to be context dependent.

Critique: The Art of Critique

We are not formally taught to critique. And often students — and colleagues, even those trying to build better systems — associate critique with criticism. Critique is a bit of an art: done well, it is something that can help build relationships and help people move forward collaboratively. But when we talk about how to critique and not eviscerate, we need to be clear about the differences between critiquing a thing and critiquing a person. And if we critique without building a relationship, we will often be heard as critiquing the person even if we are aiming to critique the thing. So, relationships are at the core of successful critique in the service of change-making. This has important implications for education and the cycle of summative and formative feedback between instructors and students. How can we frame our feedback so it doesn’t critique the person? How can we help students interpret, reflect on, and respond to feedback?

Care, Wellness, Time, Faculty Support: In an Age of Overwhelm (how do we do this in the context of lack of meaningful institutional support and complete lack of time in an age of overwhelm?)

Cultivating meaningful connection with students, and doing other acts towards humanizing courses, takes time and effort, requiring both cognitive and social presence. This cannot be done in an impactful and sustainable way without structural support and resources, especially time and a space of safety. It’s also important to recognize that there are historical inequities in who has been expected to do this work and who gets support in doing so. What does structural support for a pedagogy of care and kindness look like? How do we support both instructors and faculty in fostering meaningful connections?

Specific structural support could be provided in a multi-tiered structure. For example, institutional supports could include expectations around spending time on meaningful connection, culturally responsive practices from leadership, coordination, and collaboration across historical institutional silos, and faculty development teams dedicated to inclusive learning and meaningful connection. Course-level supports could look like formative feedback on courses in progress and customized and flexible supports for both faculty and instructors, as well as deliberate collaborative structures for students to engage in collaborative-based learning. None of the above supports adequately address the one resource we are all in short supply of at the moment: time. Relational work takes time, and in order for instructors to have time dedicated to it, it needs to be valued and recognized by the institution in terms of workload assignments.

Another theme that emerged across our discussion was that of wellness. We can’t engage meaningfully with the work of humanizing learning if we don’t have space and support for our own wellness. Often, the advice to “take care of yourself” is at the bottom of a longer list, and we need to instead make it foundational and build it into our teaching practice. We also need to recognize that we have a collective responsibility for care.[4] Institutions have recently upped the rhetoric on this, with wellness emails, monthly wellness meetings, and committees dedicated to workplace wellness. Here is an opportunity to critique this approach and try to identify it as either meaningful or unimpactful theatre. One of our Team Members wrote a critique of wellness theatre: Beware the Futility of Higher Education’s Wellness Theatre.

Soft, Opposite of Rigorous

We behave as though, with enough data, all is knowable, measurable, and predictable. Any structure made of that material for its foundation will begin to crack. These foundation cracks can be seen in every domain and discipline, especially, perhaps, in education. When information is more important than knowledge, and certainty and measurability are more important than thoughtfulness, risk, wonder, exploration, and discovery, what do we lose? What are we relinquishing? If in order to value something it has to be measured, what are we overlooking and missing? What is the by-product, the sawdust or waste that is created by our need to have neat, simple, exact corners (in education, in business, and beyond)?

When measurability is success, it becomes an end in itself. We begin asking questions that lead us to measurable answers. We begin measuring those things that are easily measured. And those are not neutral acts. We act on our measurements — data becomes the tea leaves for decision-making, the map for change, the path toward advancement (see more here on data-driven decision-making in Education). We can even feel a sense of comfort having followed the directions given to us from the disembodied data.

The key here is that it “feels” less random; the reality is that it often isn’t. But this absolves us of the feeling that we are making decisions that aren’t justified, validated, or warranted by some higher power — in this case the power of data collection and its revelations.[5] This can sometimes be seen in the emphasis on quantitative data and metrics, maybe at the expense of qualitative data and narrative.

This super theme is titled “soft” as soft can feel like the opposite of rigorous, and lack of rigour is often derided as “being soft.” By using the word “soft” here, we are invoking the concept of flexibility and fluidness. This isn’t an insipid and easy route to learning, but rather grounded in connection and student-centred learning. Flexible and fluid connections can foster creativity. In the institution’s search for excellence, this narrative can often be lost.


Never underestimate the power of play, humour, a well-placed malapropism, or doing the unexpected: they are all ways to engage and connect. Ultimately, the work of humanizing education will happen in the connections. Content will not humanize us; the ways we talk to each other, listen to each other, celebrate, and understand each other will get us there. We use the word ‘relational’ to cover this vast space of human connection, teams, groups, communities—essentially all of the ways we exist within a social world. There will never be one way to make connections. Delightfully, it will depend on the context, the people, and everything in between. This is the richness of human interaction: we can feel it when we’ve said something that connects, lands, impacts another and we can feel it when it happens to us. Those are the moments of being human, together.

Tweet by Matthew R. Kay
Just found out my students favorite Kay-ism is “Date that idea, don’t marry it yet…” My players’ favorite Coach Kay-ism “If you ain’t having fun, you doing it wrong.” What are your classroom you-isms?Figure 6: Tweet by Matthew R. Kay, January 31, 2022

Friction and Tension

The final super theme we want to highlight here is one that kept coming to the surface whenever the collaborators talked about barriers, new avenues, and “what ifs.” We encounter friction and tension whenever we engage in something that is uncomfortable or something that is unknown. There is value in discomfort, and we need to be able to sit with it and not race through it. Friction and tension help us to do this as the forces at play slow us down. We’ve talked above about the importance of moving slowly – be it with reflection, with connection, or with learning in general. How can we nurture friction and tension and use those forces to help us enact change? How can we help our student navigation friction and tension? Is all friction and tension helpful, or should some be avoided and minimized? Is some friction, in fact, destructive? One of the co-design fellows of this work noted that friction and tension will highlight to us what stands in the way of this work and shine a light on potential barriers and learning opportunities.

How the Super Themes Come Together

These super themes are not discrete units or siloed entities. Rather they are multi-layered ideas that intersect and weave together across the humanizing learning spectrum. They are touchpoints that we want to keep aware of due to their wide-reaching influence on teaching and learning. All of these themes are context dependent and influenced by the positionality of the people involved. Because of this, it’s important that these twelve themes are not interpreted as a list to remember, but rather as layers or lenses that remind us about the core tenets of humanizing learning, which can shift and fold as context changes.

These themes also come together in their emphasis on questioning and action, reminding us that the work herein needs to move forward with action if it is to be meaningful. Reading and engaging with this work is the first step in a longer process. Just as the Global Climate Strike in the Fall of 2019 was in itself not action but was rather a call to action, so too is this work here a call to action. That call consists of an emphasis on process rather than product, with inclusive and sustainable change at its core.

  2. Nixon, S. A. (2019). The coin model of privilege and critical allyship: implications for health. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1-13.
  3. Nunes, K., Du, S., Philip, R., Mourad, M. M., Mansoor, Z., Laliberté, N., & Rawle, F. (2022). Science students’ perspectives on how to decrease the stigma of failure. FEBS Open bio, 12(1), 24-37.
  4. Bali, M. (2021, April 10). Pedagogy of Care — Caring for Teachers. Reflecting Allowed.


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Learning to be Human Together Copyright © 2022 by Co-designed by Students, Faculty and Staff at OCAD University, Mohawk College, Brock University, Trent University, Nipissing University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto-Mississauga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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