By Sonja Burrows


What is the connection between knitting and instructional design? The connections are many, and I am not the first to make them. They have to do with everything from patterns and interconnected parts, to final pieces that reveal linkages and crossovers in surprising ways. The connection under examination here, however, is a bit different. It’s about process, and about inspiration.

To illustrate this connection, I begin with a story. I learned to knit at the age of seven, as a student at the Monadnock Waldorf School which I attended through the eighth grade. For those ufamiliar, Waldorf education incorporates knitting instruction as part of standard first grade curriculum. Knitting is part of what Waldorf pedagogy calls a “handwork” curriculum that aims to encourage hand-eye coordination as well as to forge the connection between the left and right brains. Furthermore, and perhaps most helpfully, the act of embarking on a knitting piece teaches a student to work on a project for many months before reaching completion. As such, knitting teaches resilience, perseverance, patience, intentionality.

Several years ago, well past the age of seven, in a heroic fit of over-achievement I decided to embark upon the most challenging knitting project I had to-date attempted: A seamless and intricately-cabled A-line cardigan with a reversible shawl collar and set-in sleeves called Opposite Pole by a designer named Joji Locatelli. In case that description sounds like gibberish, what it essentially means is that I decided to make a really, really, really complicated sweater. Here’s Opposite Pole, modeled by the designer herself:

(Isn’t it incredible? How could I not want to make this?)

Some knitters keep track of the number of hours they spend on projects. Not me. I just go, inspired, paying no attention to the clock. For that reason, I cannot tell you how many hours I spent on this project (suffice it to say many) — though I can tell you I actually knit the darned thing twice. Yes, two times. The first time, incredibly, my nearly-completed project was confiscated at airport security in Guatemala City during an international trip. Words cannot describe my pain and sadness at this moment (the heartbreak may be something that only a fellow knitter would understand) due mostly to the hours of lost toil. After a week of mourning, though, I decided to transcend disappointment and began the project anew. Several months (and double the hours) later, I finished my work at long, long last.

Why do I tell this tale of knitting woe? The story illustrates to me a process which is very-much related to one with which I engage nearly every day as an instructional designer at Middlebury. Critical instructional design work invites a constant problem-solving mindset, through a process driven by a deep commitment to seeing projects through to completion, by a willingness to persevere through seemingly-insurmountable obstacles, by an inspiration and a love of learning new things, and (perhaps most importantly) by an excitement and joy about the value and beauty of the work.

Digital learning at Middlebury centers very much around critical instructional design. We define critical instructional design as the intentional designing of digital learning spaces that reflect a sense of awareness, hope, and possibility; that encourage learning agency;  that allow students to own the process of their discoveries; and that likewise allow the creators of those spaces to undergo their own learning and discovery processes. As such, critical instructional design work asks for our perseverance as designers and learners, because the answers are often not at the surface but require some digging. Obstacles arise in the digital more often than they do not, a reality which asks for an ongoing problem-solving mindset as well as a willingness to re-think and start over, and in so doing to reframe setbacks as opportunities to work differently.

As with complex knitting, sometimes in instructional design we have to make the darned thing twice. We have to work incredibly hard and pour our hearts into the project, and then we have to stop, turn around and do it again but better, because the first round did not quite do the trick. Take, for example, an online learning and connection space I created last year for Middlebury’s BOLD program. The BOLD Women’s Leadership Network is an intergenerational initiative across four institutions of higher education that focuses on developing courageous leadership among college women. As such, BOLD sought an online connection space where scholars from their four schools (including Middlebury) could connect and collaborate.

I was thrilled to be involved, and created a hub site where scholars could network with one another, build an online community, and access other scholars through a syndication of individual MiddCreate blogs created by BOLD women themselves. Here are a few of the pages featured in the first iteration of the BOLD Hub:

Looks nice, right? It was. These first forays into the BOLD Hub design did in fact have a great appearance, but after several months of working with BOLD scholars and leaders, we realized that scholars were not using the hub as anticipated, and that our design (both on the surface and in the structure) needed revision so as to better meet their needs. We subsequently devised a new plan for the hub, which required a complete redesign. The next iteration of the hub came out like this:

hands typing

In addition to the new image headers shown here, we completely redesigned the purpose, navigation system, and architecture of the space so that scholars could more easily and effectively make use of it. Our ability to instructionally redesign this space reflects very much the ways in which the BOLD program itself is one which is emerging in terms of form and structure. As BOLD emerges, so too does its digital hub.

Flexibility and humility serve both the instructional designer and the knitter. As does a willingness to go back to the ball of yarn when the need arises, to re-frame problems as opportunities to do things differently and better. We put our hearts into what we do, working arduously over long periods of time and through numerous obstacles, all the while endeavoring to remain connected to the inspiration that brought about these creative projects in their inception. The process and the inspiration are our constants.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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