Where did you get the name Birdhouse Learning Labs?

In 2014, while preparing for an upcoming keynote presentation, Dr. Bernard Bull (the founder of BLL) was experimenting with different metaphors and illustrations to help people recognize the limitations of our current education system. “How could I illustrate how the dominant systems and practices in modern education are not only separate for the core mission, but they are often inhibiting us in unhelpful and unnecessary ways?”

Looking out the back window of his home office in Wisconsin, He noticed an old, white birdhouse. The birdhouse was unused, but next to it was some sort of pail or can that a bird turned into its home. That gave Him an idea.

He started searching for examples of unconventional birdhouses. Soon he collected at least a dozen images: an old boot with a hole drilled in it; beautiful blown glass birdhouses; another made of discarded license plates; and still others made of stone, sticks, and what others might have tossed out as garbage.

It led him to a simple question that he typed on a PowerPoint slide. What does it take to build a birdhouse? When he arrived for the keynote, after sharing a few opening remarks, he brought up the slide with that simple question, inviting the crowd for responses, and they offered answers.


“a hammer and nails”

“a drill”

“a saw”

“a plan”

“knowledge of how to build a birdhouse”

Without stating anything other than this simple question, most of the people in the room conjured a traditional image of a birdhouse in their minds. They imagined that typical, square, wooden box with a hole in the front.

Then he brought them to the next slide. At the top they read the same question. “What does it take to build a birdhouse?” This time, below the question, he included a collage of those wildly different birdhouses that he gathered. Primed with a broader sense of the possibilities, the answers to his question broadened as well.

Bull explained that many of us in education are focused upon the conventional idea of how to design a school, classroom, or lesson. Sometimes we get creative, but usually within a narrow set of constraints, some that we see as beyond our immediate influence or control.

“Yet, this is the challenge with the modern education system,” He explained. We’ve limited ourselves by the narrow and standard scope of materials that we consider. It allows us to scale and mass produce education quickly, but it also holds us back from the incredible, inspiring, and rich diversity of possibilities available to us and to learners.

That is the inspiration behind the “word” birdhouse. It is an invitation for us to broaden our sense of what is possible, to seriously re-consider the raw materials that we use to design schools, classrooms, and lessons. Instead of the standard wood and nails of the industrial era, what if we drew from our greatest myths, our best current research, and our individual and collective imagination to design rich learning experiences that tap into some of the most powerful human yearnings and sensations, raw materials like curiosity, adventure, wonder, mystery, meaning, adventure, and epiphany?

Now what about the “learning labs” part of the name? That one came from several years of studying and learning from different models of “research and development” units across sectors and industries. In addition, Bull maintained a longstanding intrigue with designers and inventors throughout history, and BLL is partly a vision of creating the Menlo Park Labs of education, but with a strong community and education arm to it.