Students in the “Fundamentals of Design for Social Innovation” course explore socially-defined power dynamics

How we’re using 4MAT to redesign our grad course

A rough and hasty show-and-tell


This is an act of promise fulfillment. Andrea Mignolo recently posted her piece, Learning through worldmaking: the design way. Her references to the “experiential learning cycle” rang a bell with me, as my colleague Hannah du Plessis and I have recently been applying a version of that cycle to our grad course preparations. I said as much to Andrea, she expressed interest, and in return I promised a rough and hasty show-and-tell.

This is that.

The course, and the motive for redesigning it

This will be the eighth year we’ve taught our course in the SVA MFA in Design for Social Innovation, called Fundamentals of Design for Social Innovation. (Here is a short post describing the key concepts of the course, along with a few student quotes.)

We’re motivated to overhaul the way we teach, for two reasons.

  • By listening to past students, we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work, what lasts and what evaporates.
  • We are translating these learning experiences into forms appropriate for public and organizational contexts, which are much different than grad school.

What is 4MAT?

4MAT is a cousin (daughter?) of David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, enjoying a lot of popularity among teachers at all levels.

It is striking how common it is for people to be invited to teach without being offered any training or resources to help them do a good job of teaching. Both of us, Hannah and I, have long experience in teaching and facilitation, and regularly receive praise from our students. But the content of this course is broad and deep, it asks a lot from students, and we have not been fully satisfied that we are providing the support for deep learning that we could.

So we took ourselves to school on teaching practices, and found a profoundly helpful guide in Bernice McCarthy’s writings on the 4MAT approach (first recommended to us by Stacie Rohrbach, a professor in the CMU School of Design with a focus on design for learning). Bernice’s book, About Teaching, has been a most helpful resource.

One of many renderings of the experiential learning cycle, and a book we’ve found to be useful.

[The book includes material about learning styles, based on right-brain / left-brain framing. You, like many others, may believe this to be woo. I invite you to suspend your judgment about the theory and consider the usefulness of the applied aspects of 4MAT for your teaching.]

Role play helps internalize new concepts by giving us an experience of actually living them

What is it like to use 4MAT?

Planning a learning experience with 4mat involves working your way through four movements. This is a summary of those movements, created by my co-teacher and colleague Hannah du Plessis.

To give you a feel for what’s involved, I’ll show you a close-up one movement at a time.

When planning with 4MAT, the first movement in a learning experience contains activities that help learners make a connection between their past experience and the “why” of the new ideas.

Movement one provides a bridge from learner’s past experience into the new ideas offered in movement two, through activities, lectures, readings, discussions,…. The stuff our past session designs would often jump straight into without first making the “Why” connection.

Lectures don’t have to be lectures (well, sometimes they do)

Movement three gives learners a way to apply new concepts right away, to begin getting a feel for what it feels like to do the “how” that goes with the “what.”

Having discussed the power of group intuitive methods for changing conversations, students give one a try

This is another step we have often skipped in the past. The fourth movement returns to learners’ direct experience and sense of themselves. What scaffolding can we provide for people to begin integrating the new concepts and practices into their own ways of seeing, working, and being?

Applying 4MAT: how did we use the framework in our planning?

McCarthy’s wise advice is to step back from content at first, and get to the essential, core learning goals. What is the nut, the heart of the learning? Content delivery and session design comes later, after we connect to the meaningful (hopefully profound) heart of the matter.

Part one of Hannah’s summary of McCarthy’s process for applying 4MAT

We decided that at its heart, our course invites learners into new ways of seeing, working, and being, which are necessary for efforts to shift patterns of relationship and behavior.

To look for the heart of those ideas, we drew concept maps together.

I’m showing our rough first work session results here. We went fast, with a “dump it out first, get it out onto the page, then worry about editing and improving” approach.

I sometimes sorta-joke that this course could be titled “Applied Love.” Of if we wanted to get fancy, “Systemically Applied Love.”

Now we can start conceiving learning experiences that bring learners into these core concepts, stances, skills and practices.

Part two of Hannah’s summary of McCarthy’s process for applying 4MAT

At first it isn’t easy to break the habit of thinking in terms of topics and content. This is an early sketch made when trying to identify 4mat cycles and map them to the four weekend workshops of our course. Still pretty topic-driven, with no thought yet about slowing down, making room for reflection, conversation, play.

Making a mess and doing it wrong = a great start!

Here is my first full 4MAT cycle. I’m getting excited at this point, especially in areas where I have had difficulty helping people connect to the relevance of some ideas, and to map abstractions to practice. The activities I’m now imagining and inventing are much more “alive.”

Much further along, Hannah and I can begin mapping our 4MAT cycles onto the schedules for two-day workshops. (Our course is structured as a series of four monthly workshops of two full days each, with 90-minute video conferences at the midpoint between each weekend.)

Wrestling with time and finding happy connections: mapping 4MAT plans onto a schedule

As we work, we find the 4MAT language and imagery has become part of our natural shorthand for sketching and communicating with each other.

The end result-in-progress: student and facilitator guide books

All this work is beginning to culminate in a set of facilitator’s guides and student booklets. In the facilitator’s guides, the 4mat structure lives on as a way to summarize the plan for a module.

And that’s my rough summary from the middle of this process.

Cheers to you,
Marc Rettig

Class of 2021, we’re excited to meet you.



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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig


Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design