Design thinking is real.

As some folks might know, my school has begun an experiment this year that centers around getting diverse groups of people around the same table and taking a good hard look at how we do what we do, all in the hopes of finding cracks (thank you, Mary) where our experience of "school" can be improved. The crack-finding and problem solving tool we're employing is none other than design thinking - and man, is it tough. Fun and exciting and awesome, yes... and brutal sometimes. In a good way, of course.

Working with Grant Lichtman (and he with Bo Adams), we've developed the idea of "Window Teams" (WTs) - populated with faculty, students, administration, parents, and board members - each focused on a certain aspect of the school. (i.e. curriculum, assessment, communication, etc.) Our seven inaugural WTs have been working throughout the school year through the modes of design thinking (mainly Mount Vernon's DEEPdt flavor) and I, as the person on staff with the most DT training/experience/interest and the one with "innovation" in my job title (Dir of Tech & Innovation), have been guiding the WTs in their explorations.

Recently I was invited to work with the WT that's focused on leadership. I was excited to see this team's progress as they had recently kinda started their process over (totally fair game - design thinking is not linear) to focus on improving the experience of leadership for folks participating in WTS - super-meta, right? A total baller move and I was super interested in learning what they discovered.

Team members present that day were our Head of School, Director of Admissions, chair of the Science department, two high school teachers, and a member of our Board of Trustees - lots of leadership represented from different layers of the school. We all entered the meeting happy and excited to move from empathy gathering to some brainstorming and prototyping, getting our hands dirty in the design process - I with my box of Post-Its and Sharpies and they with their oodles of data from user interviews and surveys. Before long, though, the mood had definitely shifted.

The first order of business was to help make the user info visible to all by transposing it from whatever form the team members had been recording it on to Post-Its slapped on a wall up in front of the group. (Though a wall full of Post-Its is a common, perhaps even stereotypical image in design thinking, making thinking visible is an extremely important part of the process.) As the cheerful WT members dove into their data, the picture it was painting wasn't pretty: while there was much appreciation of the silo-busting WT membership and the idea of working toward creative improvement of the school, people were frustrated with much of the process. Hardly any aspect of the experiment escaped criticism. Of course, as WT members themselves, the members of the leadership WT had also felt these frustrations and as they read out their users' thoughts and feelings, their mirror neurons were firing on all cylinders. The positive energy they'd started the meeting with was gone 20 minutes in.

The 1.5 hour meeting stretched into 3 hours. It was emotionally painful, with all of us drowning in the complexity of the problem and ready to throw in the towel at several points. They pushed on, though, to their credit, and ended on a hopeful note, though right then I wouldn't have called it a positive experience. I, too, felt the frustration, the discomfort, and left feeling not-quite victorious. 

Driving home, my brain wouldn't let go of trying to figure out what happened and how I, as the WT's design thinking guide, could have helped them keep it positive. Then it hit me: though the meeting was tense at times and uncomfortable at best,  IT WAS ALSO COMPLETELY NECESSARY. Upon reflection, I realized that the team needed to go there because THAT'S EXACTLY WHERE THEIR USERS WERE. Designers need true empathy in order to really understand the human experience of their users and that's exactly what happened in that meeting. As uncomfortable as it was, it was just about perfect for design and helped them come to the best HMW ("How might we..." - the generally expected framing for a challenge to move design thinkers from observation to action) for their users' needs.

And that's the real power of design thinking, I think: its EMPATHY, its ability to bring people together - not just at the brain but at the heart. IT. MAKES. IT. REAL. For me, the design thinking mindset strips away the obstacles to connection and gets real people working with real effort on real improvements for the real experiences of others. 

As we approach the end of the first cycle of our Window Team experiment, there's a lot of thinking and talking about what the next iteration will look like. Nothing has been decided yet, but as long as we stick with design thinking, I'm confident that the real work will continue. If anyone's interested, here are the slides from when I shared our WT idea and progress at EduCon this past January.

My Education Manifesto for 2015

Way back in 2007, my friend and OG mentor Chris Long published his "Future of Learning" Manifesto along with a challenge to others to steal it, tweak it, riff on it, and rewrite their own version. He set the bar far too high, if you ask me (you didn't), but I can't blame him for my own procrastination of boiling down into words what's important to me about education. So here goes, in no particular order...some is stolen (from Chris and others), some is riffed, some is original. That's the way, eh? In no particular order...

(caveat: manifestos are often a bit preachy)

draft #1, 12/30/2014

Short version:

  1. Teaching is the only way to be immortal 
  2. Learning is the work
  3. Seriously, everyone must be learning. All the time.
  4. No one owes you their interest or attention
  5. The world is full of fascinating problems just waiting to be solved
  6. If you don't love people, I mean really love people, please don't go into education (or get out if you're already there)
  7. Schools must help our communities learn how to be good citizens and humans
  8. Technology / the internet is not optional
  9. Technology is a tool, not an end goal
  10. Please know why you're teaching something

Long-winded version:

  1. Teaching is the only way to be immortal - As my body will be part of something else someday (a plant, a bug, some coral, a star, another planet...) and will live on in small bits and pieces, so too will my mind IF I can spend my life spreading and sharing ideas, wonder, and fascinating questions. Otherwise, why was I here? Whom did I serve? Not myself nor the greater world.
  2. Learning is the work - (thanks Michael Fullan) I'm not just talking about student work, or teacher work. ALL work (read: life) is learning, and learning has to be given top priority and fanatical support (time, tools, space, money) for everyone involved: students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, neighbors. Whatever your business, imagine what kind of a product you'd deliver if you never learned - repeating mistakes, falling behind, becoming irrelevant. Imagine interactions with a loved one that never got better, never progressed deeper b/c you couldn't learn how to communicate with that person. Imagine what medicine would be like! *shiver* Learning is the work. If schools don't put learning first - for EVERYONE - it just won't work. "When you know better, you do better." - quasi Maya Angelou
  3. Seriously, everyone must be learning. All the time. - Educators have a crazy amount of resources for improvement at their fingertips: Twitter is amazing. Google+ is showing serious promise. Podcasts like Edu All-Stars will deliver growth inspiration directly to your ear holes. Hordes of educators congregate at conferences and edcamps around the world and in the next town over. As I've quoted here before, "Our job as educators is to actively work at getting better. If you are a classroom teacher, like me, and your job is to cause learning, but you aren’t actively searching for ways to better cause that learning, then you aren’t really doing your job. If you are an administrator and your job is to help support teachers cause learning, but you aren’t actively searching for ways to help those teachers, then you aren’t really doing your job." (Alexis Wiggins, international teacher and education writer/blogger)
  4. No one owes you their interest or attention - Disengaged students are not flawed - your message is. Could be the content, its importance/relevance, the delivery... (or any or all of the above) but something isn't working. Find it, make it relevant.
  5. The world is full of fascinating problems just waiting to be solved - (thanks Eric S Raymond) We've really screwed things up - the planet, our communities, ourselves. The next batch of folks to inherit the world have their work cut out for them. They will need different tools and ways of thinking to fix our problems. Stop focusing on the tools we used to get us into this mess and start helping them develop a richness of intelligence, compassion, ingenuity, and culture to give them half a chance. If you don't know how to do this, see #3 above.
  6. If you don't love people, I mean really love people, please don't go into education (or get out if you're already there) - How are schools like soylent green? They're both made of people. People are imperfect and exactly as they're going to be - both children and adults. It takes roughly a cubic ton of love, compassion, and empathy to work with someone on anything meaningful, and if you don't like that, leave. No disrespect meant there - in fact, it'll be more respectful to everyone involved - students, colleagues, and yourself - if you do.
  7. Schools must help our communities learn how to be good citizens and humans - There's a lot of talk about online bullying and the other dangers our children (and ourselves) are exposed to on the internet. Lots of it boils down to "people are horrible, we must protect our kids." To me, that's like driving an SUV for safety: you might be more likely to survive a collision, but you're more likely to kill anyone you run into. (It's simple physics: F=MA; add more mass, get more destructive energy.) Trying to remove your kid from the overall culture might, MIGHT, protect that kid, but it does nothing for the rest of us. The fix is to make us all more in touch with the humanity of others, and that requires being present for the conversation, which hints at my next point:
  8. Technology / the internet is not optional - Our students need to be part of the global conversation. We need them to become experts at managing the modern digital landscape and they need their teachers to be knowledgeable and skilled guides. Their guides need to be well-versed in not just the WHATs, but the HOWs and WHYs as well.
  9. Technology is a tool, not an end goal -  All the gadgets, sites, services, applications, apps, etc. are an integral part of the process of learning, but they suck as end goals. School's shouldn't have learning goals about using a specific tech tool, in just the same way that we shouldn't put pure content knowledge in a place above its application or relevance to our learners - we don't learn Mandarin to cross something off a list, but to communicate with a billion+ people on the other side of the world; the point of Algebra is not to learn that letters can sometimes stand in for numbers, but to acquire new problem solving skills in the face of limited information. We may love Mandarin or Algebra (and I do love gadgets), but they serve higher meanings. (Don't even get me started about Carnegie Units and graduation requirements...).
  10. Please know why you're teaching something - If your students can look it up in less than a minute and they won't ever need it for survival in a world without electricity, just how much time and energy do you think it deserves? Perhaps some essential question reflection might be in order.

OK, I think that's good for now. There you go, I've opened my brain to you all, what can you now put in it? If you've made it this far, I challenge you to keep the ball rolling and come up with your own, and have your students do so as well. Communication is good.

It's amazing how scary yet powerful (redundant?) it can be to put your beliefs out there. Comments are on.

Do students care about our subjects or about us?

Not that there has to be a total dichotomy, but overall, do our students care about our subjects or about us? This idea recently had me asking lots of questions, to which I don't have many answers.

 It certainly makes us teachers happy to have devoted, loyal fans as students, and if we can connect to the people in our classes, it seems much more rewarding and meaningful to us. But do we have the interest, ability, or liberty to consider why the students are doing what they're doing?

Traditionally, good teachers say that the way to get kids engaged is to build the relationship between student and teacher. One particularly thorny effect of this, though, is that the student can come to do what the teacher asks because the student cares about impressing the teacher, not letting the teacher down, making the teacher happy, etc. Once students care about us, or feel that we care about them, it's much easier to get them to do what we want them to do. It seems to me that this might be quite unhealthy, manipulative, and even exploitative of a student's natural desire to not upset a person they care about. There be dragons here for sure!

Some progressive educators, while not discounting the need for a strong teacher-student relationship, talk about engaging the student with the content to be learned itself by making it relevant to the student's lives, harnessing the student's intrinsic motivations, such as the three aspects of Daniel Pink's Drive: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. 

The ramifications of the former approach could be staggering: what if the steady growth in the importance of end results (standardized tests, college placement, class rankings, GPAs, etc.) is the product of generations of students growing up having learned to value the system that such an authority-pleasing approach builds as what good education is? 

We talk about students losing their natural love of learning somewhere along the way between elementary and high school, that their main motivation in school sometimes shifts to their only wanting to know what'll be on the test, to be worried about grades and end products, and so on. What if this shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is just the end product itself of a student's long-term focus on authority-pleasing rather than their own curiosity, wonder, and engagement with their world?

How might we help our students focus on their inherent drive to learn about things that interest them, and reduce our association with their end products? How might we enable students to be more concerned with letting themselves down - or, more abstractly, the intellectual endeavor itself down - than letting their teachers (or parents) down? 

As students age into their high school years, their relationship to authority drastically changes as they are driven biologically and culturally to identify and enforce their own identities. This often manifests as a reduction in their interest in the established authorities in their life, sometimes even to fairly direct rejection of those authorities. This is seen as an important and natural part of human development, for the most part. But what happens to a developing student who has no knowledge of or experience with their own curiosities, their own passions, and is only left with the void of authorities they used to want to please? What are they left with that can help them grow and adapt as they navigate the world beyond their schooling?