Thursday, March 21, 2019

Building empathy through history

Lately I have been working with a team of social studies teachers who all teach a course called World History. As this curriculum evolves from a western traditions course to one with a global focus, it is vital to curate resources that invite students to explore a range of perspectives and experiences. Our most recent challenge was re-visioning the approach to studying imperialism.

The Set-Up

We started with a QFT process so that each student could develop a guiding question that would govern his/her/their examination of the content. They measured their best question as one that requires multiple perspectives be understood in order to arrive at a meaningful answer.

Enter Geography

After a couple of days of instruction by the classroom teacher I returned to facilitate a geography exercise. We divided the class into groups and used Google Classroom to push a map rendered in Google Draw to each group. In fact, I created three different maps. Each was the same land mass with different information provided. One map showed land forms, another showed natural resources, and another showed patterns of ethnic settlement.








We explained that the map was of a continent; they could see from the lines of latitude and longitude how expansive it was and what climate zones it occupies. Their first direction was to work on their own to divide the continent into countries. And they did, without asking any questions.

After a few minutes of independent work we asked them to share with their small group (all of whom had the same map) how they divided the land mass and why they made those choices. Then, as a group they had to create one map which they agreed was a reasonable compromise between their ideas about what was best for the continent. And they did, without asking any questions.

Each group submitted their collaborative map to Classroom so we could project them. We started with the land forms map, and the group that created the map talked about why they divided the land as they did and then we asked the rest of the class to decide what the priorities were that informed those decisions. For example, when the land forms group presented, they might have said that they used natural borders like rivers and made sure that every country had access to the coastline. Then, the class might decide that open trade routes were the priority that underscored those decisions.

Next we projected the natural resources map and followed the same procedure. Some classes tried to give each country a resource. Some tried to give each country some of each resource. And other groups consciously created resource-rich and resource-poor countries. After they presented we downloaded the Google Drawings as .png files so they had transparent backgrounds and layered the resource map over the land forms and asked them how the combination of information might impact their decisions. One thing they always noticed was that the large oil reserve in the southern portion of the continent was now beneath the mountains minimizing any chance that the country located there could access it. And so it became a resource-poor country and changed the economic balance of power on the continent.

The third map we showed was the ethnic map. These groups struggled. Generally, upon first review of the map, they said, "we don't have anything to do. It's already divided." Then they wondered, squeamishly, if they could move groups around so people of the same ethnic group were together. And that caused debate. They referenced past forced removals of people as historical precedent and as justification for not moving anyone. Then they questioned whether a multi-ethnic country is more or less stable than an ethnically homogeneous country which led to a discussion of civil war vs. international war. When we presented these maps we began by saying this is the hardest map to talk about it, because these are people. Overwhelmingly, their priority was continental harmony and when we combined the land forms map with the resource map and the ethnic map they became very frustrated. And that is when the class began to question why they were imposing their priorities on this place.

Their final reflection was about the choices they made and how the accumulating information complicated their decision-making. In each class, they realized that they fell into familiar historical patterns. That none of the fictitious groups on the ethnic map were a part of the process and they started to ask about the people and their history.

Primary Source Artifacts

Ultimately, the students used their guiding question from the QFT process to examine an instance of imperialism and create a museum exhibit in response to their question. Our goal was not to teach museum curation but some practice telling stories with artifacts was necessary.

The class was again divided into groups and each group was given a collection of 5 objects. They were told to arrange the objects to tell a story. All the object groupings were selected because they came from a fairy tale the students would know. Now some groups caught on quickly to the "real story" of their artifacts and others composed elaborate tales to explain the connections between the objects they had been given. Then the class discussed how accurately the artifacts told the story and the difference between an artifact that was of the character (like straw for The Three Little Pigs) and an artifact that was about a character (a scientific diagram of a wolf). This time they caught on quickly to the notion that a meaningfully selected artifact, at least for this purpose, was not filtered through someone else's lens or experience.

Building empathy is a challenge and a necessity. This is a description of how we tried to embed that practice into content examination. I would love to hear from you about how you do this work with your students!

Monday, February 4, 2019

New semester and courses start with a design sprint

I am mid-way through my second year at my current school and have begun a new collaborative partnership with a colleague with whom I haven't yet had an opportunity to work. She teaches two sections of Sociology. The students in the classes are all seniors and the semester is a bit abbreviated since they will be going on internships for the last month of school. We have met a couple of times to discuss the challenges she is confronting:

  • second semester seniors can be an engagement challenge
  • contentious civic climate means some of the course topics are challenging to discuss
  • teaching the same course for the sixth semester in a row means she is challenged to keep it fresh and relevant
This partnership is going to be exciting. My colleague is my pedagogical soul mate. She thinks 10X about any curricular idea. She is a model of risk-taking in the classroom. Failure is always forward so it isn't really failure at all. Given these habits of mind, we started with a blank slate and this question:

How might we disrupt senior-itis and
ignite students' passion for working on solutions to social issues?

Where do we start when we have a blank slate?

We began with our general musings about how to personalize this study, how to help students wrap their heads around the macro and micro views of sociology. Addiction is an issue that lends itself to sociological study on a macro level and juuling at our school is a micro view. Gender is a macro topic; professional training of our teachers around issues of gender identity in the classroom is more micro. The more we talked, the more it became clear that the students are going to have autonomy over their focus for the semester and their purpose was going to be to apply their skills to solving a community problem. The question was: How?

Embracing the principles of Universal Design for Learning we considered how to remove barriers to:
  • student engagement
  • content access
  • expressions of learning
We discussed how to promote divergent and convergent thinking processes to encourage students to think of societal issues in both macro and micro ways and invite them to see connections between the different topics.

We continued brainstorming. What if we present them with an artifact (inspired by the Q-focus from the Right Question Institute's QFT protocol documented in Make Just One Change) and have them list on one side of the artifact all of the macro issues related to it, and on the other side list all the micro issues indicated by it. Then we thought about showing them these two videos for the purpose of macro-micro comparisons:

Dove's ad about beauty standards and young girls:


Greenpeace's response:

Enter Design Thinking

But here's the rub. These students don't have experience really owning their learning. They have had choice, as in make this product or that product, but they haven't had complete autonomy. Realizing that we were already flexing our design thinking muscles trying to empathize with this group of students and design an approach to the course that would meet their needs, we decided that we needed to guide them through this same process so each student could meaningfully chart his/her/their own path through the curriculum.

To figure out what this would look like, we turned to the Future Design School app which has a Design Thinking for High School Students curriculum. Everything my colleague needs to confidently facilitate her classes adopting the mindset of innovators and successfully navigate this personalized experience is included. They will identify macro societal problems, focus them to the micro school or community level, and then engage in the necessary work of empathizing with their peers and fellow community members to research, design, test and iterate the best possible solution to these shared problems.

The Design Sprint

Because we were concerned about student buy-in we thought it would help the students if they knew where this was all going, as in what does "the design process" mean soup-to-nuts? what are we in for? To that end, we decided to do a design sprint with them: the whole process in 45 minutes. Drawing on my experience at the Google Certified Innovator Academy, we decided to have one class design a chair and the other design a wallet. In each class, I was the stakeholder; the students were all designing to meet my needs. In each class I stood in the center of the room and told a story. To one class I told the story of traveling 10 years ago and being pick-pocketed and needing to replace my wallet. Now that wallet was wearing out, and my wallet needs had changed dramatically. The class began peppering me with questions about my shopping habits, about my phone, about my acceptance of or aversion to change (the state of being, not the coins -- we had to clarify), about my likes and dislikes, about how my life has changed over the last ten years. In the other class I told a tale of whoa about aging, body breakdown and injuries and the impact all that has on sitting. Again they questioned me and asked about reading and computer habits and other lifestyle habits.

After these intense Q&A sessions, the students were each given the following materials:
  • one piece of 8.5x11 scrap paper
  • one piece (roughly the same size) of aluminum foil
  • a single pipe cleaner
  • a piece of wire-edged ribbon about six inches long
They were given five minutes to build the perfect wallet or chair to suit my needs. At the end of five minutes each student paired with a student across the room. They were each given 30 seconds to pitch their design to their partner. At the end of a minute, they chose which of their two designs was best, set the other aside and became a team pitching the winning chair to another newly-formed team. We continued the process of pitch, choose, set aside, merge and re-pitch until they were down to two designs. They then pitched to me. I critiqued each design and then chose the one that best met my needs.

Reflection on the Sprint

My colleague and I then guided a reflective discussion about the process. The students acknowledged some important elements of the design process.

Empathy: they all realized that they were intently focused on me the whole time. When they pitched it was about being best at meeting my needs. They never judged me or disregarded something I said and they never presumed to know me better than I know myself and my needs.

Collaboration: each time they re-grouped their pitch improved when new voices helped explain the product. And when I was critiquing prototypes at the end, they realized that most of the features I wanted were in some design somewhere in the room. If they worked together they could have combined those features into the best possible design.

Iteration: without either of us saying anything, both classes said they could make a new design where they could combine their best ideas into one chair (or wallet), maybe use better materials and test it again. And they also realized that talking to me with a prototype in their hand elicited important insight into my needs and how to satisfy them. They wanted more information. They were designing with me.

Going Forward

We are excited about the next steps: helping students identify a societal issue that authentically concerns and engages them and begin the process of defining that problem and finding the stakeholders who experience it. Design thinking as pedagogy is the most empowering approach I have experienced in 26 years teaching.