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.