HCD21 Update: Gaining Emapthy

For the past 124-plus years, education has pretty much been designed and directed from the adult point-of-view. What gets taught and how it’s taught has been decided by school teachers and administrators. Of course lately, many politically-elected leaders and wealthy individuals with money behind them have weighed in on this, to the point that our K-12 education system has become a quilt of many adult-driven initiatives and personal agendas that for the most part make little or no sense to children and their parents. Most of those add-ons, policies, and newfangled ideas hinder student and teacher success; few do anything to improve the learning process.

Just because we realize this doesn’t mean we have the answers that will make our schools more learning-focused. The human-centered design journey we have embarked on to find solutions requires that we learn from the lives of others and gain key insights into what is working in our schools and what is not. Along the way, we also hope to generate some ideas or concepts that have not existed before. In other words, the mission of our design-thinking process is to observe the key stakeholders in our district — students, families, and educators — and translate those observations into insights which eventually will lead us to new processes and structures.

According to Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, one of the leading human-centered design organizations in the world:

Empathy is the mental habit that moves us beyond thinking of people as laboratory rats or standard deviations [data points]. If we are to “borrow” the lives of other people to inspire new ideas, we need to begin by recognizing that their seemingly inexplicable behaviors represent different strategies for coping with the confusing, complex, and contradictory world in which they live.

We build these bridges of insight through empathy, the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences, and feel the world through their emotions.

This phase of our journey is helping us to do just that. With small teams of 3 or 4 team members meeting with families in their homes, we’re able to get an oral and visual peak into their world and how they view the community, our schools, their children’s education, the future, and the world in general. The results of our visits are being captured in a broad data-base and we’re meeting periodically as a whole team to analyze the results, determine patterns, and begin to tell a complete story of what education in the Godfrey-Lee district is and could or should be. Our work with the interviews will take the team until the end of this trimester when we’ll spend upwards of ten hours over two days in early March gaining clarity from these insights.

What’s even more exciting is a parallel process that got underway this past week. A handful of teachers met with our leadership coach, Dave Koetje, along with myself and Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach, to get a view of the work of the HCD21 team but to also look at design thinking from the classroom teacher-student learning relationship. We have two more of these initial orientation sessions coming up in the next couple weeks and hope to use them as a springboard to spread the concept of design thinking across the district. The potential for intertwining our district-wide focus with individual classrooms exploring design thinking in daily activities is exciting and can only serve as a strong leverage to putting our school district out front in providing a relevant, engaging learning system that puts the future needs of our students at the front of everything we do.

What’s next? Brown points out that, “The process of synthesis — the ordering of data and the search for patterns — can be frustrating as important decisions seem to ride on the most insubstantial hunches.” In other words, we’ll be moving ahead but the process will not be as clear as we would like it to be and for many of us, it will be downright uncomfortable at first. From the data we’re collecting through the interviews, eventual focus groups, and secondary researcher, many ideas will come to mind as we look for ways to prototype and test some of our shared solutions. Normally, humans are prone to take the inputs from around them and converge upon a single answer. I see and hear this all the time when teachers or parents are frustrated by what’s going on and they want to boil it all down to, “What’s the solution?” “Just tell me what you want me to do!” But design thinking done right wants to explore many options and create choices for solutions that can be tested against each other so that “the outcome will be bolder, more creatively disruptive, and more compelling.”

Good ideas first require lots of ideas. This is called divergent thinking, something young children do almost intuitively if left to themselves and a pile of something to make or play with. Just watch them with a large cardboard packing box and the freedom to do what they want with it. Over time, however, we have been trained away from this by being presented with lots of material and ideas in formal classrooms and expected to boil it down to the right answer on the test. This is what was expected of western culture education in the 19th and early 20th century. The jobs our kids will be seeking in the future will require more divergent thinking and to redesign our educational system, we’ll need to do the same.

As March draws near, I’ll be sharing with you the results of our interviews and secondary research in a way that will allow you to crowd share with us your thoughts as we analyze, identify patterns, and put the story together. We’ll also hold a number of public sessions as the next school year gets underway to bring you up to speed and gain your help in prototyping and design solutions.

Links to previous posts on our HCD21 redesign project:











Mlive article: http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/08/school_district_awarded_250000.html



About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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One Response to HCD21 Update: Gaining Emapthy

  1. Pingback: HCD21: Year 1 report on redesigning our educational system | Superintendent's Notes

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