Education faces a design challenge. From what I know about design challenges, it seems that the best designs begin with intensive stages of immersion and discovery – putting the designers in the positions of chief empathizers.
One of the best examples I know of related to this commitment of being chief empathizers comes from Dan and Chip Heath’s book Switch. The story of Dr. Jerry Sternin harnessing the local wisdom of Vietnamese mothers who were rearing healthy children amidst a malnutrition epidemic stands out to me. Actually, the story inspires me. Dr. Sternin did not swoop in with pre-conceived notions and ready-made solutions. Instead he committed to a process of immersion and discovery to find sustainable, scalable solutions that came from within the community. He leveraged empathy to create a most-likely-to-succeed solution that honored the end users.
Countless other examples come to mind, but I’ll restrain myself and offer only a few here:
- When I enrolled in a design-thinking course from IDEO and Design Thinking for Educators, we began with a mini design challenge, and step 1 was to interview someone about their morning commute. “Learn how they feel, what they wish for, what gets in their way. Your job is to ask great questions, listen, and learn. TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Why?'”
- When I participated in Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Design Institute, before we began designing our ideal outdoor classroom, we interviewed students. We collected insights from them before we even thought about preparing solutions to our own notions of classroom design.
- When Emily Pilloton asked her student designers to imagine a better chicken coop and design it, they started with observing how chickens behave. “In three days, students would get to know their feathered ‘clients’ by observing their behavior. How do they eat? ‘They like pecking out of the straw, not eating from the trough,’ noted Kerron. How do they sleep? ‘They huddle together up in the roosting box,’ said another student. After three days, our students knew far more about chicken behavior than they ever imagined or wanted.”
- When Imagining Learning formed to help crowd source ideas for redesigning education, they began with Listening Sessions – for students.
- When University of Missouri-Columbia freshman Ankur Singh thought to study standardized testing, he decided to take a semester off of school in order to ask those most affected – the students.
So, for all of the schools facing essential questions of innovation, I am wondering how you are factoring in “immersion and discovery.” How are you building empathy into the design challenges?
When I was a school principal, one of the most valuable things I ever did was to shadow a student every year. For a day, I would partner with a student – most often a sixth grader – and I would trail along beside them and pretend to be a student for a day. I was off limits as a principal because I wanted to be completely immersed in the experience. In the years that I was most committed, I would even do all of the homework assignments that night of the shadow. Often, on blogs like Connected Principals, I read of other administrators engaging in such empathy gathering. Now, I am wondering if schools should not build this process into their regular routines and habits.
Maybe schools need innovation teams. Among other jobs, these innovation teams could commit to shadowing students, interviewing students, observing school days and after-school activities, talking with parents about what family life is like at home after school, etc. I bet devoting just three days a year to such immersion and discovery would yield invaluable insights and empathies. [Why the arbitrary number of three days? Well, if it’s good enough for the chickens in Bertie County, NC, I figured it was a good starting place!]
Our school innovations might improve mightily if we designed with the students’ voices at the core – if we committed to “outrospection.”
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