This week ended on an extraordinary note. I spent the summer thinking and planning on how to help classroom teachers integrate the process of design thinking (and related variations) into their classroom. Last year I worked at a high school with tremendous vision that opted to challenge the status quo of traditional education that treats the students as consumers and measures their success on how their ability to consume and reproduce information on a standardized test. North Rowan High School realized that this method does nothing to help our students develop the skills and experiences necessary to lead a productive and passion filled life in our world. Instead they rejected the notion that a standardized test can measure a student's true learning and the effectiveness of a school. In our state, schools receive "letter grades" based on test performance. This method too often reduces schools to a simple letter grade that is easy for politicians and bureaucrats to divide schools in easy category for analysis. Each school, much like the students who attend them, is much more complex than a letter grade. In reviewing grades assigned to various schools in my system and the rest of the state, there is a strong correlation between the grades assigned to schools and their population. In North Carolina, the higher the letter grade, the more likely that the school serves less students of poverty. As poverty increases, the letter grade typically decreases. While there are exceptions to this, more often than not, this pattern holds true. If you look at schools earning higher grades, they tend to be more affluent. This affords those students with opportunities to have experiences that students of poverty may not have. If you look at a school rated as "A," it is much more likely that many students have visited different states and even foreign countries. In schools with lower ratings, it is highly likely that many of their students very rarely have gone outside of the county where they live much less the state.
With this mind, I learned many valuable lessons while serving as a Design / Challenge Based Learning (CBL) instructor at North Rowan High School. The work that the staff has and continues to do with the integration of Design Thinking and CBL has already proved its worth as students have developed and expanded on many skills necessary for success in the future. Their students can work effectively in groups, share ideas and evaluate them in ways that lead to better success, and solve problems in unique and innovative ways. It is for these reasons that I realized that this important work must be shared and replicated at other schools. When presented with the opportunity to serve as an instructional coach at my previous middle school where I would work with teachers to implement a similar curriculum, I knew that I had to answer this call.
The power of having students create something is akin to something sacred. Our great creator gave each of us unlimited potential in creativity. Michael Cohen (@thetechrabbi and write of Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential), describes creativity as a mindset. And I definitely agree with him. Upon returning to China Grove Middle School, my challenge is to help teachers transform our students into designers who create, not consume. This will be our first year of focusing on having students "CREATE, NOT CONSUME." In doing this, we must find a way to connect the curriculum to having our students create products that matter.
This week, we had a major transition in the "force" of moving students into becoming creators and designers. And it was in the most unlikely of all subjects - math. I say that with deep admiration for math. I am a chemist by training and a recovering chemistry teacher who still dabbles in teaching chemistry lab at a local college. As such, I know the importance of making sure that our students have a strong math background. But if I had to pick a subject area willing to go forward with transitioning from having students be full consumers to creators, I most likely would not have guessed math. But it happened and it was amazing, scary, and organic.
Our two 7th grade math teachers, Mr. T Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. A Ramey (@rameyac), wanted to find a way to make rates come alive for our students. For many 7th graders, the idea of rates is very challenging. One of the greatest challenges that 7th graders face is understanding what rates are and how they relate to their lives. We worked collaboratively as a team to develop a challenge where students would have to create their own rate, measure it, and then apply it in a new way. We spent time planning and collaborating to create this challenge and broke it down into smaller pieces. Both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey are amazing educators and I applaud them for stepping outside of their normal roles to try this new way of helping students connect to math. We put safeguards in place and Ms. Ramey and Mr. Downs worked to create an environment where students could take risks, fail, and learn from failure. For me personally, it was like a spiritual experience to see the engagement level of students with various academic abilities get excited about math and connect it to the real world. It was very inspiring to see educators willing to be vulnerable and try this new way with no guarantee of success. Here is a link to their plan for this challenge.
While the students have not quite yet finished the project, here are some of the initial take aways that I observed:
While there are numerous benefits that we could continue to list, it is important to note that students are excited about learning and connecting rates to their daily lives. I am in awe of both Mr. Downs and Ms. Ramey for their incredible willingness to step away from the box and forge a new way to make math relevant to their students. I am confident that many students in the 7th grade math classes have gone home and shared what they are doing with their parents. And for many 7th graders to share anything that they are learning and doing at school with their parents is an epic win.
I hope to post some of the final products with additional reflection in the coming week. Be sure to follow Mr. Downs (@neverletudowns) and Ms. Ramey (@rameyac) and show them some love for their willingness to be educational disruptors. Check out some of the sites and sounds from today below. I encourage you to think about how to transform your students from only consumers into creators and designers just as our 7th grade math teachers have done.
Design Thinking Video #1: Notice the vibe of the classroom
Design Thinking Video #2 - Teacher Coaching Student in Processes
The last two weeks have been very busy. I collaborated with the design teachers at North Rowan High School and provided a three day training for 10 educators from three of the feeder schools in the North area. This training was the first of a kind for our community. Our objective were to prepare teachers that will be teaching design and Challenge Based Learning (CBL) for the upcoming year. This training was truly trailblazing for many reasons. We crafted the training that we felt neophyte design teachers would need. We also wanted the training to be active and for participants to be truly engaged in the process. We provided a balance of having teachers participate as a student as well as providing teaching tips. Many of the teachers that we trained readily shared how effective that they found the training.
As design teachers, we must model what we teach. We met in May to begin to outline the training with identified learning goals and outcomes. But we also wanted an extraordinary learning experience that would ensure that our attendees dreamed big and boldly. We incorporated two off-campus learning expeditions (field trips). In the first expedition, participants were ushered into an activity bus and taken to a local shopping center after completing a design process where participants partnered up and progress through the Design Thinking process. They were charged with creating a gift based on determining the needs of their partner, an activity provided by d.design school from Stanford. After participants had ideated and received feedback from their partners, they choose a prototype to create. We then quickly ushered the participants to the local shopping center with $5 to purchase materials for their prototypes. Participants had the opportunity to purchase any items within their budget to create their prototypes. They had to obtain items that could be assembled together to create the prototype. They could not give their partner a pre-made item; instead, they had to assemble the prototype using multiple items. Our second trip involved visiting our local homeless shelter where we learned about the services provided both to homeless individuals and those with financial needs. We also managed to work in a presentation about the energy efficiencies of the buildings Participants were totally blown away with what they experienced. They also had lunch at the shelter where they interacted with many of the guests that the shelter serves. Participants were encouraged to spend some time getting to know some of the guests and their stories, another connection to the empathy piece of design.
Many participants found the process of creating a gift for their partner to be challenging as it required them to create something new that met the needs of their partners. And this is the point of design. As we progressed through the training, we reminded teachers of the importance of helping students to focus the needs of others instead of their individual needs. I asked several groups what each person thought about what their partner made for them and if it met their needs. I also asked each person if they would buy the product that was created and how much they would pay for it. It was amazing to see the variety of responses. Some individuals really felt like their partner "zeroed in" on their needs and created something that would personally benefit them. Other individuals felt differently and would have liked to see have seen their partner focus more extensively on their needs. This is an important element of design. The designer must suspend much of their self (and possibly ego) to create something that focuses on the end user. This is what I love most about teaching design. It helps others step outside of themselves and connect to another person or larger world in a way that makes a difference. I reminded participants that much of the work that they will be doing will overlap with the work that an anthropologist does when they employ ethnography to understand a new group or culture.
Perhaps a much larger important point of design focuses on helping the designer to expand their ability to empathize with others. I think many of us would agree on the importance of this in today's world. As a former science teacher, I understand the importance of making sure that we have scientific literate citizens and teaching our content. However, I would argue that even more important than that is creating citizens who understand others and solve problems that change the quality of life for others. And this is precisely what we do in design. It is my hope that after this training, the teachers will be better able to support their students as they learn to design for others and make a difference in the lives of others.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.