Saturday, July 5, 2014

FUSE14 and Designing for Engagement

Sometime last fall I stumbled onto design thinking (DT) and was immediately drawn to its grounding in working with and for people. DT, to put it simply, is a process (or, if you prefer, the DT "mindset") that can be summed up as "people-centered problem solving with a bias toward action." Since learning about it, I've been working with it as often as I could, including participating in the #dtk12chat to meet others interested in DT in education. So when I learned about FUSE14, a two-day design thinking workshop hosted at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation in Atlanta, I jumped on the opportunity, given that it was scheduled immediately before ISTE2014 this summer (on which cf. my reflections). At FUSE14, I was very eager to work on some problems we've been uncovering at our school with the hopes of designing prototype solutions for them.

At the event, +Melissa Strong, the chair of our MS World Languages Dept., and I represented our school in the 201 track, to which we brought our problem of "time" to put through the DT process. Using MVIFI's DEEPdt process (standing for Discover Empathize Experiment Produce; digital editions of the fantastic DEEPdt playbooks can be purchased here), we had hoped to gain a better understanding of how we manage time, with the goal of bringing back to suggestions to our community. And that's exactly what we accomplished, though not in the original way we had intended.

Discover

Our Middle School campus has 9 periods each day, with 40min in each period. It's an exceptionally short amount of sit-time to have with students each day, and more faculty of late have begun to identify problems with our schedule and have suggested that we again explore block schedules, among other ideas, making it the perfect "wicked problem."

Before jumping into the deep end of the 201 track, we were asked to organize interviews with our "users" to be held during our first day. Time affects all users (e.g., students, faculty, staff, parents, etc.) in our community, but because we were biased toward our schedule, we decided to focus mainly on our students. After 75min of great Q&A with two students and two faculty members (thank you, Regan and Ian!), we realized that we needed to take a few steps back: our problem isn't as much about time as we initially thought.

Empathize

Our interviews exceeded all expectation and gave us some very useful data to work with. In particular, they bore out a few interesting observations:
  • Kids are more engaged when introduced to new material, and they're more engaged when they're reviewing material in preparation for a test. They don't find the middle stages in a particular unit as engaging as the beginning or end.
  • When asked to "think about something" at home, kids rarely do so. Unless there's some tangible activity to be done, kids don't do work outside of the classroom, and even then, they report less engagement than when doing work in class.
  • When rushing through material, kids don't often feel that they should ask questions, and they sometimes feel that tangential questions, when not answered, must be irrelevant to the topic at hand.
  • Double periods (only in English and science) are more engaging than single periods, on account of the types of activities done in class.
  • 50min periods aren't necessarily more productive than our current 40min periods, since small talk often gets in the way.
  • Regular breaks in the middle of the day are more welcome than random breaks throughout the day. 
Based on our subsequent empathy mapping of the interviews, we concluded that time and our current schedule aren't our primary problems. Rather, time was more of a symptom of other problems, namely the problem of overall engagement and "flow" (cf. Csikszentmihalyi's TED Talk). It's not that we don't have enough time, as much as it's about how we're using the time that we do have together. In other words, a different schedule, with longer class periods, wouldn't by itself fix any of the issues that our users identified. That's not to say that I wouldn't warmly welcome more time and longer class periods, but the interview results suggest that we need to work on engagement to give our community clear reasons for using time differently, before we can tackle more concrete schedule issues. With that, Melissa and I began to dig deeper into the assumptions and obstacles standing in the way of the kinds of engagement that we believe are possible.

Experiment and Produce

Now that our discovery work has uncovered engagement as the deeper issue, we, with the help of the outstanding FUSE14 coaching staff, next needed to uncover the long-held assumptions governing how we use our time (cf. Kahneman's idea of "theory-induced blindness"). We now believe that, by challenging these assumptions to produce "How might we?" (HMW) questions that have the potential to engage our community in productive discussions around these ideas without seeming confrontational, we can start working toward new kinds of environments for not only our students, but our faculty and staff too. Our users, then, have become faculty.

1. Assumption: Students learn best through regular content-based testing.
 HMW transform our feedback system to reward process over product?

We broadly use the word "feedback" to include not only rote testing but everything we do that informs students of their own progress through our courses. It's the way we answer (or don't answer) questions, it's the work we do with them in class, it's our body language, and more. With this in mind, we need to think through our feedback systems in much greater detail, starting with the fact that a test isn't the only form of feedback.

2. Assumption: Rigor usually excludes creativity.
 HMW: Use curiosity to drive our curricula and content?

That kids are most engaged when introduced to new material underscores the power of creativity and wonder in the learning process, I think. There seems to be a widespread assumption that rigor and creativity are mutually exclusive, but this isn't the case at all, as cognitive science is proving. We need to think hard about how we can continue to challenge our students, while also encouraging them to be creative, along with building on other non-cognitive skills. This goes for us too: if we're not feeling creative in teaching, I can't imagine that we're feeling truly fulfilled.

3. Assumption: Our purpose is driven by our obligations to the school.
 HMW: Separate true purpose from duty or obligation in what we do as educators?

Students and faculty have a frightening small amount of free time, thanks to the regular ancillary duties and obligations (i.e., external motivators) that are asked of us within our communities. Many seem to equate such obligations with purpose, thereby using such obligations to drive purpose; but Melissa and I would like to challenge this assumption and have larger conversations about purpose (i.e., intrinsic motivators), under the belief that our purpose as educators far exceeds these obligations.

4. Assumption: Kids need daily homework and class meetings to learn.
 HMW: Get rid of homework?

This assumption speaks for itself. A growing body of literature (e.g., a recent Stanford study), however, including our own school's Workload Study, makes a strong case for the relative lack of value that homework offers, especially within the traditional framework. That said, this HMW question may be the most controversial, with homework being so culturally ingrained in education.

In sum, if we can challenge these assumptions and work toward engaging both our faculty and our students in different ways than we currently do, we may be able to treat the symptom of time that we've been discussing in our community. No one would say that our classes lack engagement, but after talking with students and faculty and thinking through our wicked problem, we see the big picture differently and believe that there is still opportunity for improvement. A 40min class, while still short, can still be productive, if we have more of an active understanding of how engagement works. This is only the beginning of this process, and we're hopeful that we can unpack more assumptions in conversations with our community and conduct even more interviews, when we return in the fall.

#dtk12chat at MODA

FUSE14 included a trip to MODA, the Museum of Design Atlanta, where we had the opportunity to view the Design for Social Impact exhibition and watch a live broadcast of the #dtk12chat show, hosted by +Trey Boden and +Dan Ryder. The exhibition is amazing and included a number of remarkable works by designers driven by change.


DT Resources

If new to DT and interested in learning more about it, I recommend any of the resources below. More than anything else, DT is inherently social, and so it's best to talk about it with others. Regardless of experience, I highly recommend stopping by #dtk12chat on Twitter on Wed. at 6pm PST.




Throughout our workshop, our coaches were insistent that we do all the work, while they only gave us guidance and some of the tools to do it. For that reason, FUSE14 was one of the most intense and rewarding PD experiences I've ever had, and I can't recommend it enough to other educators seeking to rethink how we work with people. We came to Atlanta with a problem and left with a few questions that can offer opportunity for innovation within our department and at our school. Leaving Atlanta, I have more of a designer mindset than ever, and I'm eager to get to work. Thanks to everyone who made the experience so valuable for us, including +Bo Adams for his fantastic work as MC and host, Trey Boden for designing the experience, and the entire 201 team of coaches, led by +Greg Bamford and +Jennifer Chan.