The purpose of this post is to give you a summary of my design process throughout the last few months, and to give you an idea of how what I’ve learned has and will impact my teaching in the future.
The problem I was trying to address over the last few months was that teachers are consistently utilizing evenings and weekends during the school year to do school work. The problem with this is that teachers generally prioritize grading and planning (as they probably should) and things that get pushed off are innovating, reflecting, learning new technologies, developing a strong professional learning network, and collaboration. These are all things we want our teachers to be constantly learning, not just when they have a bit of free time on summer break. I’d encourage you to read what I’ve gained from this experience and how I decided to “solve” this problem.
The first phase of the design process is gaining empathy for your users. My “users” are educators, but I found out early on that there are other people (namely administrators, legislators, the general public) that affect how much time teachers have. To gain empathy for these different groups I sent a survey out to educators on twitter and in my district. This, and conversations I had with my colleagues, gave me a better idea of how bad the problem was. It also gave me hints about where I might find solutions. The results of the survey can be seen at this link.
The readings I did for this phase as well as this activity gave me an understanding of how important empathy is to the design process. We can all find products that were designed without gaining a full understanding of the users they were targeting. Understanding your users, their perspectives, needs, shortcomings, and lives lays the foundation for and is intertwined in the following phases of the design process.
The define phase of design was probably my most insightful phase. As a teacher I suspected a lot of the things I learned from the empathy phase. However the define phase allowed me to get to the root of the problem and to develop a problem statement. It moved me from “Teachers don’t have enough time” to “teachers don’t have enough time because of _____________.” Once you’ve identified the “blank” you can work towards solving the problem at a more fundamental level.
I found that although many people might think teachers are short on time because of lot’s of papers to grade or writing lesson plans, those are symptoms of a more general problem. That is that the people that make decisions about the fundamental structure of a teacher’s work life (legislators, voters, and even administrators) feel that giving teachers more time in a work day to work would not be beneficial. This is primarily because that means a reduction in contact time with students. Although I (and many others I presume) would contend that more contact time is not always in the students’ best interest, it’s a tough argument to get across to people who are not educated in how people learn. Even if giving teachers more time to collaborate and innovate reduces contact time with students, the time they do have with students will likely be of higher quality. In fact, some of the most highly regarded education systems have significantly less compulsory hours than the United States.
I think this phase of the design process is how most people think designers spend most of their time. The purpose of this phase is to develop as many ideas for your product as possible. I did things like track all my ideas related to my problem for a week (although I’ve continued doing this), had a brainstorming session in which I explored the power of incubation, and had a collaborative brainstorming session.
From this phase came a lot of ideas (obviously), but also a couple realizations. One of the first realizations I had was that messaging is a significant problem in our profession. This led me to tailor some of my ideas towards changing how the general public understands the life of an educator. I also realized how important leadership is to the life of a teacher. For instance, many teachers are frustrated with meetings or professional development that waste their time. Constantly changing initiatives (or trying too many at one time) is another cause of frustration for teachers. The turnover rate of administrators also makes it harder for teachers to invest time in initiatives because they fear in a year or two all the time they spent will be for nothing. Having a quality administrator that respects teachers’ needs for time (or at least not wasted time) can make the time teachers do have more worthwhile.
My favorite aspect of this phase was that diversity of ideas was valued. I needed to develop a long list of (sometimes off the wall) ideas because this makes it easier to find surprising connections and novel solutions. We are rarely encouraged (or given the time and space) to develop lot’s of diverse ideas to problems, especially in education.
In a lab activity I was given the opportunity to build a prototype representing the meaning of life. This allowed me to explore a concrete representation of a very abstract concept. I found a lot of value in conceptualizing a product and actually seeing the creation through to the end. Read more about this lab activity here.
This is the phase where ideas start to become a reality. This was an exciting phase because I spent so much time in the early phases trying to decide which direction to take for my solution(s). In this phase I was actually able to put together a “product” and put my ideas into reality. I settled on pushing forward with a couple ideas. First I wanted to develop a list of resources that could help teachers save time now. This stemmed from conversations in my brainstorming session in which we discussed the fundamental problem (the general public doesn’t understand education very well) and how changing the public perception, if possible at all, would take a long time. Under that assumption I realized I’d need a solution that could help teachers “tomorrow”.
The second solution came from an attempt to address the messaging problem mentioned earlier. I decided to compile some infographics that I would share widely to help the general public understand how much teachers work outside of school, why that hurts students, and the good that can come from giving teachers more time. One problem layered within the messaging problem is that the attention span of many people seems limited. To address this I wanted to get my message across in the most concise, visually appealing method possible (probably not a bad idea in general I suppose). Infographics give me a medium that does both of those things.
In this phase I put my prototypes out for feedback. There are different ways to test a prototype but I settled on a focus group session with a few of my colleagues. From this I gained valuable feedback on my strengths and weaknesses, what could be deleted, and what could be added to improve my prototypes. Part of this phase was a project in which I created a video that explained how to accomplish the testing phase effectively in the context of education.
This phase is vital because, although it can be hard to put your ideas out there for feedback, without it it’s difficult to see the cracks in them. I should also note that the success of this phase hinges on being well prepared for the testing session. I gained valuable insights from having multiple sets of eyes on my prototypes and they evolved accordingly.
If you’ve made it this far in the post then I’d like to leave you with few thoughts. Design thinking is a powerful mindset for solving problems. I hope that from the above summary and my end products you can see the power in the process. If that alone doesn’t convince you then check out some of my classmates work here and here. The power in this process is that you don’t (or shouldn’t) start with any assumptions about your users. You start open-minded, simply looking to gain an understanding for the people your decisions will affect. Too often, especially in education, we assume we completely understand our users’ experiences (consider students, teachers, support staff, etc.). Once you get a better understanding for your users then you can launch into a systematic problem solving process that doesn’t jump to quick solutions, is reflective, iterative, and above all user-focused. I think if more of the “solutions” we came up with in education stemmed from the design thinking process then they wouldn’t exist or they’d be in a much more refined form.
A final thought
Every educator is a designer. Every one of us is frequently presented with problems that require creative solutions. I think the power in the design thinking mindset is that the solutions we come up with are more likely to be empathetic, developed collaboratively, innovative, refined, and effective in the long term. I plan to use the designers mindset frequently in the future, especially in the context of exceptionally difficult problems.