Early Divisions & Design for Community

On Wednesday, August 28, just the third day of school, I offered to connect one section of my inNOVAtion Lab courses with an online community called “Modern Learners.”  (More information about them is found here.)  I’ve been a member of the community since its inception, and if you are an educator, you ought to check out the work the community engages in around changing school.

I’d opened the class to this opportunity because I framed the beginning of this new class as a story.  These students, 55 in total, over two sections, are pioneers/explorers, setting out to write the story of a different way to learn in our school.  The Modern Learners had set their August theme as “Story” and I saw an immediate connection.  So away we went.

Part of NOVA Lab watching our chat with Modern Learners

While we had some technical difficulties, the chat lasted the better part of 40 minutes, and I was astounded at the initiative the students took to engage with the teachers, former teachers, administrators, etc on the other end.

But I was also troubled because something became clear to me…something that I’d realized on our second day but upon which I did not act.  The story of my realization and how I’ve offered this to the class as a problem through which we might not only make a tighter community but also learn a great deal about design thinking as a mindset that I want to make native to the class…that story is found below.

( I’ll post link to the hour-long video of the session if I can.)

“Dear Modern Learners:

My students and I wanted to thank you for engaging with us in the chat on Wednesday.  I sat down last night to watch the rest of it.  As much as I appreciate your recognition that my own presence in the class was a huge draw, that’s a double-edged sword, so I’d like to provide some background on it.  I wrote the following to Linda yesterday and thought I’d share it with you all.

“I had a feeling there would be talk about the fact that so many of the students had (already) such a strong relationship with me. The thing is that almost 1/3 of the students in that class, and all of the students who spoke, with the exception of Nadjia, had had me before in my gifted English classes. So there is already a year of understanding.

I thought about that all the way home yesterday because while it is nice to be admired, I’d rather not be seen as a sort of cult-leader (and students did create a “Cult of sir Garreth” several years ago, and I also have my own student-created Pokemon card).  Even admiration drives a wedge in the community between those who had me and know me, and those who don’t. I had to address that immediately.

So I used the design thinking mindset and tried to build empathy for those who had never had me and I thought about what it must feel like to be in the class but outside at the same time. I reached out to Doris (my design educator friend who was on the chat and with whom I’ve worked on design challenges through design thinking for almost a decade) and quickly created a lesson that we started today (Thursday), in both sections of Nova Lab, to “clear the air” and lead students into an actual design project (their first) to address the prompt, “How might we create a tighter community in Nova Lab?” I learned quite a bit listening to the students working together today. They were in groups where some students knew me and others didn’t. They had to develop empathy for each other’s stances and then create analogies or metaphors for their understanding of the problem. That “redefinition through metaphor” is important because it forces them to create statements that condense long explanations into a single image. In doing so they are further defining their own thoughts, defining the problem further (so important…designers spend a ton of time trying to make sure they are asking the right question) and learning how to use language to get others to “see what [they] mean.”

We have more work to do on this problem.  Students still have to ideate, prototype, test, and reiterate their solutions…but it’s clear to me that they are absolutely involved in this challenge.  1) because it applies directly to them.  2) because in choosing this class many of them expressed the desire to be part of something different and new. (this from their discussion on Monday in response to “Why did you take this class?”)  Because of number 2, many of them are already vested in helping to create a “legacy” through this class.

But the crucial  part here, and what separates design thinking from traditional means of problem-solving, and what links it to the particular mindset I carry from my work as a writer, is the necessity of “lingering at the point of wonder.” That is, Designers realize that contemplating the problem, really empathizing with users…this is key to making sure you’re solving the right problem.

Importantly, I had to counsel students to avoid coming up with solutions.  You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that when I issued the challenge, the first thing most of the students did is to start thinking of a solution.  (Always looking for the right answer.  Isn’t that what school is about…what being a “really intelligent” person is about?)  So I had to pull them back, to linger at the points of empathy and problem definition so that they could look for many possible solutions, not just “the right one.”

Getting them to slow down and discuss the challenge and learn about each other…amazing discussions ensued!  Including the fact that several groups decided I was wrong…there aren’t just two groups in the class, there are actually three or more.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated as to how the class works through this challenge.  I’ll be blogging about it on my own blog, and students, each day, one from each class, will post on www.pvhsnovalab.wordpress.com.

Published by Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.

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