Feed the Hungry: Applying design thinking principles to invigorate teachers’ professional learning

This blogpost is a written version of the ULearn presentation I gave on 8 October 2015, as the culmination of my CORE eFellowship research. 

 

Here I will seek to share some insights into my research as part of my CORE Education eFellowship where I wondered about how my design thinking pedagogy might invigorate teachers’ professional learning.

By way of an ultra-brief introduction to design thinking, it is a process or methodology of problem finding and creative problem solving that seeks to keep users at its centre. There are various iterations of the process, but the d.School in Stanford, and the NoTosh representations have been most influential in my thinking.

For the purposes of this research, I have focused on the design thinking mindsets, and these have particularly informed my professional learning facilitation in my current capacity as the Postgraduate Programme Director (Wellington) at The Mind Lab by Unitec.

In this role I facilitate a 32 week programme, the first 16 weeks comprise weekly four hour, face-t0-face sessions, ultimately working towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning). I joined The Mind Lab because I was hugely inspired by its founder, Frances Valintine, and her vision of having 10,000 teachers complete the course in the next five years. To me, this represents a real tipping point, a disruption to the New Zealand education system.

Hence, when it came to choose a particular focus from the design thinking mindsets for my research, I gravitated towards ‘bias towards action’ – it wouldn’t be enough for me to contribute towards this disruptive vision with ideas, something tangible and concrete would need to come from the teachers who complete their DCL. I was going to change the world one classroom at a time.

I figured that, if that was my aim, then I had better learn about what makes for effective professional learning. I started with the Timperley et al (2007) Best Evidence Synthesis. And immediately came to a crashing halt. I felt there was a certain arrogance in my role as facilitator – was I assuming I knew better than the teachers who willingly give their precious time to this professional learning opportunity? Were we being upfront with teachers about our assumption/expectation that a shift in their practice is needed? Other facilitators seemed to be provocative, to play the role of devil’s advocate, but I felt I didn’t have the stories or the experience to do that. And isn’t that a bit rude anyway? Who was I as a facilitator?

After thrashing around in the dark for a fair bit, I decided I needed to come back to first principles – those of the design thinking mindsets. What I realised/remembered was that empathy is key to design thinking – it’s actually what separates design thinking from other inquiry or problem-based learning models. Design thinking is user-centred design; it is a deeply human process. I felt much more comfortable with this, but still harboured a secret desire to disrupt…while disliking the word itself…

Then, the amazing Louise Taylor, one of our CORE Education research mentors, handed me the phrase that set me back on the path: “disrupt with humility”. It suddenly all made sense to me. Focus on respectful practice. This aligned perfectly with both my personal and professional values.

So the arc of my research process went like this: reflecting on my own practice and blogging about it; a ‘goldilocks’ survey to find out what the teachers thought I should do more of/less of/was doing just right; listen to teachers to hear their stories, and from this conduct interviews to hear some particular stories in more depth. I unpacked these interviews to tease out ways in which we might disrupt with humility.

Disrupt with Play

I don’t think we value play nearly enough as a powerful learning experience for adults. Every session at The Mind Lab includes a ‘play’ element, and design thinking itself, I have come to see thanks to Keryn Davis, is playing with ideas. In a dedicated design thinking session, one of the teachers on the course, Imogen Warren, was so struck by the process that the following week she instigated a challenge with her class: ‘How might we make Room 9 even better?’ One conclusion the class reached was to have an Imagination Club. The design thinking session sparked a creative force in the class whereby learners are now actively encouraged to explore their creativity and individuality – and thus Imogen reports that it “changed the culture of the class in an afternoon.”

Similarly, another teacher reported that by experiencing a live, hands-on demonstration of a Twitter chat facilitated by me and Tim Gander, Education Director of The Mind Lab in Gisborne one Wednesday evening, this sparked the realisation that Twitter can be a powerful source of professional learning. So much so, that he returned to his own school to spread the word amongst his colleagues.

Disrupt with Dialogue

There is immense power in conversation, humour, asking questions, following tangents. One teacher spoke of how being with a colleague on the course, and car-pooling with this person drove her back onto the path of being interested in leadership. The opportunity for critical reflection and to develop critical friendships was seminal. In fact, the time to converse with fellow teachers, to network across the educator sector, to build a community of practice, was a key theme emerging from the goldilocks survey. Teachers want to connect, to converse, to share their stories, and this is what is most valuable to their learning.

Disrupt with Time

Thus the connector between the themes in my research became obvious to me: time. It takes time to play, to think, to talk, to discuss, to reflect. While the individual stories the teachers generously shared with me were all very different, the concept of having the time to embark on a learning journey came through loud and clear. Because it takes time to learn. We have this myth of a sudden ‘eureka’ moment, but we know this flash of insight or inspiration rarely comes like this. Instead ideas develop iteratively, as a ‘slow hunch‘, combining, building, colliding, from which deep learning occurs.

And these teachers’ stories disrupted my thinking. What were the implications of espousing respectful practice? I began to examine my own assumptions, starting with the very title of this research: ‘Feed the Hungry’ which comes from the phrase ‘feed the hungry; don’t water the stones’. I also referred in my research outlines to ‘willing and curious’ teachers. Who was I to call some teachers ‘stones’? Who was I to judge some teachers as ‘willing’ and thus position others as ‘unwilling’? Where was the respect, the empathy, in that? I began to wonder about the language we use to refer to the so-called ‘resistant teachers’.

Maurie Abraham, principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, gave me a new analogy. What if we ‘invited teachers on the bus?’ He spoke of inviting teachers on a learning journey, on a bus. They could wait at the bus stop if they so chose, but the bus was on a public transport loop and would come around again. At which point, they would be invited on the bus. This warm but demanding metaphor fits much more comfortably with my need for respectful, empathetic practice.

So what have I learned about design thinking as a tool to invigorate teachers’ professional learning? I have come to realise that learning is a deeply emotional experience – it sits right at the heart of who we are as people. Design thinking takes empathy as its core tenet – it has a human-centred focus – and this is why the two fit together so beautifully.

Really, I have come back to where I started: how might we invite teachers on the bus?

List

Acknowledgments

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