Teachers are designers. I was a public school teacher for over a decade and am almost finished with a graduate certificate in Interaction Design at the Austin Center for Design. To me, this is an unequivocal statement. Every day, teachers make intentional decisions about how to respond to their class’ needs through intended (and unintended) manipulations of:
- space (walls, furniture, student choreography)
- text (protocols, graphics, posters, adaptations of textbooks)
- connections (through time, content, qualitative and quantitative data)
- interactions (student-to-student, student-to-class, and student-to-teacher).
This list is not exhaustive but does indicate the breadth of the materials that teachers design.
Applying design thinking in the education space is a well-recognized concept. IDEO offers a toolkit for educators, the d.school has a comprehensive set of practices teachers can adopt in their classroom, and there are online professional development platforms micro credentialing teachers in design thinking. Positioning design thinking as a set of tools for teachers to adopt does provide teachers with a framework for building creative confidence, a methodology for connecting teacher practice to the world-of-work, and a shared language to develop project-based curriculum. However, this makes design thinking into a thing that is othered from what teachers are already doing. Ultimately, design thinking becomes just-another-thing, much like any other professional development program. And honestly, it devalues the work reflective teachers are already doing.
Like I said, teachers are designers. It doesn’t matter what kind of curriculum they teach, their school context, or how well-seasoned they are. What does matter is that teachers are reflective. They must believe that teaching is messy, chaotic, and a constant source of growth. Evolving as a teacher means that you put something out there, try to interpret what happened, and then make an informed choice about what to do next. That’s what designers do. So, design thinking isn’t something other. Teaching is design.
As a lifetime educator and designer, the question to me is not how do I train more teachers to be designers. To me, it’s how to help teachers identify as the designers they already are and thus, grow their teaching brain. A core part of my philosophy is that reflective teachers are practicing design all the time as they “…weigh imported student information against their personal context to create a synchronous teacher-student interaction (or synchronous education experience).” (Rodriguez, 2) In the case of most teacher professional development and best practice methodologies, including any of the aforementioned design thinking toolkits and programs, there is an underlying belief that teachers, “…carry out responses to teach the student based on [a] reflexive processing.” In fact, ask any teacher, most professional development turns a student-center practice into a prescriptive list of to-dos. Vanessa Rodriguez, in her book The Teaching Brain, outlines a framework for reconceptualizing the teaching system. She defines spinal cord teaching as an approach that, “…do[es] not require a complex understanding of the student’s learning brain nor are they inclusive of the teacher’s personal context.” In practice, however, teaching is a “dynamic feedback loop” that as it activates and improves it causes students and teachers experience, “…flow and enchanc[ed] productivity.” Master teachers develop a higher-order, systems level thinking about how they choose to “put something out there.”
In short, teachers have long term goals for students. To achieve those goals, teachers produce a thing (be it an utterance, a worksheet, a structured interaction, anything from the list I started this blogpost with…) based on a theory, the thing impacts the world around them, and then, the teacher produces a new thing based on what they perceive to have happened. As they cycle through this process, teachers develop their teaching brain and evolve into masters of the teaching craft.
So to me, it’s a question of what prescribed best practices we need to teach teachers. Instead, we need to reframe how we understand the practice of teaching. At the heart of all of this is honoring the importance of reflection — giving teachers the space to reflect on the impact of their designs (since they are already designing) is integral. Reflection leads to new connections, more complex designs, and ultimately, higher quality teaching.