This prototype included a twist on the use of video as documention. What would it mean to use video as an empathy probe? In this video prototype, I did two variations. One with students from a low-income, mostly immigrant-based public school in downtown Los Angeles (October, 2017), and the other with students from a private Waldorf education school in Stavanger, Norway (October, 2018). Students (high school) were around the same age — between 15 and 18 years-old.
In Los Angeles, particularly, students seemed very concerned about their future, and whether they would be able to be selected for, and afford, higher education. In Norway, students seemed curious about other cultures. They were very surprised to know more about the public school in LA, and seemed shocked to hear some of the issues they were facing (which included cases of legal deportation, and the fact that some of the kids were actually homeless as per US standards).
In both schools, we asked students to do an embodied learning activity that involved movement. The prompt was to embody “what about your learning is not moving forward?”. I recorded their movement in 10–30 second videos, and showed them back, asking “what do you see?”. I introduced an audio recorder, and asked them to look at the video replay, while telling us what happened between the beginning and end of it. I noticed students were very at ease with using the mic recorder. It seemed like they were willing to speak, and have their voices recorded. They also seemed surprised by seeing themselves on video. Most initially laughed. Some seemed very excited about it. A few did seem self-conscious straight away. After that, I took a short time break to do a voice-over. Once we re-convened, I showed them their video, and their own voice narrating what happened. They seemed surprised to hear and see themselves back.
Four months later, I returned to the LA school, and asked the students if they remembered what we had done. I, then, used the video (through one-on-one conversations) to help them evoke what they did. At this time, by seeing their videos back they seemed mostly self-conscious. When asked what they remembered from our embodied learning activities, they mostly cited situations that were not involving this particular video prototype.
What I learned
Initially when some of our team members saw the videos, and heard the students’ voice, there was something quite moving about that. Their voice was tender, the videos had a warm quality. It was surprising to me that even though we did not know much about their actual social and learning challenges, we could empathize by simply seeing them move, and hearing their voice. Something quite intangible about the felt quality of their lives, experiences, and education context had been communicated. Because of that, as a documentation tool, and way of showing an embodied experience on video, I would say the prototype was quite succesful. We later on, showed the video to larger audiences, including teachers and educators from other schools, and many have responded back, sharing how moved they were by watching the students.
As a reflection method, I learned that cameras, and microphones can be very engaging tools for these students. They seemed to already rely heavily on their phones, and constantly be recording videos and photos for social media. Besides that, the tangible, physical materials give them something to directly engage with, and place their attention on. As far as the medium go, they were mostly at ease with the recording itself, and usually eager to see themselves back on the camera. However, when asked to reflect on the embodied learning activity itself, the video at times seemed to overtake their attention. Some times, how they appeared on the camera became the front center of what they took notice during the reflective dialogue. That prompts a reflection on how much the camera/video is helping them or not to reflect better on their embodied experience. To what extent, is it “throwing them off” from their memories? Would they recall as much, or more, from their learning experience if they were prompted with a dialogue by itself, rather than using video as a reflection probe?
The whole experience in Los Angeles was also a learning about the nature of prototyping. Initially I was very concerned that our time with students was very limited (at most we spent one day together in a year, with a particular group). And wondered whether anything we did could be of benefit, given the challenges the school was already facing. There seemed to be so much going on, in and outside the school, for the teachers, students and principal. I faced challenges in understanding the classroom dynamics and wished teachers were more time to spend with us during the program. However, I learned that when we prototype we always work with what we have, and not with ideal situations. When we prototype, we must let go of our pre-conceived ideas about how the situation should be, and instead work from the very reality we encounter, and a sense of gratitude for what the school had been able to offer. Departing from the view that what we encounter is a very workable situation, and from that, something will arise, and we might learn something altogether.
Going forward, I plan to evolve the method of using videos as an empathy probe. By 1. seeking out relevant literature that informs me about other research experiments with video, and what they learned, and 2. focusing on group embodied learning activities, instead of individuals. And play out a situation in which the group has a collective generative conversation on the video, instead of individualized reflections.
Much gratitude to Delia Reid (Stuart Foundation), Cynthia Gonzalez and Dennis Fulgoni (Diego Rivera Learning Complex), and Ingvild Overland (Stavanger Waldorf Steiner School), for welcoming and hosting us. Thank you to the team involved in these prototypes: Arawana Hayashi, Adam Yukelson, Corey Chao, and Ricardo Dutra.
*This written piece is a part of a larger practice-based research initiative involving Monash University, and the Presencing Institute. Ricardo Dutra currently pursues a PhD in Design at Monash University, and works with choreographer Arawana Hayashi developing methods of action research for systems change, within the Presencing Institute.