Learning Experiences in the Classroom
My journey transforming lesson plans into learning experiences.
I love the start of a new school year: New school supplies, the nervous, smiling faces of incoming students, anxious parents cornering me to tell me all about their child. The beginning of any school year is a fresh start for everyone. Those first days are filled with exploring and discovering all the new information around them. Students meet new classmates and form friendships as they learn about things they have in common with each other. They learn about the expectations and protocols for the new grade level. They learn about their new teacher. I love this time of year because my students get to learn about my likes and dislikes, and I get to start building relationships.
I never like jumping into the academic content right away. I want to get to know my students and build relationships with them. The only way to do that effectively is to take time making personal connections with each of my students, both individually and as a classroom community. I know that if I can connect with my students on a deep level, then when I want push their thinking and their abilities, they are more likely to work hard. I want my students to be authentic and vulnerable in their learning, so I make damn sure that I work to create a space where they can do that. This is my authentic and vulnerable promise to students: if I share my teacher- story with you, and let you push my thinking, then I want you to share your story with me and let me push your thinking. This is a form of constructivist listening (adapted from Becerra & Weissglass, 2004. Take It Up: Leading for Educational Equity). I agree to listen to you and think about you in exchange for you doing the same for me.
Early in my career, I struggled with the transition from relationship building to academic teaching time. It always seemed like such an abrupt shift from getting-to-know-you activities to lectures and covering content. I have since learned that academic content should not be something that is covered, delivered, or distributed on worksheets. Pizzas are delivered. Content needs to be discovered and true discovery comes from building strong relationships. Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge envisions a triangle where the student, the teacher, and the content form the vertices. “The lines between these points represent the reciprocal and interpersonal relationships between students and teachers, the two bound together as part of a larger teaching and learning community” (Stembridge, 2020, p. 88). Students learn for their teachers as much as they learn from their teachers (Skinner & Belmont, 1993; O’Conner, Dearing & Collins, 2011). I would add that my students learn with me as much as for me. I have learned that my classroom can’t be an artificial learning environment where relationships are only built on the first day of school. In the real world, relationships (especially strong and caring ones) are continually strengthened throughout one’s life. Learning is part of those relationships. If I want students to be lifelong learners, then I need to build trust with each of my students and help them build strong relationships with each other as well as with the content. They will carry those relationships with them throughout their lives. That’s how the real world works.
We rarely sit down and “cover” something that we want to learn. Humans are exploratory creatures. For example, one year, I observed that many of my male students were disinterested in reading. No matter the reading assignment, or novel study, a group of about 15 boys would always disengage and start to interrupt the learning of the other students. I spent time talking with them trying to understand their disengagement so that I could find ways to inspire them to love literature. I was struggling. One day, T, an out-going, goofy boy, told me that he loved superheroes. Awesome! I love Superman myself, so this was an easy connection to make. We started chatting about various comics, Marvel versus DC, Superman versus the Flash, etc., and I discovered that T actually reads a ton of comic books at home. It wasn’t that he was disengaged with reading on the whole, just with the types of reading that we were doing in class. I went home that day and scoured my basement for my childhood comic book collection. When I brought it to school, that entire group of boys who hated reading, suddenly were enraptured with my comic books! We had amazing conversations about plot, conflict and solution, inferences, and many more of the story elements and reading strategies I had been trying to teach them before. I immediately decided to learn everything I could about using comic literature in the classroom and how I could teach reading using comic books and graphic novels.
I did NOT enroll in a comic book/graphic novel course and listen to innumerable lectures on the benefits of and strategies for teaching using comic books.
I did NOT complete worksheets in order to test my understanding of how best to use comic literature in my classroom.
I did NOT take a final test to demonstrate my understanding of using comic books to teach reading.
I went to my local comic book store and talked with the owners about the best comics that were age-appropriate for ten-year-olds. I went online and researched the best strategies for teaching comic literature. I wanted to know if anyone else was using comic books and graphic novels in their classroom and if they were having success. I immersed myself in the world of comic literature and discovered the best ways to teach reading strategies to my students using this medium. I learned a ton! I made mistakes, regrouped and tried again. I designed an entire set of learning resources for teachers in my building, pairing certain graphic novels or comic books with specific reading strategies. I became a better teacher and my students better readers.
This is how the real world works. When we want to learn something, we immerse ourselves in our interests and let curiosity drive our learning. We form a relationship with the concept. We figure out what resources we need to learn something particular, and when we fail or make a mistake, we pivot and move in another direction, finding different learning resources we hadn’t discovered before. I was able to learn how best to use comic literature in my classroom to teach reading in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to enroll in a specific professional learning workshop or online course. I quickly entered a flow state where I binged, reflected, and tinkered with my new learning. Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. People are happiest (and learning the most) when “they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation” (“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”, 2017). It is often referred to as getting in the zone or a runner’s high. When you enter a flow state, you are so absorbed that nothing else seems to matter. The challenge of what you are trying to learn is at the same level as your skill or current understanding of the topic you are learning about. You are not bored, disinterested, or anxious. You are in a state of heightened and continuous learning.
Teaching reading strategies using using comic literature, while engaging ALL my students (both boys and girls), I learned how to adapt my existing reading curriculum (basal readers and novel studies) in order to better integrate a new resource (comic books and graphic novels). The innovative part happened when I was able to create a completely new learning experience for my students that used comic literature and was based on research-based best practices, my learning goals, and the needs of my individual students.
This was one of my early attempts at shifting from delivering a lesson plan to designing a learning experience.
What is the difference between a lesson plan and a learning experience?
As educators, we understand the lesson plan. As pre-service teachers, we were expected to create lesson plans to be graded by our professors. In some school districts, teachers are still expected to submit lesson plans to their administrator for approval. How often have you thought about the purpose of a lesson plan. What really is a lesson plan? Put simply, a lesson plan is a teacher’s detailed description of the course of instruction. Some educational texts refer to this as the “learning trajectory” for a lesson (although I have never heard teachers use this term). A daily lesson plan is developed by a teacher to guide class learning. Details will vary depending on the preference of the teacher and subject being covered. In some cases, teachers will also adapt their lesson plan to better serve the needs of their students. This guide can also include the goal (what the students are supposed to learn), how the goal will be reached (the method, procedure) and a way of measuring how well the goal was reached (test, worksheet, homework).
What’s missing from this definition? Traditional lesson plans miss having a strong purpose or meaning. In Japan, there is a specific term for this type of purpose: ikigai. It embodies the idea of happiness in living. In the United States, many understand ikigai as an overlapping intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Ikigai is something deeper, however. It’s the reason people wake up in the morning.
In 2001, Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University wrote about how the word ikigai is a vital part of everyday Japanese language. It is composed of two words: iki, which means life and gai, which describes value or worth. According to Hasegawa, the origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). “Gai comes from the word kai (“shell” in Japanese, considered highly valuable), and from there ikigai derived as a word that means value in living” (Hasegawa & Hoshi, 2001). Over time, ikigai evolved to be thought of as a comprehensive concept that incorporates such values in life.
Hasegawa points out that in English, the word life means both lifetime and everyday life. So, ikigai translated as life’s purpose sounds very grand. “But in Japan we have jinsei, which means lifetime and seikatsu, which means everyday life,” says Hasegawa. The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu and, through his research, Hasegawa discovered that Japanese people believe that the sum of everyday small joys results in more a fulfilling life as a whole (Mitsuhashi, 2017).
How many lesson plans have you seen that explicitly identify the value of the learning experience in a format similar to ikigai? Most lesson plans are not designed with a strong sense of life purpose or passion or the needs of a community. Students don’t remember lessons 20 years later. They barely remember them once the bell rings! By definition lesson plans are an isolated incident, something that occurs (even if planned) that is meant to come and go without much impact. Some classroom projects can be memorable, but lesson plans tend to be a collection of brief activities that move a child from one day to the next, from one grade level to the next, without much thought placed on how these activities make the students feel and what impact they have on students’ lives (remember The Power of Moments from my blog post: Creativity in the Classroom)?
Authentic and meaningful learning experiences show students (in fact, allow them to feel) the infinite learning possibilities available to all of us on any given day at any given moment.
Mandated moments throughout the year, do not promote a discovery of ideas. Ideas are not singular moments of insight and genius that are assessed after a number of weeks. Ideas form in networks and networks are interconnected to form learning experiences. This is the concept of the adjacent potential, which originated from Stuart Kauffman and his work in biological evolution. Without getting too technical and scientific, Kauffman, a theoretical biologist, was interested in biological self-organization and the origins of order in nature. He describes a system that is interconnected. Opportunities for growth or evolution are only available because they expand on what is currently available. These innovations build new connections upon existing elements (for a more detailed description, see The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution).
In his book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson simplifies the adjacent potential (or possible) in order to illustrate how various innovations came to fruition. He explains:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations (Johnson, 2015).
In other words, “generating new ideas is a process of looking for ideas that are adjacent to ideas that are already out there” (Khuon, 2014). This suggests that any idea (even the absolutely crazy ones) are possible, but only once you have explored your current surroundings, ideas, new learnings, etc.
There are lots of examples of the adjacent potential. If YouTube was launched in the mid 1990s, it would not have been successful because we did not have the Internet, nor the software (or mindset) to record and post videos online. Think about the printing press. The printing press was only possible once moveable type, paper, and ink all existed. Before those other innovations, the idea of mass-producing text was unthinkable!
So, what does this mean in the classroom? Educators must move away from a passive delivery of lesson plans that do not promote a learning environment conducive to adjacent potentials. How can we design learning experiences that capture students’ creative potential so that they experience breakthrough ideas that build on existing knowledge throughout the school year?
Allow for cross-pollination in your classroom
Flash. Stroke of genius. Epiphany. The lightbulb moment. Eureka! These are metaphors we use to describe having an idea, especially an innovative or creative idea. Ideas are not single things. They do not occur in illuminating moments of inspiration. An idea is a network. A brand-new idea is a new configuration of neural networks firing inside your brain that have never fired in this particular configuration before. How do we create a classroom environment that encourages lots of innovation and creativity? Innovation occurs when we “take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop, and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new” (Johnson, 2010). Students come to us with tons of random bits of knowledge and information from a myriad of unique experiences. In order for them to be able to combine these personal experiences in unique ways to form creative ideas, we need to design our classrooms to encourage cross-pollination. Think of hummingbirds. They fly from flower to flower drinking nectar throughout the day. By doing this, they are inadvertently taking bits of pollen or seeds from one place and transporting to new locations. Flowers then flourish wherever the hummingbird flies. In order for ideas to flourish, we need to create a “liquid network” where students can collaborate and pick up bits of information from a variety of classmates and subjects and then have many opportunities to share their thinking and recombine ideas in novel ways.
Sit with hunches in your classroom
Great ideas almost never occur in Eureka! moments. Instead, many breakthrough ideas take a long time to evolve, marinating in our brains before we turn them into a specific learning experience for our students. It is important to teach students (and to understand as teachers) that not all ideas (or learning experiences) are big blasts of inspiration. It is okay to be curious about a hunch, sit with it for a while and explore the possibilities. Steven Johnson tells us that innovative ideas are born out of collisions of other, sometimes smaller ideas. Ideas need time to incubate and we, as teachers, need to allow for exploration and curiosity, both in our classroom and in our planning brains. This is often difficult because public education revolves around strict lesson plans, curriculum mapping timetables, and standardized testing. However, if we create expectations in our classroom that students should be thinking about their thinking (metacognition), we give them natural chances to sit with their hunches. Instead of rushing students to regurgitate answers, try designing a learning experience that encourages them to collaborate with others and share their hunches with classmates. When multiple hunches collide, this is the start of a spectacular and innovative idea!
Encourage collaboration in your classroom
When two or more people are voluntarily working together towards a shared goal, they are collaborating. Collaboration is such an important skill for students and adults. Although human beings are social creatures, collaboration isn’t necessarily easy for everyone; however, true innovation comes from being a part of a learning community where there is time to think critically, and re-energize our love of learning. If we force students to work in isolation, we are robbing them of opportunities to share, support their classmates, learn together, and be creative and innovative. We want students to exchange ideas and insights with each other. This can happen in the both classroom and cafeteria; in the hallway or on the playground. You may argue that lunch and recess are social, and not much deep learning is taking place. I disagree! In these environments, students are learning about sharing and testing ideas all while collaborating with their peers.
At its best, learning is a social act. Student collaboration and discussion promote deep understanding and are essential elements of an engaging classroom experience. Having a structure for collaboration is the best way to ensure that your students are able to continually collaborate across a variety of topics/problems.
Encourage failing in your classroom
Failure is part of any learning cycle. We all use what we learn from our first try to help us redesign better solutions to the problems we are facing. Not only can you create a classroom environment that encourages failing, you should embrace failure as a necessary part of all learning. Failing is scary because of how vulnerable we feel when we mess up. However, being innovative has never meant being fearless. Pushing through our fear of failure is a huge part of creativity, innovation, and changing the world. We all love guarantees, but if you want to do something that no one has ever done before, or create something out of nothing, or inspire your students, then you need to be uncertain and live in that uncertainty. Not only is it important to teach your students to ask themselves Am I sure this is going to work, it is also vital educators practice and model living in that discomfort when things don’t work as planned. Creating innovative learning experiences is not about never failing; it is about failing and learning over and over and over again.
Remix in your classroom
We need to get rid of the idea that new ideas have to be completely new or that every lesson plan has to start from scratch. How often have you thought, Everything cool has already been invented or while trying to solve a problem, you discover that a solution you didn’t know about already exists? This happens all the time in the classroom. Students come up with what they think is an amazing idea only to have another classmate (or teacher) tell them that it already exists. The result is often a crushing blow to their creativity. Many teachers resist creating new learning experiences because they feel that it will be too time-consuming and overwhelming to start from nothing. So much of creativity is about taking what already exists and remixing it to create something different. I love the video series Everything is a Remix! Since it first came out 12 years ago, there have been more and more examples added about how things, concepts, scenes in movies, songs, etc., once originated (partially) in another format elsewhere. For example, the original video contains tons of musical melodies that have been borrowed to create new songs.
What does remixing look like in the classroom? Just because an idea exists, does not mean that we can’t make it better. In fact, many students (including me) often work more creatively when given an existing template of sorts. Instead of asking students to create new every time, we should ask them, How can you take this and make it better/use it in a different context? Maybe a student has a cool project from a previous year. Instead of not allowing it for your project, remix. Maybe you have a favorite lesson that want to improve. Remix!
If you want research supporting the idea of remixing, “evolutionary biologists use the term expatiation to describe the phenomenon where a trait originally developed for a specific purpose is eventually used in a completely different way. Feathers, for example, originally evolved as a method for temperature regulation, but today their airfoil-shape helps birds fly” (Blinkist, 2013).
Designing Learning Experiences
Student recognizes the genius of Thomas Edison. They recite, “He invented the lightbulb!” In fact, as Steven Johnson explains, Edison’s “greatest achievement may have been the way he figured out how to make teams creative: assembling diverse skills in a work environment that valued experimentation and accepted failure, incentivizing the group with financial rewards that were aligned with the overall success of the organization, and building on ideas that originated elsewhere” (Johnson, 2010, p. 212). Instead of inventing the lightbulb singlehandedly, Edison created a system for fostering innovation and creativity in others.
In a classroom where the teacher follows a recycled or prescribed lesson plan, students follow the teacher’s thinking; they passively consume the information and reproduce it in a teacher-approved format. In a classroom where the teacher has intentionally designed culturally responsive learning experiences, students are guided by intuition, leading them to trigger positive chain reactions of innovation. When teachers structure their classroom for the adjacent potential, they are communicating to their students that invention and iteration go hand in hand. “Big ideas coalesce out of smaller breakthroughs” (Johnson, 2010, p. 213). The physicist, Vittorio Loreto, describes the metaphor of having “waves of novelties” whereas the “tides hold the classics” (Loreto, 2018). New ideas come from sitting with old ideas every day and connecting them with other ideas (he recommends spending 80% of your time revisiting old ideas and 20% exploring new ideas). Periodically, we will experience a wave (new idea) and this can then be recombined with “the classics” (older ideas) in order to form something radically innovative. This dynamic learning environment is only possible when you plan in terms of memorable learning experiences (or defining moments as Chip and Dan Heath describe). Not lesson plans.
Yes, planning is important. But, planning to cover the curriculum is not the same thing as designing a learning experience for your students that aligns with the curriculum. One captures the discrete tasks students will need to complete in order to reach an arbriatery goal; the other captures both the limits and creative potential of change and innovation. By structuring your classroom so that ideas flow naturally, you automatically encourage students to be more creative through increased productive interactions with each other. When students are allowed time and space to play around with their collective ideas, innovative solutions (and your students) flourish. One idea leads to another and another and another.
You probably notice how central the student is to designing learning experiences. If you want experiences that are innovative and tailored to meet the needs of your students, you must start with the student. When you understand your students, and design from their perspective, your students will not only accept the learning experience, but will be thrilled to actively participate in it. This is human-centered design.
A standard lesson plan has about seven components: necessary materials, objectives, some attention to drawing from the background knowledge of students, direct teacher instruction, some student practice, a closure activity, and some demonstration of student learning in the form of an assessment (formative or summative) (for a more detailed description of instructional strategies, see Marzano’s, 2007 The Art and Science of Teaching). When designing a powerful learning experience that is culturally responsive to your students, I believe that it is better to think of a shift in mindset, rather than a collection of elements or strategies.
Being human-centered is at the core of IDEO’s innovation process. It is both how you think and what you design as a result. IDEO believes that “deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration” (Kelley, 2013, p. 21). By empathizing with the end user, IDEO tackles real-world problems with creativity and imagination and creates more innovative and effective solutions. As a teacher, my “end-users” are my students. Instead of delivering lessons, I want to design an educational experience that will enrich their lives and emotionally engage them. Using design thinking as a framework and human-centered design as a fundamental mindset, you can build experiences and opportunities for active student engagement and participation.
In 2009, IDEO designed and launched the HCD (Human-centered Design) Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind book that laid out how and why human-centered design can impact the social sector. In short order, a community of designers, entrepreneurs, and social sector innovators embraced it, buying and downloading over 150,000 copies. Although not directed to educators, the mindsets and methods they lay out encourage everyone to apply human-centered design to some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe public education is one of those problems.
These Mindsets explore and uncover the philosophy behind IDEO’s approach to creative problem solving, and have taught me how to use design thinking to create innovative and impactful student learning experiences.
I discussed in an earlier blog post how having a creative mindset led to the opening of Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) on Stanford University’s campus. As David Kelley, founder of IDEO, explains, “creative confidence is the notion you have big ideas, and that you have the ability to act on them” (Kelley, 2013, p. 6). There is no doubt that designing learning experiences is a big idea; much larger than following a prescribed lesson plan.
I believe that any educator can approach their pedagogy using human-centered design thinking. Teachers are problem solvers; all they need is a healthy dose of creative confidence! “Creative confidence is the belief that everyone is creative, and that creativity isn’t the capacity to draw or compose or sculpt, but a way of approaching the world” (Kelley, 2013, p. 3).
Creative confidence is a quality that teachers can rely on when it comes to taking risks in the classroom and trusting their intuition even if they haven’t totally figured things out. It’s a bias toward action and self-efficacy: the belief that you can and will come up with creative solutions and you have the confidence that all it takes is rolling up your sleeves and diving in.
Students are taught to empathize with their peers. Designers are trained to empathize with their end user. When designing a learning experience, there are no shortcuts; you must take time to connect with your students. Effective teachers know their students. Instead of teaching what you think your students need, if you really know your students (and all of the identity intersections that make up your students), then you see their schooling experience through their eyes. Empathy takes time and energy to build, but it is time well spent. Knowing your students helps you gain insights into their educational needs.
Public education is all about big data. Students become data points instead of living beings. The great news is that having a strong sense of empathy does not conflict with “big data.” Researchers have developed a “hybrid-insights” approach that “integrates quantitative research into human-centered design thinking. Hybrid insights allow us to embed stories in the data, bringing the data to life” (Kelley, 2013, p. 89). Being an effective teacher does not mean that you have to separate your students from their data. When you empathize with your students, you leave behind your preconceived ideas and outmoded ways of thinking. Empathizing with your students is the best route to truly grasping the context and complexities of their lives. Every student has a story and those stories provide latent needs for their educational experiences.
Teachers are taught to avoid risk and ambiguity. When John Spencer (2016) asks: Am I sure this will work? what he is really asking is Am I comfortable with taking a risk? Unfortunately, for most of our teachers, the answer is no. Teachers like to know things. They like to know what to expect and what students will learn when they deliver a planned lesson. However, many teachers have what professors Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer call a “knowing-doing gap: the space between what we know we should do and what we actually do” (Kelley, 2013, p. 119). They know that they should make learning more engaging and personalized, but they actually just follow the prescribed curriculum map because it is less risky. They often become paralyzed with fear because ambiguity is uncomfortable.
The start of every school year (and in fact, the start of every single day) is a new chance to start from a place of not knowing the answer. What will this group of students need today? Even though it is not comfortable, sitting in discomfort allows teachers to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions. By embracing ambiguity and trusting that a human-centered design process will guide them toward an innovative answer, teachers give themselves permission to be fantastically creative. Embracing ambiguity frees us to design learning experiences that pursue answers we can’t initially imagine. It puts us (and our students) on a path to routine innovation and lasting impact.
Prototyping is a great way to de-risk a choice you may be uncertain about. When you create a working prototype (whether a physical model or a learning experience), you create a small experiment to test a theory. As Krista Donaldson,CEO of D-Rev, says, “You’re taking risk out of the process by making something simple first. And you always learn lessons from it.” Prototyping an experience will give you a tangible sign of progress toward a goal. For example, designers often storyboard what is known as a “customer journey.” This journey map allows designers to imagine what will happen when a customer “passes from the beginning of a service experience to the end” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 100). Every moment with a customer is a design opportunity.
This is so applicable to our students’ school experiences! Students spend on average about six and a half hours a day in school. Each school year is about 180 days, which calculates to roughly 1,170 hours with their teacher and classmates. With so much time in the classroom, there are ample opportunities to design memorable learning experiences or touchpoints. A touchpoint is any point in an experience when the user interacts with that experience. This is what Tim Brown calls the “fourth dimension, designing with time (p 138). He continues, “when we create multiple touchpoints along a customer journey, we are structuring a sequence of events that build upon one another” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 138). There are many touchpoints (and design opportunities) throughout a given school day. Prototyping these student touchpoints “gives form to an idea, allowing us to learn from it, evaluate it against others, and improve upon it” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 100). This is the very definition of continual improvement for the lifelong learners we hope our students become.
With human-centered design thinking, teachers begin to see themselves as doers, tinkerers, crafters, and builders. Instead of passively implementing a prescribed curriculum, teachers experiment and get their ideas out of their heads and into the classroom of students. As Brené Brown says in her book, Rising Strong, “we are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being. Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands” (Brown, 2015, p. 7). It doesn’t matter what you use (cardboard and duct tape versus a learning management system and other digital tools), the goal is always to convey an idea for a new learning experience, share it, and learn how to make it better.
Learn From Failure
I have discussed failing and failure a lot throughout these blog posts. John Spencer (2016) encourages us to see that failing is temporary and should be encouraged in a creative classroom. When you (or any of your students) think of yourself as a failure, you see it as a permanent character flaw. This stops the learning, which stops innovative thinking. In my classroom, I have been known to use the acronym F.A.I.L. (First Attempt in Learning) with students as a way for them to understand the importance of failing forward. Astro Teller believes that failing, when seen properly, is just a recognition of accelerated learning. Tim Brown from IDEO redefines the word altogether: “Don’t think of it as failure, think of it as designing experiments through which you’re going to learn” (Brown & Kātz, 2019, p. 23). At IDEO they often say, “Fail early to succeed sooner.”
Failure is an incredibly powerful learning tool for both teachers and students. Designing learning experiments, prototypes, and interactions and then testing them is at the heart of human-centered design. Up front, there is an understanding that not all of your ideas are going to work. It is important to discover the Achilles’ heel of any learning experience as quickly as possible so that you can pivot or move onto something else. As teachers try to disrupt traditional classroom practices with innovative learning experiences, they are bound to fail. The key is to learn something from every failure.
Public education needs a new relationship with experimentation and failure. “When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work — even when it is confounding them” (Catmull, 2014, p. 113). Students can be confounding! Instead of getting frustrated and complaining, human-centered design thinking allows us to get excited when we are confronted with a challenge. Experiments become fact-finding missions that are celebrated in public education. Instead of relying on the traditional “best practices” of the past, teachers should be trusted to take risks. At Pixar, Ed Catmull understands the importance of establishing a culture of trust. “The antidote to fear is trust. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it. Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t” (Catmull, 2014, p. 125). Teachers must be trusted to do their jobs and do them well. Afterall, teaching is a vulnerable profession and teachers have dedicated their lives to the craft of teaching students (I talk more about fear and vulnerability in this blog post).
When teachers share a human-centered design process for innovating in the classroom and embrace the failures along the way, not only do they model this mindset for students, but they are not held back by past failures. Tina Seelig, professor at the d.school has her students write a “failure resume” every semester that highlights their biggest mistakes. “Viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forces them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way” (Seelig, 2009, p. 71). If we want to model lifelong learning for our students, then we need to reframe (for them and for ourselves) failures as learning experiments. The more the better!
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
Human-centered design in the classroom is an inherently iterative approach to solving problems because it takes feedback from the students you are designing for and highlights that feedback, making it a critical part of how learning experiences evolves. By continually iterating, refining, and improving our learning experiences, we put ourselves in a place where we’ll have more ideas, try a variety of approaches, unlock our creativity, and arrive more quickly at successful and impactful solutions.
We iterate because we know that we won’t get it right the first time. Or even the second. Nobody ever said teaching and learning would be easy. We may have expertise in certain content areas, but just like UCLA’s longtime basketball coach, John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Just because we have taught for a number of years, doesn’t mean that we still don’t have more to learn about our craft. Iteration allows teachers the opportunity to explore, to get it wrong, to follow our hunches, but ultimately arrive at a learning experience that is engaging for both students and teachers. We iterate because it allows us to keep learning. Instead of hiding out in the teacher’s lounge, betting (or hoping!) that an old lesson plan will work the same (or didn’t — we tend to have selective memory about our failures from previous years) we quickly try something in the classroom and let our students guide us.
It is difficult to be optimistic about public education today. There are so many nay-sayers about how things are run and how the system is broken. Make no mistake, our American educational system isn’t designed for every child to be successful. The COVID-19 pandemic called attention to just how broken it is. The problems in education are complex in nature: American schools were not designed to authentically educate students of color. Instead, schools in the United States marginalize and under-educate children of color, frequently causing lasting and irreparable harm. In order to address issues of disproportionality and racial predictability in the lowest and highest achieving students, teachers must “engage in narratives that compel [them] to synthesize [their] knowledge and transform it into direct and measurable action” (Singleton & Comer, 2013, p. 7). In order to design equitable learning experiences that support traditionally underperforming students of color, we, as educational leaders, need to develop adequate indicators for schools to close inequity gaps. Teachers should be trained using anti-racist pedagogical frameworks that support marginalized students and accurately measure their success. The current metrics are not sufficient.
Restructuring our educational system so that all children reach their full academic potential is not an easy task. In fact, “thinking our way toward progress or taking action as a single individual is not likely to make any great impact on the powerful systems of oppression we face as teachers” and lived experience students of color face in their classrooms (Gutierrez, 2016, p. 274). Does this mean that all hope is lost? That we should just abandon optimism and resign ourselves for a pessimistic reality?
Absolutely not! As John Bielenberg, co-founder of Future Partners says, “Optimism is the thing that drives you forward.” I believe in the power to improve public education for all students. I believe that human-centered design thinking is inherently optimistic. To take on a big challenge, especially one as large and intractable as disrupting the status quo and redesigning for a equitable and anti-racist public education system, we have to believe that progress is an option. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t try. Optimism is the embrace of possibility, the idea that even if we don’t know the answer, that it’s out there and that we can find it together.
Human-centered teachers that design with their students in mind, are persistently and optimistically focused on what could be, not the countless obstacles that may get in the way. Constraints are inevitable, and often they push teachers toward unexpected solutions. But it’s our core animating belief that shows just how deeply optimistic human-centered designers are: Every problem is solvable. This is moonshot thinking. I believe that we have failed to redesign public education not because we don’t know what or how to change, but because we only focus on making small gains. Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google X, knows that “when you are working to make things only 10 percent better, you inevitably focus on the existing tools, structures, and assumptions, and then build on top of those existing solutions. Such incremental progress is driven by extra effort, extra money, and extra resources.” Sound familiar?
Teller explains that “when you aim for a 10x gain, you lean instead on bravery and creativity — the kind that, literally and metaphorically, can put a man on the moon. You’ve all heard the story before: Without a clear path to success when we started, we accomplished in less than a decade a dream several generations in the making.” This is the origin of the term moonshot thinking. Thinking big requires optimism. An abundance of optimism. As educational leaders, we need to understand the size of this challenge will actually motivate people more. Bigger challenges create passion. Redesigning public education is one of the biggest challenges we face today.
So, how do we get started?
Human-centered design is a practical, repeatable approach that helps us arrive at innovative solutions to difficult problems. IDEO developed a set of Methods as a step-by-step guide to unleashing creativity, putting the people (in our case, students) we serve at the center of our design process to come up with new answers to difficult problems.
IDEO believes that the creative process contains multiple cycles of iteration, and with each phase, a team moves closer to a refined solution. Divergent and convergent thinking move us from one iteration to the next. In divergence, we go wide to find insights and generate new ideas. In convergence, we narrow our focus by refining ideas and synthesizing information (It is important to note that design thinking is best used with a collaborative team. This is not to say that you cannot move through a design thinking process alone, but you will inherently gain more creative ideas when working as a team of teacher-designers). The series of divergence and convergence moves us through three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.
Inspiration is about people. When you start with empathy, you get to know the people you are designing for. Teachers need to get to know the students they are designing for. This is a divergent stage because you are gaining as much information as possible. Designers often create a persona, or a representation of the needs, thoughts and goals of the target user. By creating a persona, it prevents designers from generalizing all users into one bucket and thinking that everyone has the same needs and goals. Teachers suffer from this all the time when they think that how they taught a particular lesson will work every year with any student. Personas are designed to help designers empathize with individuals. Designers gain inspiration through interviews and observation so that they truly understand the hopes, needs, feelings, and desires of those they are designing for.
What does this look like for teachers? Well, interest surveys are a decent place to start. Unfortunately, I have seen many teachers give the survey and never use the information. Instead of interviewing your students at the beginning of the school year, I suggest taking time each day to identify details from your students’ lives and identities that you can integrate into future learning experiences. It isn’t about having a list of interests for each student, but more about authentically getting to know each of your students. Think of it this way: would you rather have a friend that has a list of your favorite foods, movies, and music and may or may not reference it before you hang out? Or, would you rather have a friend that knows that you love the movie The Princess Bride because you always watched that movie with your dad when you were home sick from school. Which of these friends shows a more authentic friendship?
Once designers have a ton of information, it is time to converge and synthesize. Synthesizing all of the collected data helps designers make sense of everything that they have heard or observed, and then allow them to start ideating. During the ideation phase, designers generate tons of ideas (through brainstorming), identify opportunities for design (prototyping), and test and refine innovation solutions. Linus Pauling famously said, “If you want a good idea, start with a lot of ideas.” Ideation is about quantity, not quality, so IDEO has rules for brainstorming: (1) Defer judgement; (2) Encourage wild ideas; (3) Build on the ideas of others; (4) Stay focused on the topic; (5) One conversation at a time; (6) Be visual; and (7) Go for quantity. Ideation consists of both divergent activities (like brainstorming) and convergent activities (like prototyping and testing).
What does this look like for teachers? Well, you need lots of ideas for upcoming learning experiences. The best way to brainstorm is to have a group of fellow teachers that you can brainstorm and plan with throughout the year. However, if you are a lone teacher who doesn’t have a strong educator network, why not involve your students? You’re designing for them, so why not get their ideas for future learning experiences?
This convergent phase gives designers a chance to bring their solution to life. Piloting prototypes “in the wild” (or in the classroom) is a great way to gain insight as to what is working and not working. The implementation phase can have multiple rounds depending on what is learned during “beta” tests. As designers are gaining feedback on their solution (or as teachers are gaining feedback on their upcoming learning experience), they are already iterating for the next learning experiment.
At the end of any design cycle, there is always a debrief session. It is important to reflect on the lessons learned throughout the design process. What does this look like for teachers? This is the messy part of teaching. Most times, you just saddle up and try out an idea to see if it will resonate with your particular students. Don’t assume anything! Just because your boys loved reading comic books in the classroom last year, doesn’t mean that using superheroes in your reading learning experience this year will work with your current boys.
Having both the mindset and a process to follow, teachers can design creative and culturally responsive learning experiences for their students. In fact, IDEO now offers a Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators that adapts their creative process and methods of design specifically for K-12 education. IDEO has spent countless hours in classrooms, teacher’s lounges, and hallways of private, public, and charter schools. They have met with teachers and administrators and spoke with professionals that work with educators. IDEO definitely practices what they preach!
Learning Experiences are Greater than Lesson Plans
In the late 90’s, the idea of listening to a lecture online did not sound very appealing. However, in the early 2000s, there was a powerful convergence among three fields: technology, entertainment and design. With the recent invention of an online video-sharing platform the year before, the world was about to learn that listening to and watching a lecture online was the best way to share great ideas globally. The TED conference was created by Chris Anderson as an outlet for people to share their passions with the world. TEDtalks quickly became a reliable way to be inspired on demand. What made TEDtalks great were the format, the breadth of content, and the commitment to seek out the most interesting people on Earth and let them communicate their passion.
In February of 2006, a relatively unknown author and educator took the stage to give a speech on the gaps in our educational system, the importance of creativity and the multiple types of intelligences that should be considered in public education. He pleaded with viewers for a radical rethink of our school system. At the official TED conference, Sir Ken Robinson told us, “We are educating people out of their creativity.”
Not much has changed in the fifteen years since his viral TED talk. Many students do not see themselves as creative beings because the school system still doesn’t encourage and facilitate creative thinking. Many teachers feel constrained and underappreciated. Teaching is an art form. As Robinson explained in his 2015 book, Creative Schools, “the core role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. It may seem unnecessary to say that, but much of what teachers are expected to do is something other than teaching” (Robinson & Aronica, 2015, p. 101). Much of what today’s teachers are expected to do is akin to micromanaging student behavior; rewarding compliance over creativity. The power of brilliant teaching comes from engaging and empowering students to be the best possible person they can be.
Being a teacher today is vastly different than being a teacher 20+ years ago. Today, we have more access to learning, resources, and materials in comparison to world leaders just two decades ago. We need to do school differently. That was clear in 2006 when Sir Ken Robinson extolled the virtues of creativity in public education. It is even more true today. In order to bring out the most in our students (and ourselves as educators), we need to design powerful learning experiences that prepare students to innovate and create a just and equitable world. When teachers use human-centered design thinking with their students, they are being student-centered.
True equity and justice in the classroom occur when teachers build authentic relationships with their students in service to creating an environment that is conducive to experiential learning. I believe that learning experiences are greater than lesson plans. When teachers spend time creating an experience where their individual students connect what they are learning to their culture, environment, community, etc., this is when magic happens in the classroom.
Students want to feel that their academic pursuits and hard work mean something and are worth their time and effort. Rigorous and challenging learning experiences promote deep learning because “learning is optimized when students are involved in activities that require complex thinking and the application of knowledge” (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009). Learning can be both fun and rigorous; engaging and responsive.
All students crave academic experiences that mirror their everyday lives. Students have a desire to feel efficacious with regards to their cultural and academic identities. Teachers want to be trusted to do what they feel is best for their students. Therefore, it is up to teachers and other school leaders to connect learning to students’ lives both inside and outside of the classroom. Using human-centered design thinking to create learning experiences in the classroom will engage students in experiential learning and contribute to their development of content knowledge. Learning experiences, not lesson plans, help students connect their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and academic abilities to the world around them.
When you turn lessons into learning experiences, the day-to-day work of school becomes innovative and students come to expect extraordinary EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Becerra, A. & Weisglass, J. (2004). Take It Up: Leading for Educational Equity. Santa Barbara: The National Coalition for Equity and Education.
Blinkist. (2013, November 27). The key lessons from “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson. Retrieved from https://medium.com/key-lessons-from-books/the-key-lessons-from-where-good-ideas-come-from-by-steven-johnson-1798e11becdb
Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage, London, second edition.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong: The reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Brown, T., & Kātz, B. (2019). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY, NY: HarperBusiness.
Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York, NY: Random House.
Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Ferguson, K. (2016). Everything is a Remix. Retrieved from https://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series
Gutierrez, R. (2016). Nesting in nepantla: The importance of maintaining tensions in our work. In Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms (Vol. 1, pp. 253–281). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
Hagopian, J. (2015). We Can Win: Social Justice Advocacy Inside and Outside of the Classroom. In S. Nieto (Author), Why we teach now (pp. 202–210). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hasegawa A., Fujiwara Y., and Hoshi T. (2001) The Review of IKIGAI on the Relationship of Ikigai and Well-being in the Elderly, Comprehensive urban studies, №75., pp.147–170.
Hess, K., Carlock, D., Jones, B., & Walkup, J. (2009). What exactly do “fewer, clearer, and higher standards” really look like in the classroom? Using a cognitive rigor matrix to analyze curriculum, plan lessons, and implement assessments. In Hess’ Local Assessment Toolkit: Exploring Cognitive Rigor.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From. Retreived from https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from/up-next?language=en
Johnson, S. (2015). How we got to now: Six innovations that made the modern world. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, NY: Crown Business.
Khuon, T. (2014, June 27). What Experts Are Saying About the Adjacent Possible. Retrieved from http://agilelifestyle.net/the-adjacent-possible
Lopez, J. (2015). Teaching for Social Justice and Community Empowerment. In S. Nieto (Author), Why we teach now (pp. 173–182). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Loreto, V. (2018). Need a new idea? Start at the edge of what is known. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/vittorio_loreto_need_a_new_idea_start_at_the_edge_of_what_is_known
Mitsuhashi, Y. (2017). Ikigai: A Japanese concept to improve work and life. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170807-ikigai-a-japanese-concept-to-improve-work-and-life
Nieto, S. (2006). Why we teach. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Nieto, S. (2015). Why we teach now. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
O’Connor, E. E., Dearing, E., & Collins, B. A. (2011). Teacher-Child Relationship and Behavior Problem Trajectories in Elementary School. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 120–162. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831210365008
Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative schools: The grassroots revolution that’s transforming education. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Seeling, T. (2009). What I wish I knew when I was 20. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Singleton, G. E., & Comer, J. P. (2013). More courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Skinner, E. A., & Belmont, M. J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 571–581.
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race ethnicity and education, 8(1), 69–91.