Deficit & Delight

Unpacking how educators might think of design

Image used with permission, ©CO.LAB

To support the Internet of Things edition of Company Lab’s (CO.LAB) latest 48Hour Launch (48HL) event, mentors from across Mozilla met at Hive Chattanooga to help local educators and entrepreneurs prototype the future of civic and educational technology in the Gig City.

During the mentors’ pre-event orientation, we ran through a bunch of skill-sharing exercises so we could connect one another — and our areas of expertise — with teams in need. We heard from communications experts, curriculum developers, designers, engineers, event producers, and project managers. While listening to my colleagues’ stories and responding to their prompts, it occurred to me that I could have used a much better language of design when I was a teacher.

Even though we ask classroom educators to plan year-long curricula (sometimes mapped by the teacher; sometimes purchased by the system), we also expect them to work reactively at the same time, balancing the system’s overall pacing demands with their students’ individual needs for access, differentiation, and re-teaching.

This complex set of demands is almost always rooted in systematic deficit-model thinking:

  • We need to raise test scores.
  • We need to increase pass rates.
  • We need to close these gaps.
  • We need to address what’s “wrong” or “lacking” in preparing students to pass their end of year tests.

This kind of thinking assumes there’s a deficit to overcome, educating kids as if overcoming deficits is the only acceptable outcome. We design school systems and teaching materials to say, “If only we could do things right, we’d eliminate deficits in our practices that lead to the deficits we see in test results.”

But what if we designed differently, in a more designerly way?

For example, in one of our skill-shares we worked through a four-panel breakdown of a design problem based on human experience.

  1. We each named and sketched a persona, a composite of people we know who face a common problem and need.
  2. Then we attached demographic information to that persona to help us design for his or her needs.
  3. Next, we listed pain points to avoid in designing solutions for our personas.
  4. Finally, we suggested some goals that our personas had. What were they looking for in a solution? What did they want to do in response to their problems or needs? How did they want to feel?

We also prioritized “delight” as a common need, explicitly naming and aiming for the positive emotion we could help people have. What if we did the same thing in education, identifying “deficit thinking” as the pain point our students face and aiming for something more positive?

Right now, a typical design statement in education reads like this:

“We believe kids lack the skills to be successful on tests, therefore, we will design activities for them that are like the tests.”

A more valuable, equitable and effective design statement might read:

“We believe kids want to be delighted, therefore, we will design activities that will delight them.”

The former is based on evidence from the test; the latter is based on evidence about people.

This is a simple but terrifying shift, because it unmasks traditional instruction and dethrones central authority in the classroom. Our pain points as educators are made secondary, but not insignificant, as we teach to the primary delight of students.

What’s a good first step? Start small and use concrete action. Let’s set aside a genius hour for ourselves — just a few hours a week to experiment with different kinds of instructional design that work against the pain points of our traditional adult-serving school curriculum.

  • What is the smallest possible prototype you could build?
  • The shortest activity you could test to see if validates your ideas about what might delight your students with learning?
  • Do you have time for it in your classroom?
  • Can you run multiple tests a week and iterate until more and more of the materials you design are about delight or students’ affinities, interests, and areas of inquiry?
  • Can you prototype lessons that get you out of the way instead of putting you at the head of the column of your system’s campaign against deficiency?

I’m going to offer an enthusiastic Yes! but with one important note. Like any new prototype, we have to be okay with giving ourselves the freedom to experiment and constructively fail in the short term.

“Fail” is the scariest word in education, and we’ve made “pass” a virtue. Doesn’t that seem backwards? As I watch educators interact with developers, designers, startup mentors, and other people who come from a world where failing is a necessary and often vital step forward, I realize we can change what “fail” means in classrooms of all sorts. We can allow our kids and teachers to strive for a delight that’s beyond the limits of deficit thinking.

I’m ready for that change. For myself and for my learners of all ages. How about you?