At the Confluence

Design the Shift participants gather in a circle with Lee, a member of a nearby First Nations band.

It’s a sunny Tuesday in August. Fifteen teachers and facilitators are standing at the confluence of the Bow and the Elbow rivers. This isn’t your usual kind of professional development institute. You won’t hear an expert on pedagogy spout off research as the participants “sit and get.” You’re not seeing charts and graphs trying to persuade teachers to do more assessment or collect more data. Instead, as part of Design the Shift, a summer professional learning institute for over 120 Calgary Board of Education teachers and administrators, we have carefully designed activities that will put ourselves in the shoes of our learners, and deliberately living the mindsets of design thinking, such as embracing ambiguity, being human-centred, and putting thought to form.

The mindsets of design as we understand them at the Calgary Board of Education. Download your own copy.

The planning for Design the Shift happily aligned with a summer spent as a Creative Catalyst for the Teachers Guild. My experiences in participating in the summer design sprint reinforced for me the belief that developing empathy is the most important part of the design process. If you truly walk in the shoes of who you are designing for, then you can come up with ideas and solutions that respond to their needs. Solutioning is easy when you think from their point of view. In professional learning, we often talk the talk. We understand intellectually that we should think about learning from the perspective of our students. But how often do we truly experience what they do? Design the Shift was meant to do just this.

On this day, we are doing a river walk. The purpose is to gain empathy from people and place. We wanted to craft an experience for our participants that would jolt them into being learners and walk in the shoes of a student. Community partners are stationed along our route, and we’ve split into smaller groups to visit them. We stop to spend a moment with each person, who offers a different perspective of our shared experience. We are walking, talking, noticing, and listening, all with empathy. The river itself is not the point. We chose this place because it could connect with many different people. We don’t want these teachers to go back to their schools and plan field trips to the river for their students. We don’t want them to think they have to bring in seven different experts on a topic. Rather, we hoped to reveal that when we truly gain empathy with a topic or a question, and listen and notice purposefully, knowledge and insight emerge.

When we walk in the shoes of another, their perspective becomes part of our own, and we gain the knowledge and insight of their point of view.

The confluence of the Bow and Elbow has been a meeting place for thousands of years. My group is meeting Lee, a member of a nearby First Nations band, the Tsuut’ina. We seat ourselves in a circle, echoing the circles that were formed here a millenia ago by the Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina, and Stoney peoples. Lee talks in an easy way about native plants in the area. We had just finished Saskatoon berry season and were heading into Chokecherry season. He reads the land around us like a book. I have a small epiphany that being literate means so much more than being able to read. Lee brings us back to the topic of place. A simple question knocks us over: “What if you have a location but no place?” We consider this thoughtfully.

The confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

We walk up the Bow River, which is a frigid mountain stream, even on this warm day. It rushes past the bridge to St. Patrick’s Island, as we group around Russell, a client from the homeless shelter we can see from our vantage point. We ask Russell what he notices about this place. He reveals his knowledge of the hundreds of people who camp along the banks of the Bow, hidden in plain sight. He talks about the recent development of the East Village in Calgary’s downtown core pushing these camps further and further afield. There’s no judgment in his words, just plain fact. Because we are observing deliberately, we are noticing what we typically overlook. Many of us would never have thought to look for homeless people sitting along the shores of the river. But today we see a gentleman, in short sleeves on this hot day, sitting amongst the tall grasses along the river’s edge.

Participants gather to listen to Jen, a nature interpreter.

We continue on towards Hugo, one of our city’s water engineers. He talks about the flood in 2013 that immobilized our city for days. As the Bow overflowed its banks, the entire city came to a standstill. Our school board, which stays open for cruel Canadian winters, shuttered its doors for two days.

The magnitude of this flood could be felt across our city’s infrastructure; the water system was no exception. We live in a tenuous relationship with this river, Hugo notes. Its clean mountain waters provide us with clear, crisp water to drink, and after it’s treated, the Bow gets rid of our waste for us, too. But small changes in rainfall in the Rockies can mean big changes in water levels downstream. Hugo pauses, and we watch as several rafts carrying sun-soaked revellers lazily float downstream. As he speaks, we look up at a sculpture made of recycled light standards called Bloom. An osprey family built a nest atop the sculpture, whose presence affirms city planners’ goal that St. Patrick’s Island Park would be a place where the instinctive relationship between humans and nature should be celebrated.

The sculpture entitled “Bloom” in front of the Calgary city centre.

A tenuous relationship; the river both sustains us and commands us.

So too do our students, and the topics we are entrusted to open up for them: community, life, harmony, water, history, sustainability.

We can try to take charge of these topics. We can make checklists of curricular outcomes we need to cover. We can do worksheets and fill in the blanks. We can do multiple choice tests. Or, we can uncover it.

We can become teachers as designers of learning.

Design the Shift is a summer institute about using design thinking to reimagine learning. It’s about teachers being architects, instead of technicians. Design thinking offers fertile ground for this shift. If we acknowledge that anything designed can be redesigned, optimism explodes like fireworks. Nearly everything about education and our school system is designed. That means nearly everything can be redesigned. Before we can redesign, however, we need to know what it means to be alive as a learner. If we wish to design learning experiences for our students that awaken their beings and minds, we need to experience this ourselves. That is what Design the Shift is intended to do.

Design thinking in education is really quite simple. It’s not about following a rigid, five-step process. It’s about understanding our students, noticing deeply what’s around us, and creating rich, meaningful learning experiences that let them, in turn, be deeply engaged in the way a topic lives in the world. We meet at this confluence to awaken ourselves to the beautiful possibilities we can design for our students.

Erin Quinn is a learning Specialist with the Calgary Board of Education. Her work focuses on supporting schools, teachers, and instructional leaders in using design thinking to transform teaching and learning. Erin is an active member in the Teachers Guild, and also writes at www.creativitycollective.ca.