Building Empathy With Extreme Users in the Classroom With Design Thinking
By Ann Yenne, Intermediate Educator at Trailblazer Elementary in Colorado Springs District 11
Meet Dan. Headstrong, argumentative, questions authority, wanders when he should be working. The kind of student who appears flippant and unconcerned about his learning. The kind of kid who could drive a teacher crazy. The kind of person who wants it his way or else.
Meet Donna. Phone-addict, headphones permanently wedged in her ear canal, vocabulary of an adult, a broken-hearted loner. The kind of student who has so much potential. The kind of kid who is easily misunderstood by her peers. The kind of person who needs to be given a chance.
Meet Luke. Angry, broken, defensive, resistant, obstinate. The kind of kid who could pick a fight with a door. The kind of student who may be gifted or may know nothing, but won't prove either to be true because he won't produce. The kind of person who is so broken that he wants to break others.
These are just three of the students who were a part of my fifth-grade class this past year, the target of my design thinking project. Design thinking starts with crafting a problem statement, so I needed to define the problem at an appropriate level and without assumptions, and focus on behavior rather than issues. The problem statement I identified was, "Students don't take ownership of their learning."
The first tool I used was an (un)focus group, and the first step was identifying the user groups within my classroom. My intent was to glean from them what strategies they preferred for learning a new skill, practicing that skill, and then demonstrating their understanding of that skill. I had three broad categories of "users" or learners in my room.
I had a group of extreme users. These were students who would devour whatever was set before them, and who could clearly articulate what worked best for them. When given options for learning, they not only chose their favorites, they were driven to complete each and every task laid out, not letting any of them be optional!
I had average users, who like some choice, but didn't mind letting teachers make all the decisions. Given a pathway for learning and practicing, they would choose their favorite methods from a menu of options, but didn't push further.
Finally, there was a group that I called the non-users. There really wasn't a lot of evidence that they were motivated to produce much, let alone make choices. Given a playlist of choices, they would often wander the room, finding it difficult to settle, difficult to find a group of compatible learners, and difficult to work independently.
Each of these groups was placed around a round table to answer questions while the rest of the class observed, in a Socratic Circle format.
The discussion centered around three main questions:
- How do you prefer to learn a new skill?
- How do you prefer to practice that skill?
- How do you prefer to demonstrate your mastery of that skill?
After each of the questions, students in the group did a card sort of resources, strategies, and tools. On index cards, I had written titles or descriptions of each strategy or resource. The students at the table set about ranking them from favorite to least favorite. My hope was to not just see what they liked and didn't like, but also to hear them defend their choices and in that way, I would have information about their engagement level with each tool.
Along with the (un)focus groups, students were asked to choose an independent activity of co-creating their perfect learning environment, mapping their fifth-grade experience, or journaling their reactions to their learning each day for a week. Their participation in the activity of their choice mirrored one of the themes of the overall project: Student work will be more authentic when they are able to choose their method of expression.
Along with that, I also was able to do face-to-face interviews with about a third of the class. I chose a few students from each user group who were mostly quiet during the conversations. I sat with them one-on-one and asked them more in-depth questions.
They agreed that they didn't like whole group lessons, and that teacher-created videos worked well for them. They agreed that if they got 100% on a pre-test, they should have the opportunity to move ahead more quickly. They agreed that hands-on learning kept them more engaged.
The key for me was to not take their comments personally, but to take them as feedback for me moving forward. As educators, we need to be able to set down the need to be right. No one is right all the time. I can learn a lot from a 10-year-old! For example, one of my students, Tom, asked for a pencil with an eraser, because the one he was using had none left. I jokingly said to him, "Just stop making mistakes and you won't need an eraser!" He looked at me with a smirk and said, "If I can't make mistakes, how do you expect me to learn?"
Change is scary, because what is familiar is safe, even if it's not the best. Change is scary when we are not sure of what is coming. Change is scary when we don't know if we have the tools to be successful in the unfamiliar. But . . . change is invigorating when the unfamiliar is made safe. Change is invigorating when we know that what is coming could be even a tiny bit better than what we have. Change is invigorating when we pick up one tool at a time and not the whole toolkit and realize that success happens one step at a time.
All kids are capable of knowing where they are academically and taking the steps to move forward in their education. I have decided to start each year with an activity like this, and use the feedback to co-create learning pathways with and for students. I have learned that even when they don't seem to want to learn, they really do. They want to be successful. As Dr. Ross Greene says in his book Lost at School, if they could do well, they would. My empathy for the students who may not be able to express their academic needs and plot a course for themselves grew exponentially.
Meet Dan. Determined, scrappy, questions authority, aware of his need for breaks. The kind of student who needs to help design his learning pathway. The kind of kid who could drive a teacher to think outside the box. The kind of person who should help make choices so that school works his way.
Meet Donna. Music and game-lover, knows what feeds her soul, vocabulary of an adult, one who doesn't give into peer pressure. The kind of student who has so much potential. The kind of kid who is unruffled by what others think. The kind of person who thrives when challenged.
Meet Luke. Turbulent, healing, protective, unyielding, steadfast. The kind of kid who would fight for what he knows is right. The kind of student who wants his work to be relevant. The kind of person who will advocate for wholeness for himself and others.