Distillation & Clarification


When I returned from break I felt dissatisfied with where my thesis had landed. I captured these thoughts in a blog post on January 19, 2011.

The State of Thesis

I left last semester with a single thought:

“A social network is fine, but it’s not the thing I want to create for my thesis.”

I needed to step back and readdress the goal of my system. Is the goal to get teachers to use a certain method or share the things they’re doing? No, I think the goal is simply to get teachers to think more creatively about the work they’re doing each day. If they’re thinking more openly and creatively about it, they’re more likely to find new ideas, take risks and try them out, and ultimately find the most effective way to teach their students on a case by case basis.

What am I actually talking about here? A toolkit that behaves like a service.

From service design class we compiled a list of qualities that make up a good service:

  • Remembers me / Knows me and my habits (not in a creepy way)
  • Easy to use / Transparent / Orients me
  • Adaptable / Responsive
  • Anticipates / Recommends
  • Approachable / Accessible / Friendly
  • Surprises me / Exceeds expectations (in a good way)
  • Available when I want it
  • Improves me (makes my life easier, healthier)
  • Connected to other parts of my life
  • Efficient / Does what it’s supposed to
  • Consistent / Reliable

Carmen sent me this article, a good reminder about why services are so important:
Brand Butlers – “Why serving is the new selling”

A toolkit provides a framework for creation. In my proposed toolkit as service, a teacher builds up his or her own framework over time, based on the things she is already doing.

Still, I have a lot of questions in mind. But if I sit down and think about the tough questions I find I have more answers that I knew.

Who is the audience?
The audience is teachers with 3–15 years of experience. They have enough time in the classroom to understand themselves as professionals, to understand the way students behave, and to understand what the bigger picture is. They aren’t so experienced that they’re unwilling to adopt new technologies. (I do think this range could change over the next decade, but right now there are few very experienced teachers who are open to changes in the way they teach.)

What is the goal?
The goal is to get teachers to think more creatively about the work they do in the classroom.

To combat boredom in the classroom teachers must expand their toolkit of methods, and my service will help them find ways to do that. Using design is one way to do that, but the core of that goal is to be more creative.

Many teachers I met complained about having to attend professional development. But when teachers go to conferences they’re able to see the methods that other teachers are practicing. They’re inspired and refreshed, and come back with loads of new ideas for their own work. This feeling should be sustained such that every week there is some new discovery.

What are the qualities of design-based or inquiry learning that make it special?

Teaches students to…

  • ask questions.
  • find their own answers instead of reading it in a book
  • work in groups
  • use real examples to test assumptions
  • reflect at the end

The big goal is to get teachers to learn about new methods or lesson ideas in the same way that students should be learning (creatively, openly).

My thesis is that this is the most effective way to learn, not just for students but also for teachers.
Questions to discuss with Paul / Ben:

  • How can I structure this conversation in a way that feels effortless and part of a teacher’s routine, while also leading to discovery?
  • I’m still having trouble finding the incentive for ongoing participation. (I think this might be answered once I start sketching ideas. If value is demonstrated over time then there will be enough incentive. The value is in the new ideas, the renewed feeling of excitement about work, and the idea that teachers are treated as professionals who engage in ongoing development.)
  • Others?

EduCon 2.3

January 29–30, 2011

Carmen and I feel it’s essential that we be part of the education community as part of our involvement with Project: Interaction. When we saw the announcement for EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia we decided to jump on a train and go see what it was all about.

It was a short weekend trip, and we were able to attend a lot of diverse panels on hot topics in education such as data collection, social media strategies and new teaching methods. Many of the sessions I heard served as validation for the research insights I had discovered on my own.

I met more teachers and learned about even more underground efforts to create a community among progressive educators, many of whom are busting with new ideas for their lessons, without a stable outlet for sharing them.

Re-Living the Semester at EdLab

February 2, 2011

From a blog post on February 7, 2011

Last Wednesday Carmen and I had the pleasure of speaking to an audience of about forty educators, designers and strategists at the EdLab at Teachers College at Columbia University.

We talked about our original goals for Project: Interaction, how those changed because of our research initiatives, and how we redirected our course according to the feedback we received from our students during each week of the program.

We really enjoyed presenting to the EdLab crew. As a group they contributed to the live backchannel feed, sharing a ton of positive comments and inspirations for us.

Carmen and I are looking forward to presenting our ideas about design’s role in education again soon!

The “Ah Ha” Moment!

I revisited the research I did in schools and the conversations I had with progressive educators. I realized I had already been thinking about creativity, innovation and design in the classroom the whole time. My thinking about the problem shifted when I thought about comparing the teaching process with the design process. The work teachers do in designing their students’ classroom experiences isn’t so different from the work I do as a designer. Teachers are doing user research all the time on their students, and they use that knowledge – and other constraints from administration and state requirements – to design lessons and curricula for an audience of students.

From my research I knew that teachers are busy teaching and many are overwhelmed with required tasks and paperwork as part of their job. With so much going on, teachers are sometimes lacking the step I value most as a designer: reflection. In my design process that extra step is often the most important one. Stopping to contemplate what I’ve learned can help me gain perspective in my work and prepare me for future iterations. In essence, reflecting on my work enables me to be more creative.

Can reflection be integrated into the teaching process?

I tested my theory on myself after teaching a weekend workshop at the Cooper-Hewitt. I laid out an initial structure for the questions according to the thoughts on my mind after class. As I began writing I discovered other themes that would be relevant and incorporated them into the outline.

Reflections on Teaching

For the next steps in my thesis prototyping/development I’m thinking about what it means to collect content from teachers about their classroom experiences. Having just taught a class this morning I ran the first prototype on myself. Using a text editor I went through in my mind and wrote the questions and responses that came to mind first. It took about 12 minutes to do, and I did not find any part of this recollection to be challenging. It was already stuff that was top of mind for me.

What did you do in class?
We led a class of about ten students in the MOUSE program at the Cooper-Hewitt. We started by giving a short lecture about interaction and design, then jumped into a graphic jammin activity where we asked students to articulate abstract words using rapid sketching on post-it notes. At the end of a minute and a half they have to post their sketches and we discussed. At the end we had a short reflection about what they learned, why this might be important when starting a design project, and how this might be helpful when working in a team.

Who was in the class?
Mostly boys, age 16-17.

How did it go?
Pretty well. Overall I thought the kids were engaged.

What was the special moment, when the lightbulb went on?
After sketching ideas for a couple of words the kids got it. They started to get into the routine, and soon they were all running up to the board to get their post-its up there first. A lot of them had awesome ideas, complex ideas, that they encapsulated into a single note.

We keep realizing over and over again that high schoolers are super smart; especially the ones we work with who are volunteering their time for this stuff. They have heart, and they’re willing to try and learn something new.

An example?
There was one student who was describing the word “global.” He drew a balance with the world’s people on one side, and a mound of food on the other side. The food was less than the people, showing that our global food supply is not enough to feed our growing populations. Crazy good, right?

What did you do to help them along?
We started the day with a quick lecture about design and interaction. They were already interested in the subject so it was a pretty easy conversation. During the activity, we kept reminding them that anyone can sketch, and you don’t have to be an artist to communicate a point. We called on students who weren’t participating, which I think was particularly helpful. We used the post-it note creations to guide the conversation. It gave us a chance to reward the good sketches; in most cases the kids were proud to talk about their work knowing we had chosen one of theirs to be talked about. And it worked out that we got a good variety and a good variety in speakers.

What would you have done differently?
This is a hard lesson to really plan, since the whole thing is spontaneous co-creation. I feel like we fumbled a little bit on the beginning lecture/explanation piece, but the kids probably didn’t notice. In the future I would prepare a more comprehensive opening lecture. Like, something with an outline and key points.

Did you learn anything?
Boys aren’t that different from girls! They were much shier than our girls were, and that could be a side effect of them not knowing us before today. (And because it was 10am on a Saturday.) But they still made great sketches about abstract things, and they loved our INVENT DESIGN CHANGE buttons at the end.

What was the best part?
They all said thank you at the end. I just love that.

Potential other questions:
Did anything go wrong?
How did you redirect, or correct, your course?
Did the students face any problems with the material?
Could you introduce it in another way?

Other thoughts:
Can this information gathering follow the basic design process?
Discover, Define, Design, Develop

Teaching Process

After a meeting with advisor Paul Pangaro, he recommended I focus on the system models for my thesis work. The goal of getting teachers to reflect on their work is a worthy pursuit, but what are the mechanisms for them to do so?

I sketched and re-sketched a model and ultimately came up with one sketch of the process that my thesis would articulate.