Director of innovation, Stephen Collis (Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning) explains what a design process is and how it evolves around empathy and the people that you are designing it for. Stephen explains that knowing your students feel safe means, "people can feel a lot safer about making mistakes and being experimental".
One way of thinking about the learning environment is to see it as ever evolving and changing, like all of our practices are. And there’s talk at the moment, in education, of embracing what’s called a design process, and this is sometimes called user-centered design, people-centered design, you can find a lot of resources online by googling design thinking and Stanford d.School in Idaho have enormous numbers of resources on this but what is it?
Well, a design process starts with empathy and the people who you are designing for. So let’s start with the students and figure out, who are they? And what’s our shared vision as a community, a community that involves the principal, teachers, the parent body, the board, what is the shared vision for these students, what matters to us as a school? And I think that’s the first conversation in a design process. You can’t actually go further into designing until you’ve got that really firm. It does take time, this conversation takes time, who are we? What do we stand for? How do we want to be like as a school community, what do we want to be like in our learning? And it’s something that takes longer than people might expect, but needs to be returned to over and over again and really firmed up.
Now here’s the thing, once that’s firm, once everyone is on the same page, here’s the vision, here’s the values, once that’s firmed up, you’re free, you can feel really free to innovate like crazy. That’s the following process in a design process, so you’re firm on what you stand for, firm on your vision, and then everyone can feel free. Because that’s safe, everyone can feel free to experiment. We can try different ideas, we can implement different models, different structures, different scaffolds, and what we do is, we don’t try to get it right at the first go, we don’t have this pressure on ourselves to get it right. Instead there’s a process of iteration, we try a structure and we ask ourselves, did that design get us a little bit closer to that vision that we set in the first place. What aspects of that experiment seemed to be pushing us more towards what we said we valued? And so that value and vision becomes a sieve or, I like to think of it as a true north, a compass point where we’re trying to head. And so with that firm, we can iterate, we can experiment, and people can feel a lot safer about making mistakes and being experimental, and so in a proper design process, you continually test and alter and improvise your way to the things that matter most.
The other thing that comes to mind there, is constantly checking in with the kids. The kids’ interpretive grids, the kids’ narrative that they’re telling themselves, the kids’ emotional responses to what’s happening in the space, and I don’t think you can do too much of it. Because also, it’s not just about learning. To me, learning achievement’s one part of what we value, but also, is the kid comfy? Now, I value being comfy because it will lead to better learning, but I value comfy so the kids are comfy. For that reason in itself. Does the kid feel safe? Do they feel connected? Are they inspired? What’s inspiring them outside of school? A great question to ask any student is, “What’s the best learning experience you’ve had in the last year outside of school?”, And then feed that back in.
So, I think the richer the feedback loops between teachers and teachers, teachers and students, teachers and parents, really everyone who’s involved the better, this can be successful if it’s informally embedded in the culture. It’s great to have a structured, formalised, systematic process of data gathering but we have to be weary that that doesn’t become a tick the box mentality, and then people can say, “Oh, we’ve done the inquiry process because we’ve got this figure and that figure”.