The idea that the world around us is changing rapidly is an understatement. We see it in almost every facet of life, from technology to job skills needed for the future. We are even seeing this change filter into schools with new technologies, the 1:1 movement, and even BYOD. However, many teacher remain frustrated because they know what many have yet to figure out… that real change in education will not come until we change how we do school. The frustration many teachers feel is, at its core, rooted in the traditional system that emphasizes things that often zap students of their creativity and curiosity. These systems tends to lead to curriculum that is boring, of little value, and often dampens the creative spirit of students, not to mention the attempts to make students “fit the system” rather than changing to fit the student. There seems to be little room for student-centered innovation, creating content, and finding “real world value” within the current system. How do we combat this and move past these frustrations? How do teachers begin to spark curiosity and ignite passion in learners? The answer to these questions is to bring change from within the system, and within your sphere of influence. For teachers, this change must start within your classroom.
Design thinking in education is so much more than just how you organize and design your classroom. While the learning space is important, the heart of design thinking is the mindset and approach that a teacher has to learning. What do you believe about your students? What do you think is important to their growth and success? How will you design things to fit the student, rather than forcing student to fit the design? What do you see as valuable assets that you can impart to students?
It is so important for teachers to establish a philosophy and mindset that will guide them. It doesn’t have to be radical or differ from your school or district vision. However, when you believe in an approach with your students, you will find that you are continually looking for ways to impart that into your classroom. It will drive how you interact with students and how you prepare for class. This is so different from just continuing to feed the system that has disengaged so many learners. Using design thinking, not just to create learning spaces, but also to create an environment that will spark curiosity, unlock creativity, and ignite passions in your classroom, will be a critical element of creating unique experiences for students.
One of the core principles of bringing change within the system is the idea of creating experiences for students. There absolutely has to be a paradigm shift from the idea of “creating lesson plans” to “creating experiences”. The idea of having lesson plans is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the issue arises when the practice of creating lesson plans does not leave room for creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. You are absolutely in control of the environment that is created within your classroom. The value in creating an environment that students WANT to be in cannot be understated. Students have a natural sense of wonder and awe. The last place we want them to lose that is within the classroom. Not only do students innately look for moments of wonder and awe, but they are also creative by design. Our students have never lived in a world where they did not have the tools to create in the palm of their hands. There is so much creativity to be unlocked, wonder and awe to be discovered, and passion to be ignited within students. The shift of paradigm in the classroom from a teacher delivering information to being someone who guides students as they create content and solve problems is essential to creating unique classroom experiences.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
In order to bring positive change from within your classroom, a culture of communication has to be established. This includes communicating with both parents and students, and often times in different ways. At its core, communication in schools is about transparency. It is breaking down barriers in the student/teacher relationships, and is creating a classroom without walls. Relationship with your students is one of the single greatest tools you have at your disposal to help them grow and succeed. Talk openly with students about expectations and risks you are taking. If you are doing something new, tell them that we’re taking a risk, and we’ll see how it works out. Let them know the goal is to bring them opportunities and activities that have real world value. Tell them how design thinking has shifted your paradigm, and how what your goals are. I have found this provides students with a sense of confidence, both to take risks and to understand that you value them and their experience as learners.
Communication with parents is also vital to the pursuit to bring change. However, this communication has to be put into context. Many teachers remember when the only way to communicate was either a note home or a phone call. That is no longer the case. Given the technology we have available, I would argue that we have a mandate to create a school without walls. This communication goes beyond just informing individual parents about a students progress. It is about telling the story of your classroom and school. Use social media and Youtube to show parents what their kids are doing. I have started making videos using the CLIPS app, uploading them to YouTube, and including them in my emails. Parents are starting to subscribe to our channel so they can see what is going on. Leverage your school Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to tell the stories of the experiences you are creating. These are the changes that we can make within our classrooms that gain momentum over time and begin to bring change to the system.
In education, both as teachers and administrators, there is no shortage of questions to answer and items to check off the list.
“What are the standards?”
“What are your lesson plans?”
“Did you put grades in this week?”
“What day are you testing?”
“Did you finish your homework?”
As you know, this list could go on forever, and I’m sure there are questions and “checklist items” out there that are unique to your classroom or your school. These questions are often rapid fire and routine. It has become increasingly clear to me, however, that these questions, and often answers, are incomplete. Many times, we are missing the “why?”
“Why is this part of my lesson plan this week?”
“Why am I assessing this way?”
“Why was this a homework assignment?”
ACKNOWLEDGE THE NEED FOR “WHY”
There is a growing frustration in schools, classrooms, living rooms, and other educational circles with the process and standardization of all things learning. All too often, it seems students are saddled with assignments, homework, and assessments that only serve one purpose: getting something done so a grade can be entered. I don’t think this is an intentional move on the part of most teachers, but rather the result of the education process over time that has demanded standardization and compliance. I think more and more, parents and even educational leaders, are beginning to ask “why” things are being assigned, practiced, and done the way they are. I really think this is due to two things: the growing frustration with the educational system and the rapid pace at which technology is changing our world. The truth is, the “why” is no longer to just deliver content. Our students have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and the job of teachers is transforming before our eyes. This transformation underscores the need to acknowledge the “why”.
START WITH THE “WHY”
The idea of starting with the “why” comes down to a basic philosophical view… do you think you are just making lesson plans, or do you believe you are creating experiences for students? If you believe you are creating unique experiences, then you likely take into account the “real world value” of learning, and not just the standards. Starting with the “why” is critical to providing unique learning experiences. Teachers have to consider, not just why they are covering certain material, but possibly more importantly, why they are assigning certain activities, projects, homework, or assessments. When you start with the “why” of what you are doing, you are forced to answer, upfront, some tough questions about what you are doing and the value it will have for students. I have found that working backwards from the “why” has allowed me to not only create valuable learning experiences, but it has also made me much more aware to what is of value, and what is not.
COMMUNICATE THE “WHY”
I don’t think we have ever lived in a time when communication was more important, especially in the world of education. I don’t just mean communicating with a students home, but rather communicating with students, other teachers, administrators, and, of course, parents. I have found that simply communicating the “why” behind what you are doing in your classroom will revolutionize climate and relationships. Much of the frustration that parents feel can be eased when teachers take the initiative and explain why they are doing certain projects or assigning certain work. Communicating the “why” also holds teachers accountable. You can’t just coast through the assignments you have given year after year without any thought to them anymore. You need to come up with fresh ideas that have real world value. If you make a decision to communicate the why, there has to be a “why”.
I have always sent an email out to parents to begin the week, where I update them on class and talk about what activities we are going to be doing. I do not send out standard, day-to-day lesson plans, simply because teaching is not standard, and things change on a moment’s notice when we get new ideas, or students want to spend more time on a certain topic. However, recently I have been also making a YouTube video where I briefly explain the “why” behind what we are going to be doing. It is a short video, but I am able to explain the real world value an assignment or project has, and I think that makes a connection with parents that is essential.
Joe Robison is a Middle School Science Teacher in Valdez, Alaska. He is passionate about his family, his faith, and his job. His desire is to be a leader for his family, and an innovator in the workplace. He enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife, Wylie, and their five small children. You can follow Joe on Twitter @joerobison907.