- students aren't doing well in a particular subject area ("kids don't work hard these days")
- kids skip classes ("they just want to play on their iPhones")
- parents don't come to parent-teacher conferences ("they just don't care")
- high school report cards don't get picked up at the end of the year ("they already know what they are getting anyway")
- people keep asking the same questions about information that is posted on our website ("they just don't read")
- teachers don't use technology in their classrooms ("they need more projectors and wifi")
- principals are never in classes ("they are too busy with paperwork")
...and the list goes on. And often times, as a result of these assumptions, we sit around conference room tables, collectively wringing our hands either maligning the situation (bad) or expending enormous amounts of energy developing and implementing solutions based on these flawed assumptions (much worse).
In the Instructional Rounds program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the "The Ladder of Inference" (see below) is used to help learners understand how we tend to construct our beliefs about what we observe. The instructors are also quick to point out that as observers (and human beings), we tend to 'go up the ladder' very quickly: we make assumptions, draw conclusions and adopt beliefs from a small and discrete set of observations, rather than really 'digging deep' to get a rich perspective on a given situation.
Speaking from experience, 'going up the ladder' is very easy to do. Several years ago at my school, we had a particular intervention strategy set up for our students who were struggling in meeting the outcomes for their math and science courses. We had staffed it, found a room for it, put it in the schedule, and were looking forward to our students experiencing success in two areas that we had found they often needed additional support. But there was one tiny problem.
No one used it.
Of course, I quickly went up the ladder of inference. I was disappointed in the teaching staff for not sending their students to get additional assistance. "Our staff asked for additional support, and we are providing it, and they are not using it!" I whined to no one in particular. I sat with our leadership group and collectively we fumed, brainstormed some different ideas and made a change to the referral process to make it easier to refer students.
And still no one used it.
So finally, I hauled in a couple of math teachers and science teachers and sat them down and said "We put this intervention strategy in and none of you are using it, yet we still have students that are struggling--why are you not using it?". Expecting a set of excuses or some philosophical debate, I was ready with my arguments as to why this intervention strategy was worthwhile and important. So what response did I get?
"We would use it, but it's in the wrong block, and many of our kids can't access it. Could you move it to Period 3?"
Oh. Well, uh, sure we could.
And then people used it. We moved the block to where the end-user told us they could utilize it best. What a concept.
If I would have just involved the end-user in the creation of the solution, all of this could have been avoided. I assumed I knew where the best placement of the block was in the timetable based on classes, loads, and paper-based information that I had. But I made a big mistake, a mistake I see over and over again in education--we don't ask the end user about the experience that they wish to have and use that information to test out a solution.
Yesterday, Sarah Krasley said something that is continuing to resonate with me today in her blog about human-centered design, :
"Product design is a fundamentally compassionate act. After all, the best products come from designers who listen intently to the populations they serve and have empathy for the people who might use their product or service"
This had me thinking. Considering Sarah's point, where are some spots where we could listen intently to those we serve and co-design empathy-based solutions for our end user? A few quick ones came to mind, but the list could be endless:
- school websites - What do our parents and students need from our website? Our teachers? Our international students?
- parent teacher conferences - What do parents truly want from these evenings? Do they want to listen to what their teachers think are their strengths and weaknesses? Or would they rather have a student-led conference and watch their student showcase what they have learned?
- report cards - Do our report cards truly inform our students and parents in a way that makes a difference?
- learning styles in the classroom - Are there better ways that we can tap into the individual needs of our students in their classrooms?
- technology in the classroom - Are we asking students about the technology they use/want to use, or are we just using tech for the sake of tech? Are we doing a digital photography course with cameras that students could never afford, or do we have a cell phone photography course because that is technology that many have or will have soon?
Regardless of the problem, if the design of the solution does not involve listening to and learning from the end user, we are making the assumption we know what they want, and missing an opportunity to make a lasting and effective solution.
My new mantra: "Don't assume you know." In fact, my new mantra could be "I assume I don't know": at least I would go in to a situation with my eyes, ears and mind wide open rather than closed to new and different points of view.
Do you consistently involve your end users in co-creating solutions? Where are the spots in your learning situation where you could involve the end user?