Early in my career as a Vice-Principal, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the frequency and diversity of challenges that came through my office door. From bleeding noses to bullying issues, teaching assignments to textbooks, or staff meetings to student schedules, it seemed as though at the end of a given day I would think that I had truly seen it all...until the next morning when another unique set of circumstances would make me think the only predictable piece in school-based administration was that it was always unpredictable. And it still is. Sort of.
However, I began to notice something: while some people appreciated my hard work, others began to voice their dissatisfaction with some of the solutions that I came up with. People would say things such as "It worked, but if you would have asked us, we would have done it differently.". I remember at the time feeling a bit hurt, and sometimes even offended. Didn't they know how busy I was? Didn't they understand that their issue was one of fifty that I dealt with that day? I know they might have done something else in the past, but this was a good idea wasn't it? They hadn't done the research, read the articles, and laid awake at night thinking about it, but I had. They did have a point of view, but they couldn't have possibly seen if from the global perspective that I had. They only had to look at it from the perspective of their child or their classroom, I had to look out for ALL students, and ALL classrooms. And besides, who had time to stop and ask everyone? Like the ER doctor, the next problem was just around the corner, wasn't it?
The truth is that most issues we deal with in our schools afford us much more time than we think. Of course there are emergencies that arise which require swift and decisive action in order for us to ensure the health and safety of our children and our teachers, and there are days when 'educational triage' is not only desirable, but it is required.
However, when the 'educational triage' approach of rapidly and unilaterally from problem to solution becomes the norm, we are doing a disservice to the problem, to those who are having the problem, and to those who could be involved in the solution.
In the first stage of Learner-Centered Design, it is vital for us to develop a true appreciation for the problem, and for those people who are experiencing the problem. A few weeks ago when I was in Boston, I met with colleague and friend Ken Gordon; Ken is the Content, Conversation, and Community Strategist for the internationally acclaimed design firm Continuum (think Reebok Pump, Swiffer, and a multitude of other iconic products). When I asked Ken about how they might begin tackle a design challenge that a client would give them, he spoke to me about the importance of becoming an ethnographer--interviewing and observing the people for whom you were trying to solve the problem. He talked about how vital this was to the design process. For example, when Target approached Continuum to re-design the experience that their shoppers would have with their shopping carts, what did they do?
I can tell you what they didn't do. The project manager at Continuum didn't sit at her desk, read a few books on shopping carts, come up with an idea of how to make a better shopping cart, make it, and give it to Target and say "All done!" and move on to the next client. (Ouch--not my 'educational triage' approach).
The first thing the project manager did was assemble a team of individuals with a wide variety of skills, ranging from engineers to ethnographers. Strategic Foresight Advisor Joe Tankersley recently contributed his thoughts to an article for Fast Company about the jobs of the future. He talked about the idea of being a 'professional triber', someone who puts teams together to work on special projects. This 'triber' would be someone who specializes in connecting people, creative and critical thinking as well as service to others. Much like the professional triber, the project manager looks to see who best might help to tackle the problem and come up with unique and creative solutions.
In K-12 education, we do this from time to time--we bring together a 'representative' group of people (sometimes we say that we 'consulted' with them), but the mistake we make is that we often begin to solve the problem right there. Bringing together a group of people who represent a larger group is just the start! With this group, we need to brainstorm questions, not answers. We need to work with these people to brainstorm how we might get more insight into the problem as opposed to charting out strategies. We need to think of who we might speak to so we can get further inspiration for solutions, not jump to the solutions themselves.
At Continuum, the design team did just that, they brainstormed ideas on questions they had about shopping carts, the people that typically use them, what they were used for, and about the overall experience of shopping with a shopping cart at Target. And then, in the true spirit of ethnography, a group from Continuum went shopping with sixteen mothers and their children! They observed what moms were buying. How they hefted their children on to the cart. How they hung clothes on the cart. Where the pinch points were for children who were hanging off of the cart. They also noticed that employees were using the carts to transport goods, sometimes extremely heavy things such as car batteries and stacks of canned goods. From that point forward, they were able to
- Appreciate the true shopping cart experience from the perspective of those who were using it.
- Co-create a vision of what that experience could look like with those who would experience it.
- Ideate around the different components given the appreciation for the user
- Iterate and test different ideas (including rounded handrails on the sides where clothes and kids could hang, casters that could support over 600 lbs, and interchangeable, recyclable parts)
- Proliferate a final product, which ended up winning several design awards for Continuum.
In K-12 education, we can learn much from the approach Continuum used to develop of the Target shopping cart. Our students, parents and teachers have a multitude of experiences each day in our schools, some much more significant than others. While we are all busy in our schools each day, the 'culture of busy' can push us farther and farther into 'educational triage'-mode and make it the norm rather than the exception that it should be. As a result, we can alienate those in our school communities by rapidly jumping from the problem to solution, even if we think we have hit on that perfect solution.
There are so many people in our schools and our school communities that are not only skilled, but they care about the schools where they learn, work, and send their children. Today's school leader doesn't know it all: they never have, and never will, and they don't have to! By becoming 'educational tribers' and 'educational ethnographers', in the true spirit of Learner-Centered Design, school leaders can not only make better solutions, they can make meaningful connections with all of the members of their school community.