Thursday, December 10, 2015

Do You Do LCD? (Learner-Centered Design)

Think about the last time you did some unit planning.  What was that experience like?  If it was anything like mine, it was often on a Sunday afternoon in front of a television, with a computer on my lap, a textbook on the coffee table, after a weekend of swimming lessons for the kids, yard work, and the other things that make up Life 101.  It was always almost always a solitary activity, and the lessons, tasks, and activities that I created were usually my own, based on the content I felt was important for the kids to know, and my own experiences in learning and teaching.  An introductory lesson with vocabulary and questions, some videos that I thought might be exciting, questions from the textbook and a few worksheets, a quiz or two, a lab that brought together a few of the concepts, and some sort of culminating assessment.  All of these interspersed with interesting anecdotes and analogies (interesting for me, at least) that I thought would have helped the concepts resonate with the students long enough so they might be able to parrot them back to me on my chapter test.

(Note: it is not lost on me that I just referred to my unit assessment as my 'chapter test'--I am not proud to say that in my career, there were too many occasions where my 'units' involved whatever might have been covered in a particular chapter, with a smattering of whatever creative bits that I could muster.)

But what if there was another way to plan our units?

As opposed to starting with the material that we need to cover and using our experiences and opinions to guide us, what if we began the design of every unit and task with our learner in mind?  As obvious as 'start with the learner' sounds, when it comes to unit planning, sometimes 'just get it done' can trump 'start with the learner'.  But what if we looked at a model that might guide us through our lesson planning in a different, learner-centered way?

Human-centered design is an empathy-based, creative problem-solving process which starts by determining the issues that face the end user in a particular situation and ends with iterative solutions that help the end user successfully navigate these issues.  This method has been successfully used by design leaders such as IDEO and the Stanford D-School to solve numerous problems across a variety of disciplines, including education! IDEO has created a "how to" manual called "Design Thinking For Educators" to guide teachers through this process, and the D-School has created an engaging design challenge activity called "The Wallet Project" where learners experience human-centered design in a 'learn by doing' environment.  Here is a brief video summary, just to whet your appetite (I highly recommend that you try this activity with your staff and have them try it with their students).

At the School District #73 Professional Development day that took place on Monday in Kamloops, a group of highly enthusiastic educators from our four rural schools did The Wallet Project to immerse themselves in the experience of designing and creating something based on a set of wants and needs of a client.  And while the group was designing a wallet, the wallet was symbolic of a unit plan:  how could we design a unit plan in a learner-centered way by adapting the process of designing a product in a human-centered way?

The wallet challenge requires participants to use a number of activities to create something that reflects the needs of their client  These activities can be summarized into different phases:
  • Planning for design, which includes a team developing probing questions and interviewing the client so that they can seek to understand what it is that the client truly wants and to empathize with their current reality.
  • Creating a prototype, which involves using the feedback given from the client to develop a number of iterations, and then presenting these prototypes to the client for further feedback to get closer and closer to a product that could meet their needs.
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting, which has the group actually create a product that is presented to the client to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about whether that product has met (or maybe exceeded!) their needs, followed up by a reflection on what might have been done differently.
The engagement of the group was extraordinary:  as the wallet activity requires a number of supplies (think 'Dollar Store') that were located on a central table, this group of calm, good-natured professionals turned into a raging, mosh pit of wallet designers, fighting for every last piece of duct tape and tube of glitter glue to create a product that would delight their client.  People were yelling "We need more time!", and "who wants to trade red duct tape for scissors?"

After each phase, the group was asked to reflect on how the user-focus felt, on how this user-centered approach might be reflected in a learner-centered approach to their own unit and lesson designs. The participants were also asked to reflect on which of the competencies from the new competency-based curriculum they were having to demonstrate by doing this activity in 'learn by doing fashion'.  What we found was that frequently, for a variety of different reasons, unit planning for many people often looked like the solitary, 'Sunday afternoon' experience that I described at the beginning of this post.

So how could we adapt the concept of human-centered design and the wallet project to help us be learner-centered designers with our units?  If we consider the three parts to the wallet exercise from above, I think there are a few tweaks that we could make to the process to make students our 'clients', and create units that not only require deep learning from our students, but units that exceed their expectations and :
  • Planning for design
    • What if we did some pre-investigation and loading before we started a unit with our students?  For example, if we were doing a unit on reptiles in biology, we could ask students questions prior to developing the unit in an informal (but highly informative) session like the interview in the wallet exercise.  Questions like
      • What are your experiences with reptiles?
      • Which reptiles are you interested in?
      • What are the most interesting things about reptiles for you?
      • Which reptiles would you like to know more about?
      • Which ones might you consider having as a pet?  Which ones would you never have as a pet?  Why?
      • Which ones might the average person be afraid of?  Why might they be afraid of them?
      • Do these 'scary' reptiles have any features about them that might be helpful?
  • Creating a prototype
    • As a result of the answers to these questions from our students, we could begin to develop an outline of a project.  Using something like our draft School District #73 unit Planning Template as a planning tool (which we are running through focus groups as we speak to see whether it 'delights' our teachers) we decide that we are going to have small groups of students create a comic book (which could be hand drawn or computer generated) about the scariest reptile that they were interested in so they could work through a driving question "How can we develop a comic that makes a reptile less scary?".
    • We create our own mini-comic book to actually try the project ourselves so we can experience the competencies that students will need to demonstrate, the content that students will need to do their project, the challenges students might have, and what scaffolding might be needed to create a product that was both visually appealing and loaded with the science of reptiles that we need students to deeply learn.
    • Because we know we can't do this on our own, we take this idea  and our comic book prototype to a small but focused group of our colleagues and two students over a sandwich at lunch using the High Tech High tuning protocol to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about how to make this project awesome, right from launch to presentation of learning.  (PS. You will be stunned at what these teams will come up with to help you--I promise).
  • Building, testing, presenting and reflecting
    • Armed with our tuned project and prototype, we launch into the unit, designing and adapting our lessons according to the needs of our students as they progress through the project.  There will be certain checkpoints that need to be hit and certain pieces of content that need to be covered.  However, in stark contrast to a more traditional, stand and deliver lesson with questions, worksheets, and tests, students will be asking you for the content (and if you don't believe me, watch this - a video testimonial of one of the teachers who changed to a problem-based approach).
    • We constantly facilitate, coach, cheerlead, encourage, and guide students towards the finished product, and a presentation of their learning (POL) to a public audience that shows not only that product, but the process and multiple iterations as a result of the feedback that made the project the best that it could be.
    • Then we and our students reflect together on how the project went, from launch to POL, so that we can make it better in the future.
Sound like a lot of work?  In the initial, preparatory stages, yes.  But in a more traditional approach, we are doing a great deal of work anyhow, aren't we?  Aren't we lecturing in front of classes? Creating powerpoints with notes?  Finding videos for kids to watch?  Creating worksheets and selecting questions at the end of the chapter?  Coming up with good summative examinations? That seems to be a lot of work too.  

Perhaps a more salient question to consider would be this: in a more traditional approach who is doing the lion's share of the meaningful work?  The creating, curating, and critical thinking about what is important.  Trying to determine the identities of the learners in the class so they might find meaning and make connections, to create activities that engage the learner, and to present them in a cohesive and interesting manner.  In a traditional approach, it is the TEACHER that is getting better at these vital skills, while students can often passively determine whether they wish to be involved or not. 


In a learner-centered, inquiry, PBL-style approach, there is a lot of work, but the teacher and the students are doing the meaningful work together.  Students are selecting which reptile is important to them, and what features make it a reptile (as oppposed to say, a mammal).  They are having to discover the features that they think might scare people, and might have to do some cross-curricular research into a phobia or find interviews with people who find snakes scary on the internet.  They are heading to the art room to try and get the best supplies, and scouring YouTube to learn how best to draw cartoons.  They are giving and getting feedback from their peers about the positive features that they have selected about their reptiles, their artwork, and curating the best bits of all of it so they can make a presentation for a real audience.  The list goes on and on, and they will keep going because you have taken the time to design something that will delight them.

Learner-centered design.  Might be something worth trying.