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Day 30/08/2012

Teachers and Design

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Emerson

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In a recent conversation about the use of strict standards in classrooms, someone mentioned the necessity of having clear objectives for all aspects of teaching and learning that meet identified criteria for specified learning outcomes. The idea being, if we standardize everything, we know exactly what is being taught and how, exactly what is being learned, and how we can measure it all in clear charts.

The idea with standards, when taken to their fullest and most complete state, is that the standards lead like a tributary into the Grand Plan Learning Experience that all children will have in their heads because the teacher will have taught a replicated and flawless lesson plan.

This doesn’t work. Or it works to a certain level of satisfaction, if you are lucky, and then doesn’t. Or it seems to work until in the large scheme of things we produce students lost and lonely in the world who feel the greatest sense of success if they are meeting someone else’s already produced rubric. And ideally one that can be broken down in numbers. Better to align activities with the teacher’s and learner’s interests in order to reach success.

Making the habitual foreign, trying to see the world differently, taking a flawless plan, looking at it with a different perspective and recognizing flaws—while these are certainly indispensable to a pioneer leader, they’re really just good practice in general, for everyone. Creativity isn’t a means to an end, it’s a way of life. That’s what we should be educating for, that’s what a makes a good citizen, friend, spouse, person. When we say the secret to success is failure, we don’t just mean in school. We don’t just mean, in the IDEO sense, “Fail early, fail often” or  “Prototype, prototype, prototype to create the best product.” We actually mean, when it comes to us and our students, there’s always something new to see, something new to find, something new to interpret.  The world is infinite. Visually and mentally we simplify. The more we can keep redrawing the dots with the same data points, the more we find and use hidden meaning, the happier we’ll be.

So why empower teachers to see themselves as designers of classroom experience? Why creative confidence? Why permission to fail? Well, teachers are designers, and by empowering to identify as such, we help them do what they do better.

But perhaps even more importantly, empowering teachers as designers directly effects student engagement and provides models for students to think of themselves as designers of their own learning experiences. By allowing themselves to experiment and even not present a perfect lesson plan, teachers give their students creative confidence and permission to fail as well.

Let’s imagine schools as structures of education, not just tangibly, but intangibly as well.  Within the crossbeams and floor plans of curriculum, the students, teachers and administrators are the architects of learning experiences.  They may have learning objectives, they may have the limitations of white board space, but as teachers prepare the night before and students do homework they are gearing up for an essentially human-to-human interaction built on interpersonal experience.  After teachers have designed an experience, they come into the classroom and embrace the flow of the class where it is all about the predictability and unpredictability that go hand in hand with teaching and learning.

The element of design in the phrase “architects of that learning experience” is key: part of the learning experience is both designed and experienced in real time after the planning has been carried out. The experience can be categorized as an experience of place in a constructed space. We can build the math curriculum as innovatively as we like, we can use iPads and Singapore math techniques, but when it comes to the real time experience of teaching and learning, there is an element of artistry to that experience that emits from the individuals involved. The best learning models, plans, and curriculums are the ones that are an avowal of that artistry, not a  distrust.

Emerson’s quote brings us back to the critical beginning and end point in the circular route of questions and ideas we take ourselves on as we construct new ideas or rely on old ones. Ultimately, all sources of learning, wonder, poetry, and beauty will start from the teachers and students in the classroom and end with the same two critical players in that educational experience. Ultimately, it all comes back to us as an awareness of how we are seeing the world and a realization that the way we see the world need not be fixed and in fact would be much better if it were more fluid.

As Emerson states, we can travel the world once over, but we learn nothing until we start with ourselves. Teachers can attend every professional development workshop, students can receive every new-fangled tool, but until they feel empowered to create, learn, fail, and design, they will approach all learning experiences with the same boxed-in, number-fixated anxiety that will produced boxed-in, number-fixated anxious people whose only way to feel successful is to perform rote, replicated tasks.

Jennifer Riel from the Rotman School of Business said at a workshop she led on integrative thinking at RCS: “if you think the plan is perfect, it’s flawed.” The idea that one could take an experience-based, creative process like teaching and think that there is a replicable formula that could produce the same results every time is a perfect plan flawed to the core.

There is no perfect flawless plan. We have to continually return to ourselves and the way we are seeing the world—what we assume to be true, what we assume will work and won’t—and imagine, often in the moment of learning and teaching, how we can do something differently, better, more creatively, more beautifully.

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