In early January 2020, I got the email welcoming me to my newest Grad class. At that point, I had read the title of the course and the brief description in the course catalog but I didn’t really know what to expect. Was it going to be hard? Would I be able to keep up with the work with my full-time job and family responsibilities?  I have to admit I was a bit nervous as I opened up the d2l online learning platform to check out the course. 

The course was CEP 817 and it was called Teaching Tech Through Design. That didn’t give me a lot of clarification. Designing is something we do when we make something right? It’s being creative, or something like that, so how do we teach through design? Oi, I thought, what had I gotten myself into. 

I moved on to reading about the course and the syllabus. It explained that the course was about design as a process and a product, whatever that means.  The last line, however, caught my interest. It said the course was about design as a framework for helping us work through issues, problems, and solutions with respect to education. Hmmm, there are a LOT of problems and issues to work through in education and honestly, we aren’t usually given a lot of guidance to help us navigate our way to a comprehensive solution. This could be useful. 

The grading system seemed a little questionable. Apparently, we were all starting with a 4.0 and there wouldn’t be grades for our assignments, only feedback from the instructors. Now, this was not the first time I’d heard of such a grading system but I had a lot of issues with it. So far I have ended up with a 4.0 in all of my courses, and I felt that I had worked hard to earn that grade so being given a 4.0 wasn’t the problem. I think the issue I have with this grading system is that I thrive in a structured environment. I need goals, benchmarks, and obvious things I need to do to KNOW that I’m on the right track. This kind of felt like I was expected to work my way through a maze in the dark, never knowing if I was getting closer to the goal or just going in circles. 

Unit 1 was full of the usual “beginning of course” assignments. I checked them all off as I worked till I got to the 55 Fiction assignment. We were supposed to write a piece of fiction that was only 55 words long. Not 54, not 56, ONLY 55. Preposterous! Now I have to be upfront here, I used to be a very creative person in my younger years but once I had kids my chances to be creative dwindled rapidly. Most of my days became full of lists of tasks that HAD to be done to keep the family on track. 

The first thought was “What the hell does this have to do with design?”. I even put it off for a few days, hoping it would go away, lol. Then I sat myself down and stared at the screen. My mind was blank. My Mom happened to be visiting for a few days which always makes me reminisce about growing up on the dairy farm. Ok, so why not start there? I’ve known my share of cows so I wrote about cows. Halfway through I even giggled! This was fun and what do you know, I can be creative after all!

The very next section of Unit 1 answered a lot of my initial questions. I learned that design is really a thing. It’s the way we go about changing something from what it IS now to what it COULD be. The way I like to think about it is changing what we HAVE to what we PREFER. Not only is it a real topic but it has multiple models and people study design. 

It was in Unit 1, right off the bat, that I learned that we are ALL designers. I am a designer. Not only did I read about it, and watch videos about it, but I actually believed it. Hadn’t I changed the entire baking program from an empty course that no one wanted to take to one that is bursting at the seams? Hadn’t I changed my circumstances from a farm girl who was stuck in Fulton County forever to a successful teacher in New Jersey (far away from the farm)? I might not have understood design as I was doing it but I had taken a less than perfect situation and changed it into a much better one.  

The final thing I remember learning about in Unit 1 was the Stanford Design Model. I spent a lot of time on their website, exploring. The Standford model starts with Empathize, followed by Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I took some notes on each of the “Modes” of design thinking and felt like a whole new world was opening up in front of me. It made so much sense! And I started lamenting to my husband that I hadn’t known about design until I was over 40. What a waste of time. 

We worked our way through the design process by choosing a problem of practice to focus on. A problem that we were having in our own classroom or school that needed a creative solution. I chose to use my Advanced Baking class as my problem of practice. The curriculum was all about cake decorating which none of the students had a big interest in. I had been teaching it completely “off curriculum” for a few years trying to figure out which direction to go. It needed a lot of work. 

 We starting with Empathize. In Unit 2 we practiced empathizing and it seemed like the natural place to start. It is always my goal to get to know all of my students and make a connection of some kind with each and every one of them. I hurt for them when they tell me that its not “normal” for a teacher to talk to them like they are people and to show interest in who they are. I think that’s why this step struck me as so darn important. In education, we often start AND end our curriculum and activity design without ever considering the final user, the student. I’m not typical, students are always the center of what I’m working on so I talked to the students to get their view of the curriculum and how it should be shaped for THEIR use. 

This is the point where I became REALLY interested in the design process and how it can be useful in education. I was on board! I started thinking of the many ways I could use the design model to improve my teaching and even my decision making about WHAT to teach. If we changed the way we thought about problem-solving we could be creating much better solutions to some of our biggest problems. 

Unit 3 brought us to Define. Here we spent some time digging deeper into the problem and figuring out what the real root of it was. What I had listed as my original problem was just what I saw on the surface but once I started digging I found so much more to look at. It had all seemed much simpler before this step, lol. I had to pull everything apart and push the distracting parts to the side to find the real soul of the problem. 

With each unit, I was becoming a more passionate proponent of the design process. In our rush to quickly solve problems and move on we rarely (or never) look at them in this depth. The design process taught me to be much more thorough and purposeful in my approach. If we spend the time to empathize and define the problem then the rest of the process will be much more successful. 

Unit 4 blew my mind! We were ideating. This means we were brainstorming, but no, more than brainstorming. Brainstorming usually leads us to the “typical” answers and rarely leads us in a creative direction. In this unit, we were encouraged to focus on the problem and then put it aside for a while. This gives our brain a chance to really marinate on the problem and leads to epiphany type moments. 

I had a few of those moments. I was in the middle of teaching a lesson when one of them struck. I had to take a moment to write it down and even mulled it over in front of the students aloud. They showed interest so I knew it was something to keep in mind. 

This was the first opportunity I had had as an adult where I was encouraged to write it all down, no matter how extreme it seemed. Usually, there are constraints like cost, time, etc. but not for this process.

The last two parts of the design process are different but they go hand in hand and can end up being a cycle. They are Prototype and Test. Basically, you take all of the best ideas from your ideation and narrow it down to the one that will solve the problem most effectively. Then you create a prototype of that solution. It’s a physical representation of your solution. It might be a machine or a draft of a document. Once you have a prototype you then test it and use the data to improve your next prototype and test again, and again, and again until you get it just right. 

The most important part of this is that it is acceptable to NOT be perfect the first time! There will be many iterations of the prototype that have to be tested before you get it just the way you want it. 

I think there are a lot of applications in education for this concept alone. We expect perfection from our students but why? We test them and then hand back the corrected test but what does that really tell us. Wouldn’t it be better to give it back and allow them to make corrections until they have really learned the lesson? This is a topic that I have to spend some more time thinking about…

In Retrospect

Design has applications in each and every part of my life. It could have huge implications in education but also in my daily life. I’ve found myself thinking about empathy when talking to my kids or ideating a solution to the problem we have in the garage with all those darn cardboard boxes that need to be packed for recycling. I prototyped a lesson for baking at home for my students and tested it with my Advanced Baking students before using it for the lower level Baking students. We had to test it twice to get it right. 

We can learn a lot by following modes of design thinking. We can learn about our students in a way we didn’t before. We can open up our thinking to include new and radical solutions to age-old problems. We can learn to be creative again. Now that we are at the end of the course I understand the purpose of that 55 fiction that I dreaded so much. I have to write another one this week but I’m not pushing it off as I did before. I’m saving it for last just like I always save the best for last. 

 

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