User-Centered Design in Schools

User-centered design is a design concept that is simply focused on designing products and services with the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. At first, it sounds simple, but this approach requires a keen eye, an ability to listen, and being truly opening to learning from the patient, customer, or end user of whatever it is that you might be designing. It calls for the mindset of an ethnographic researcher, being deeply curious, and pushing through conventional wisdom and untested assumptions. Yet, the end result is something that really works, something that truly addresses a key need or problem for the user, something that resonates with people.

While I appreciate the caution of trying to treat a school like a business / customer transaction, there is still something useful about a user-centered design when it comes to our schools. Consider, for example, how curricula are often designed today. Interview dominant textbook publishers. Ask the designers and developers of leading educational software and educational product companies. Ask teachers and curriculum committees to describe the processes that they use to design curriculum. How many of them actually use a user-centered design approach? I can tell you from my study over the years, the answer is very few.

There are some who turn to research about education. Textbook and curriculum developers, for example, do tap into content experts, educational psychologists, instructional designers, and many other people with valuable expertise. It is quite rare, however, for the development process to involve careful observations of learners, interviews with learners, observations of future life and work contexts, and the like. We have resources informed by research sometimes, but it is not necessarily designed in a way that takes into account important factors and nuances with various learners.

For those who think that I’m arguing that we should just cater to the random whims of any student, I’m not. This is about getting serious when it comes to results and impact. User-centered design is producing wonderful outcomes in healthcare and other areas, so why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it to improve our education system?

While this is great for new and existing schools and programs, I think a great place to start is more user-centered design with our policies. Instead of lobbying for one policy or another and turning the whole thing into troubling political positioning, what would happen if we worked toward a system where policies were shaped, informed by and evaluated by some sort of user-centered design approach? Shouldn’t policies be created and supported that keep the learner in mind? What good and ethical reason can we have for promoting policies that do not truly have the user/learner in mind throughout the process? Isn’t school first and foremost about equipping students for life and work?

Of course, I’m keen to engage the students directly in the project too. There is little keeping us from teaching user-centered design to students and having them help to improve the school system. After all, they are already the stakeholders for whom this is most important. Why not give them a chance to help make it better and, as a result, improve their own learning? I talk to many groups interested in creating new schools or programs, and I love providing initial consulting for such groups. Yet, it is fascinating to me how often people don’t take time to learn directly from students or to engage them directly in the design and development process? Why not? What is there to lose? I sure see much to gain.

Yet, maybe all of this is a bit too abstract. If you haven’t seen user-centered design in action or even read about it, you might still be wondering what all of this is about. What exactly is user-centered design? As I noted before, it is a broad term to describe any design that is keeping the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. It works from a number of simple guiding principles. I’ve tweaked them a bit to apply this to an educational context.

  1. Base the school, class, lesson, learning experience design upon a deep understanding of the learners, their goals and needs, and the unique context or environment.
  2. Involve learners in helping to shape, reshape, and revise the school, lessons, learning experience design in an ongoing way; and at all stages of design and development.
  3. Elicit learner feedback and input (through observation, surveys or other creative ways) throughout the process, not simply starting with the leadership’s potentially narrow set of goals and priorities. Respect the goals and needs of the learners.
  4. The design never ends. It is constantly tweaked and adjusted based upon feedback loops from the learners and other key stakeholders (parents, community, etc.).
  5. Design in a way that considers the full breadth of the leaner’s experience, not just narrow academic metrics. Design in a way that fits with the goals, values and priorities that are near and dear to the learners and other key stakeholders.

Imagine how our schools might change if we were to consistently and persistently apply these principles to our design of the learning experiences. Notice that this doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher in the least, but it also doesn’t build a system around the preferences of the teachers, the administrators, or any other whose primary responsibility is to serve the students in their learning. If schools exist for learners (and for the communities in which those learners will live and work), it only makes sense that a deep understanding of the learners would play a central role in the design and redesign of the experience.

There are a variety of processes that people use for user-centered design, but almost all of them are based on five key elements. The first involves identifying the problem, but it isn’t done in isolation. Already at the problem phase, we are listening to, observing and learning from the user. The second step, given that this is typically a product development process, is to determine the context in which a user will make use of the product. Or in a learning context, we can think about the context in which we hope for learners to learn and to apply what they learn…not only that, but the context in which the learners themselves hope to learn and apply what they learn. Then, based on this early research, we need to create a list of critical characteristics. What elements need to be present in this product if it is going to meet the needs of the learners? These elements will serve as guides throughout the rest of the design process. Next we need to start designing some prototypes and creating plans to get learner feedback and input on these prototypes. How well do they embody the key traits and meet the identified needs? We then identify a prototype to further develop, build it out, and start to gather ongoing user data that we then use to persistently adapt and improve what we are doing.

Imagine the possibilites if we were to embarce such an approach to the design of our schools and learning expeirences.


3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles

In, “Are ‘Learning Styles’ A Symptom of Education’s Ills?”, Anna North joins a long list of journalists, academics and researchers who are trying to dispel the myth that teaching according to student “learning styles” is a worthwhile effort. I’m referring to the concepts that originated in the 1970s, suggesting that each student has preferred “styles” of learning. One of the more popularized descriptions of learning styles is the VARK model: visual, auditory, reading-writing, and kinesthetic. This theory suggests that learners have a preference for one of these and that, designing lessons that accommodate such preferences, is more likely to improve each student’s learning.

This and similar approaches have been taught in teacher education programs and in-service teacher professional development for decades. In some schools, it is hard to find a P-12 teacher who doesn’t refer to the importance of learning styles. That is surprising given the limited research to support such claims, and the growing body of literature to suggest that designing lessons according to student learning styles or preferences does anything significant to improve student learning. Yet, the beliefs and practices persist. In fact, when I challenge the idea of using learning styles as a way of designing instruction, it is common to get passionate opposition, quickly turning to a flurry of anecdotal proofs from one’s classroom experience. I offer three responses to such opposition.

1. A Plea to Healthy Skepticism 

“Yes, please don’t believes this because I am saying it. I have not provided a single robust and empirical study to support my claim. Why not test my claims by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject? There is ample research to explore. Check it out directly and see what you think.”

The challenge is that using peer-reviewed research is uncommon among many in education, and methods of teaching classes in University education programs are often taken from textbooks and “how-to” resources. Look at a typical undergraduate education program, you will often find students reading secondary works about education far more than they are reviewing the scholarly research.

2. A Plea to Common Sense

Suppose I want to teach you how to play basketball. Is one student going to learn basketball better by watching slide shows for hours, while a different student will learn it better by playing basketball and getting coaching? Or, should I divide up my physical education class into four groups: having the reading-writing people just read books about basketball and writing essays, the visual learners just look through instructive photos about playing basketball, and the auditory learners send to another areas to listen to recorded audio lectures on playing basketball?

I realize that this argument has weaknesses. After all, ample research challenges our common sense or experiences. That is part of the fun of delving into the research. Regardless, I’ve found that this example often helps people become a bit more open to considering different claims about the effectiveness or lack thereof for using learning styles as a guide for designing instruction.

3. How Should we Prioritize?

A third response is that I step away from too strong of an attack against learning styles. Instead, I suggest that we simply prioritize the degree of importance we assign to many considerations for designing learning experiences. For example, I mention cognitive load theory, a body of research showing how we can minimize the chance of students experiencing overload when trying to grasp a new concept. I reference the value of taking into account prior student experiences and learning when designing learning experiences. I reference the importance of students having adequate attention to or focus upon that which is being learned. I talk about the research in support of deliberate practice. Or, I might also discuss the research on feedback loops and their impact on student learning. In other words, given all the research we have on what helps students learn, where should we prioritize the learning style claims?

There may well be research in the future to support more of the claims around learning styles as a guide for designing effective learning experiences, but I’ve yet to see a solid body of such literature. As such, it only makes sense to me that we focus our attention on those areas that are far more consistently supported.

What do you think? Have you been a learning styles champion in the past? To what extent are you open to challenging some of those assumptions and practices, or possibly lowering them on our list of strategies for designing high-impact learning experiences? Or, are you already one of the minority who never embraced learning styles or who has set them aside for more fertile teaching and learning ground?

How to Maximize the Impact of an Edupreneur in Your School

There is a good chance that you have at least a couple of them in your school. The question is whether they will soon be leaving your school or if they are helping them make their greatest impact on the students, school, community and world. I’m referring to edupreneurs, the sometimes eccentric, but always passionate and driven teachers who want to create, innovate and conjure the spirit of a startup in education. Many edupreneurs started by identifying a problem, need or opportunity and doing something about it. They are action-oriented and want to see tangible results. Does this sound like the type of educator who might have something to offer to your school and students? Is is the type of person that you might want to keep around? If so, here are ten tips to doing just that.

1. Differentiate

We get the idea of differentiated instruction for students, but what about for teachers, staff and administrators? Sometimes doing the same thing for every person is the least fair, or it is a certain way to make sure you don’t help everyone perform at their maximum capacity. Instead, consider what each teacher and staff member needs to not only survive the day, but to thrive. Make it your goal to offer differentiated leadership.

2. Leave Space for Innovation

Sometimes school leaders establish policies and procedures that verge on micro-managing. Some employees thrive on very detailed and prescribed activities, but many do not, especially not the edupreneurs. They need room to experiment, explore and innovate; and that means finding ways to loosen up on the reigns a bit. In fact, there may even be times when you want to give them the freedom and flexibility to work beyond the standard policies and procedures to launch something new. Just be aware of the impact on the overall culture and be prepared to manage perceptions.

3. Affirm The Innovators

Find ways to affirm the innovative work of the edupreneurs. Make sure they know that you value their contributions and appreciate their distinct gifts and abilities.

4. Help Them Find the Time and Resources

Innovation takes both. When possible and proper, look for creative ways to give a bit of financial support and especially time for them to work on a new project. If that means calling something a pilot and making them the official lead for it, then give it a try.

5. Redefine Failure

A highly risk-averse context is not a place where an edupreneur will thrive. If you want to reap the benefits of such people in your school, then it means celebrating failure as an education that helps with future endeavors. Of course, you want to manage the risk and make sure it doesn’t compromise other organizational priorities, but given that you have those things in check, give them room to fail and don’t treat it like a character flaw. The goal is positive impact more than polished perfectionism.

6. Accept The Value of the Lopsided Edupreneur

Some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial people are wonderfully lopsided. In other words, they don’t necessarily have a perfectly balanced set of skills, knowledge and abilities. However, they may have a few amazing and well-refined skills and abilities, and that is where they can have the greatest impact. Those annual reviews need to happen and it is important to help them work on growth areas that might hurt them (or others) or hold them back from being successful. It is equally or even more important to encourage them to build on their strengths. In other words, if they are excelling in an area, don’t necessarily think that the goal is to then help them excel in an area of weakness. Instead think about how you can help them build on their strengths.

7. Be Open to New Titles, Structures and Processes

Innovation is, by nature, about doing things that are not being done. So, there is unlikely to be a set of policies, rules and job descriptions that fit what an edupreneur may be trying to do. Be open to creating new positions, new job descriptions, and new structures that give them what they need to flourish.

8. Trust Them But Stay True to Your Convictions

You are not going to see or understand everything they are trying or thinking. Some may even seem downright silly. You will need to find a balance between trusting them to innovate in ways that you don’t understand and staying true to your values and convictions for the school. Make your expectations clear, but also be willing to give them the freedom to do things that you don’t get…at least not yet.

9. Keep the Students First

These innovators have wonderful gifts to offer, but your first priority is to the well-being and education of the students. In the frenzy of creating and innovating, some edupreneurs may occasionally lose sight of certain elements that are critical. They may often be willing to take risk that you are not willing to take, not when other key priorities are at stake. With that in mind, you can support them, but do so within the boundaries that you consider important, and communicate those boundaries clearly, explaining why they are important to you. Sometimes you will set boundaries in the wrong place, so be humble enough to see that and change. Other times, the edupreneur may decide that she needs more freedom and flexibility than is possible in your school. That is okay.

10. Let Them Go

Some edupreneurs will be delighted to spend a long career in your school, but that is not necessarily the calling for all of them. Some will benefit your school, develop new skills while there, and then be called to something else. Accept that. Don’t try to guilt them into staying. Make sure they know that they are valued and supported as long as they want to stay, but also be the first to give them your blessing and support as they go to start the next big education business, start a new school, or apply their gifts in a new context.

10 Ways for Teachers to Hack Homework Assignments

A recent #Edchat was focused on the topic of homework. Should we use it? What is good homework? What are the benefits and drawbacks? What does the research say about it? Some even wondered what a teacher can do when the school requires that they give a certain amount of homework. My response to that last question was simple. If you are required to give homework, then hack it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that hacking homework is a good standard practice.

Homework is simply defined as work that a student is supposed to do at home (or beyond the class session). With that broad of a definition, it is hard to make too many definitive statements about it. For me, that is an invitation to play and experiment with the term. So what does it mean to hack homework? Hacking is about experimentation, exploration, using things in unexpected or even unintended ways. So, if we add hacking to homework, we get the idea of playful, experimental, experiential, exploratory learning. In other words, we get an idea of homework that sets aside the worksheets, drill and practice exercises, and similar activities. We let go of the idea of that performance on homework assignments adds up to be part of a letter grade. Instead, what if we made homework exploratory, playful, and formative. With that in mind, here are ten ways to get you started on your homework hacking journey.

1. Life Experiments

This is can be done prior to or after a lesson. It is where you invite learners to conduct simple experiments related to what they are exploring in class, and then to report their findings back to the class.

2. Find It in the Real World

These are assignments that challenge students to try or test something from class beyond the walls of the school. If it is a math class, have students find examples of where the math is being used, or how it can be used to explain something.

3. Interviews and Observations

This may not work as well for every content area, but having students observe or talk to people can be a rich and powerful learning experience. It doesn’t need to be complex. Even simple conversations with parents or guardians can be enlightening.

4. Don’t Grade It

Think about it. Homework is typically about helping students practice. Practice is not the game. It helps get ready for the game. So, why would we make the practice part of what goes into the final grade for the class? That is confusing formative and summative assessment, and it simply rewards those who need the least amount of practice or help. If grades about what students have or have not learned by the end of the class, why grade homework, which is just progress toward that final goal?

5. Make their Non-Homework Homework

Tell them not to do any homework, but then to make connections between what they learned in class and what happening in the rest of their lives.

6. Mini Service Learning

How about the “Pay it Forward” approach to homework. Give them the challenge of using something they learned in the class to help someone. Then have them report back. This is a great way to help students make the connection between the life of learning and service.

7. Artistic Expressions

Most students have cell phones, iPods or something they can use to snap pictures. Have students take one or more pictures that helps teach or illustrate a concept that was studied or will be studied in class. Once they take the picture, you can have it send to you, ready for a fun and interesting slide show the next day in class. In essence, your students are creating part of the hook for the lesson.

8. Self-Directed and Self-Generated Homework

Your assignment is to give yourself an assignment that will help you learn, reinforce, or refine your understanding of ___________ (a topic learned about in class). You will be amazed at some of the interesting and creative ideas that students develop. This will also help you learn about them as learners, an it helps them learn about themselves. People say that homework teaches responsibility, but this really helps students move toward self-directed learning and the nurturing of human agency, which is hopefully what we want to see in graduates.

9. Homework Games

Your task is to create a game that could be used to help people learn about ________. Then, when you get to class, play some of the games.

10. Lesson Planning

Yes, why not invite students into the lesson planning process. Share all your lessons with students in advance using a Google Doc. Let them use the comment feature to review, revise, suggest alternatives, etc. In other words, invite them into the process of planning their own learning activities.

This is just the beginning. By simply giving ourselves permission to define homework more broadly and combining with the spirit of the hacker, we can come up with some wonderfully rich, engaging, and beneficial “homework” for learners. What are your ideas? Feel free to suggest other ways to hack homework in the comment area.