No Problem Too Wicked

We are at one of the most exciting times fn education. We sit at a juncture in which technology and it’s sensible integration can fundamentally change the way that students learn for the better. Two years ago, prior to starting my Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) I would’ve guessed this was the case. Now I know for sure. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take courses that gave me a glimpse into how technology, coupled with creativity and a designer’s mindset, can create positive change in education.


A Designers Mindset

Over the course of the last few years, both in this program and outside of it, I learned that a person’s mindset drives their behavior. The notions about the world that we carry subconsciously determine our decisions. The world of education is not immune to this. Frequently we are face with challenges as educators that seem impossible to overcome. I learned in my Learning Technology Through Design course that Design Thinking is an incredibly powerful mindset to embrace, especially in regards to problem solving. There are three major tenets of design that I find frequently applicable to teaching: empathy, creativity, and iteration.

Empathy

In terms of design, empathy is the process by which a designer understands the user. Before any kind of design can happen the designer must understand the situations, struggles, mindsets, and culture of the user. From there a product or process can begin to be designed to improve the user’s experience.

Teaching necessitates empathy

In order to design experiences for our students that maximize learning we need to understand our learners. We need to have a complete understanding of all the aforementioned requirements for empathy. I think teachers are generally empathetic and most leverage this to some degree. The design thinking mindset requires that not only are we passively empathetic (my term) but that we take that empathy and intentional design around it. For instance, most teachers recognize that giving too much homework is a bad thing (CITATION). In fact, many teachers (myself included), think that almost all homework is unproductive. Despite this, many teachers consistently give homework. Many of the traditional teaching frameworks (I do, we do, you do), especially in mathematics teaching, necessitate independent practice outside of class.

To be actively empathetic would be to not only recognize the problems with homework, and it’s impact on students lives outside of school, but would be proceed through the design process to find a solution. Many teachers, I think, stop at the empathy or shortly after. It’s a truly difficult problem to address, especially in traditional contexts, so the result is empathy without action. We understand the user’s (our student’s) experiences and struggles, yet we fail to address them in a way that leads to more learning. Creativity provides avenues to addressing difficult problems, similar to this one.

Creativity

When presented with a problem that seems difficult or impossible we often get stuck and give up. In both the design thinking course and the Creativity in Teaching and Learning course I began to understand that many of these problems seem impossible because of the lack creativity applied to them. Through processes such as embodied cognition, dimensional thinking, adjusting our perceptions, and, most importantly, play, we give ourselves a chance to tackle seemingly impossible problems.

Through observations over the last couple of years I’ve noticed that many teachers, especially in mathematics, don’t view themselves as “creative types”.

This is simply not true.

I learned, not only in the creativity class but in all of my coursework at MSU, that creativity is like a muscle. The more we practice it that better we get. We can learn to be more creative. This means we can grow to be better designers which by definition means we can design an unlimited number of novel solutions to even themes difficult problems.

Iteration

I think most teachers iterate frequently. This should put iteration, in the context of design thinking, squarely in the teaching mindset. The design process is actually best viewed as a cycle and this cycle is iterative in nature. The last phases of the design process are prototyping and testing. The expectation for these phases is failure. Failure is a positive thing because it means that we are stretching ourselves. From failure in these phases the design is improved prior to implementation. But the important thing to understand is that implementation is not the end of the process. Once a design is implemented we can jump right back to empathizing with our users that are now experiencing the design. And the process repeats.

Too often in education we avoid failure. We avoid taking risks because of a chance of failure. We are likely to avoid trying a creative idea in the classroom because we fear failing. Design thinking embraces failure, so long as we gain from it. Framing failure in this way values it and makes it a positive aspect of teaching. Although teachers are iterative (we design a lesson, often reflect on that lesson, and tweak accordingly) we rarely iterate aggressively because we don’t need to. We implement tasks or lessons that are generally “safe”, requiring minimal adjustment. This isn’t awful by itself, but it keeps us from exploring creative ideas. It may be safe in the short term, but over the long term I think we fail to reach our creative potential.

Give the fact that most teachers are empathic, creativity can be learned, practiced, and improved, and that teaching is an inherently iterative process, teachers are in a perfect position to leverage the design process effectively and frequently. I encourage you to spend some time studying the design process and I’ll think you’ll see many direct parallels to teaching and learning.

If I could nail down one takeaway from my time spent studying creativity and design it would be that no problem is unsolvable. Take this structure I put in place to reduce the amount of time I spend at the front of the classroom answering homework problems, for example. I’ve observed that this is especially true for teaching, learning, and schooling. Too frequently we get stuck in ineffective systems that we assume cannot be changed. This is frequently not true. A good designer challenges assumptions. A good designer finds problems than many people don’t even realize existed. They understand their users, prototype, fail early, and grow. These are all characteristics we should be seeking in all educators.


You’ll notice that design thinking and creativity will show up in various places throughout the rest of this essay. As I mentioned above it’s a mindset that stuck with me and drives much of how I approach my profession. Next I want to discuss how my views of learning have shifted since completing the MAET program.

Understanding Understanding

I learned early on in the MAET program that understanding how students reach an understanding of a concept is necessary for effective teaching. In one of my first courses we read and discussed several ideas from the book How People Learn. It became clear that students’ prior knowledge and their first exposure to a new concept is important. In an attempt to actively engage their prior knowledge and put them in a position cognitively to learn, I try to design tasks that have a low barrier to entry but a high potential for learning. The low barrier to entry frequently manifests itself in students “playing” with concepts. In this post you can see how technology can allow students to explore concepts prior to formal instruction. This gives them a chance to see how what they already know about a given concept might apply to the new concept. Ideally it also challenges any prior misconceptions they had about a concept. With any luck this will also spark questions for students. Then, in more formal instruction, we can start to bring together their prior knowledge, dispel misconceptions, and set a solid foundation for more learning. I’ve found that if I can engage their curiosity early on in a lesson or unit then students are more likely to be motivated throughout.

The importance of play not only to curiosity but also to learning and problem solving stretched through much of my coursework. I’ve realized over the last two years that as an “expert” in mathematics I frequently use play when I encounter a new problem. I’m more likely than a novice to explore several techniques or avenues to solving a problem. I’m also likely to pursue creative methods for problem solving. Part of this is that since I’ve dealt with many more problems than my students I categorize problems better. This means the methods I choose are more likely to be effective. However, of equal importance is that I don’t fear making a mistake or choosing an incorrect method. Unfortunately I think many students give up on problems without trying anything because they don’t want to try something they aren’t sure will work.

This fear of making a mistake in the context of mathematics is something I’ve thought deeply about over the last two years. In the Year 2 Summer cohort (read more about the cohorts here) we read about and discussed how learning is the process of putting an idea “out there” and getting feedback from others. Every piece of feedback or discussion around a concept contributes to our understanding of that concept. If learning is this constant process of using or discussing a concept and adjusting understanding based on feedback then we need students that don’t fear trying their ideas. We need students that view mistakes as an opportunity to learn. I now try to ensure that I help create a safe community for my students that values creative and multiple approaches to problem solving.


Balance

A final theme that persisted throughout the program was balance. We learned about different theories of learning, frameworks for technology integration, creativity and design techniques, how to implement effective professional development, and current educational technology trends. The interesting aspect of all of these was that balance is required of most. Take current educational technology trends for instance. Although the Maker’s Movement is popular in education right now it doesn’t mean that we should convert all of our lesson to making lessons. Every new idea or concept we learned about had to balanced against our current teaching reality. This requires flexibility and flexibility on the part of the teacher.

One of the most important concepts that I learned in the first year cohort was the Technology Pedagogy and Content Knowledge (TPACK framework. As you can see in the diagram below, the TPACK framework requires that a teacher accounts for all three aspects in each lesson he or she teaches. I think we can all think of lessons we’ve seen (or at the very least we can imagine) that don’t balance all three well. For instance, early on in my career I would use a lot of technology and sound content knowledge, but looking back my decisions weren’t as pedagogically sound as they should have been. Sometimes its easy to forget that each part holds significant importance and that lesson planning requires careful consideration of each.

TPACK Self-Assessment
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/1PZriT1

Frequently technology is forgotten or dropped from lessons because our view of technology is too narrow. The technology bubble is not referring to only cutting edge technology or even “high tech” technology. A dry erase board is technology. Sticky notes and poster paper are technologies. Any sort of technology, be it high tech or low tech, needs to be accounted for in lesson planning. There are few circumstances in which technology at some level doesn’t improve the lesson (if it’s implemented with pedagogy and content knowledge in mind of course).

I’ve noticed that we frequently lack balance in education. I’ve seen many schools decide that the solution to their problems is technology so they do things like purchase interactive whiteboards for each classroom or tablets for each student. This is fine but when there is no plan for implementation, professional learning for staff, evaluating the effectiveness of the technology or the tech doesn’t work as planned, the initiatives frequently fail. Although I’m only in my fifth year of teaching I see that too often we hear of a program or initiative that has all of the answers to our problems and we jump in the ocean after it. My final major takeaway from the last two years in this program is that a skeptic’s eye is required in looking at educational trends. Then after close examination the idea can be balanced with other knowledge and research, then carefully integrated.


My time spent in the MAET program has profoundly impacted my approach to my profession. I feel like I’m coming away with a powerful skill set and knowledge base to be a more effective educator. One of my biggest fears prior to getting my masters was that I would end up wasting money on courses that were irrelevant or full of busy work. For the most part my work in this program deepened my understanding of applications of educational technology, philosophies of learning, and design thinking. The time we devoted to discussion, especially in the summer cohorts, particularly contributed to my understanding of different concepts. Having learned the aforementioned frameworks and mindsets I feel that no problem is unsolvable.