We’ve now been designing for more than three months as a part of this project and I occasionally wonder if we have a clear sense of who we are designing for or for what purposes. For example, when I was a high school teacher, every class had a handful of students that were going to do what they had to in order to get an A. Whether by innate talent or through brute work, these weren’t the students that I was designing for: I knew they were along for the pedagogical ride. Instead–particularly as we consider how aspects of this project like social and emotional learning and project-based learning can completely change students’ attitudes about school identity, and participation in society–I think we need to consider the students most teetering academically, socially, and emotionally within our classes. We need to design for them.
If you buy into this premise – that we probably need to do instructional work for the students that may not be as engaged as the most visible participants in our classes – then there are a few assumptions about school that we need to challenge in our design work. I can summarize these with a design question I’ve been consciously, but silently carrying with me into this work: How can me make this school-based instructional activity feel less like school?
As reflective and grounded educators committed to getting better at our work, we do a lot of talking about reflection, empathy, and affect in classrooms. But we need to remember that students preserve a lot of memory along with these feelings: it is entirely possible that negative experiences in previous classes get in the way of accessing, participating, feeling joyful in our classrooms. (The second episode of the podcast Surprisingly Awesome looks at how emotional baggage is such a huge barrier to professional basketball players sinking lowly free-throws during high stakes situations.) If we want the design modules we are developing to most harmoniously sing with the needs of the students who are a silent majority in our schools, they need to perhaps not look like traditional school.
Here’s what we’re good at: we’re good at doing school. Many of us probably became teachers because of positive experiences we had in schools; schools were spaces we flourished within and we want to carry on those feelings and experiences for others. In the words of the funkiest of pedagogues that I know, George Clinton, “It would be ludicrous to think that we are new to this, we do this. This is what we do.”
As I write this, Utah stretches below me as I am en route to visit family in the Pacific Northwest. As geographically diverse as the space is, I am also reminded how monotonic the farmed and civilized land actually is. Urban density, pastures, farms: they all turn into a patchwork of circles, squares, and rectangles from up here. What looks so unique up close is just another splotch of humanity’s thumbprint onto the earth. Is this how our work will look? Does it look different up close but, at the end of the day, looks like more school when we take a step back?