Teachers as designers of learning: Step 1 Empathy

How might we support the individual student growth and achievement so that learning is personal and differentiated?

Slide1Design thinking, a collaborative and participatory process, is useful in finding unique and creative solutions to complex problems. It provides a way for non-designers to co-design or co-create their way through a problem, shifting between convergent and divergent thinking, as a mechanism to draw out creativity.  IDEO and Stanford D-School are the names synonymous with the design thinking, however, it was pioneered in the 1980s and early 1990s employing a process of participatory design, “guided by attempts to open up the design of ICT systems to the participation of future users” (Sanders, Brandt & Binder, 2010)

School has long been structured to provide a standardised mass-produced model of education, in buildings designed to meet functional and economic demands, at the expense of even considering the aesthetic, and across generations reinforcing a fixed mental model of school. We’ve all heard the rhetoric, egg-crate classrooms, silo-ed subjects, prescriptive curriculum outcomes, solo teachers and competitive testing.  In a recent opinion piece Geoff Masters, CEO of Australian Council for Educational Research wrote

Schools are sometimes described as operating on an industrial model. Students are grouped by age and move along an “assembly line” from one school year to the next
. . .The year 9 teacher delivers the year 9 curriculum to year 9 students with the intention that grades for the year will be uninfluenced by students’ performances in prior years.

And this might all be fine if students began each year at more or less the same point in their learning. In reality, the most advanced 10 per cent of students begin each school year about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent of students. (SMH, March 2018)

With a range of capabilities spanning six years, the bowling-a-ball-down-the-middle pedagogical approach will not serve all students. In his book, Gen Wifi, Greg Whitby writes, “The role of teacher changes from a transmitter of information, to contextualising it, from a deliverer of curriculum to a designer”. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating individualised programs for each student in each of your mathematics classes, but it is about shifting mental models and solving complex problems by thinking like a designer.

The idea of ‘teachers as designers’ requires an approach to professional learning that is consistent with student learning – collaborative, action-oriented and co-created.  Design begins with empathy.

AK2In my learning design workshops, I appreciate the importance of creating space for developing empathic student personas, focusing on potential ‘outliers’. It’s usually fun and very impacting. When we come to design learning, our personas become checkpoints: What would success look like for this student? It means drilling down to the level of the individual.

When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.
Stephen Covey


Find out more or keep in touch…


Sanders, Brandt & Binder (2010) Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference, Sydney, Australia Link

Whitby, Greg (2013). Educating Gen Wi-Fi : how we can make schools relevant for 21st century learners. HarperCollins, Sydney, N.S.W

2 thoughts on “Teachers as designers of learning: Step 1 Empathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: