Future of learning (is design): Empathy mapping to target engagement

Learning design is a process of rethinking the experience of school that supports a zero-based strategy, rather than tinkering with the edges of the status quo. It is a shift from teacher-directed ‘delivery’ of curriculum, to learner-centred approaches. If we are genuinely seeking to engage the disengaged, then we need to focus in empathy – know thy learner.

The Grattan Institute report Engaging Students: Creating classrooms that improve learning (2017)

“In Australia, many students are consistently disengaged in class: as many as 40 per cent are unproductive in a given year…This report calls for policy reforms to build teacher capabilities to improve classrooms.”

The 40% matter. Learning design is an effective strategy to build teacher capabilities and it begins with empathy.

In the world of design, empathy is the essential starting point. My favourite account of this is by Doug Dietz, industrial designer. You can view has TEDx talk from 2012 for the full account.  He was so excited by his brand new MRI scanner, describing himself as a ‘proud papa’, then he witnessed a seven year old child entering the MRI suite with her parents. Dad leant down and said, “remember we’ve talked about this, you can be brave”, his daughter just freezes. At the sound of the machine’s weird noises she starts to cry, really cry.

At this moment Doug sees his baby, the MRI machine, with fresh eyes. He sees the ‘horrible warning sticker’, there’s yellow and black tape on the floor that looks like an accident machine and everything looks beige.

This is empathy. The MRI through the eyes of that child brings Doug to tears. He realises he needs to make a radical change. He ran ‘focus groups’ with pre-schoolers, he learned about developmental stages of children and he observed them at play. Doug held a brainstorming session with a team from a museum around kids’ interests, then ideated a variety of solutions. You can see the range of solutions in the talk, but it was when he heard a little girl ask her mum, “can we come back tomorrow?” that he knew it had turned around.


The Empathic Learning Designer

Empathy is powerful.  The Interaction Design Foundation put it this way, we need to lay aside ‘learning, culture, knowledge and opinions’, and understand other people’s experiences deeply and meaningfully.

How might we empathy map learners?

This diagram outlines a model of learner-centred design: ‘Starting with Learners’.

Learning Design.png

When I facilitate Learning Design Workshops the process starts with empathy, especially for the 40%.

Once you identify your 40%:

Quick way: Teaching team identify five or six students, either real or creating aggregated personas and pool collective knowledge of these students

Better way: Set aside time to observe and interview learners to better understand their perspective. Share your insights and observations with the teaching team.

A two step process for empathy mapping:

  1. What do we need to know and understand about the learner?
  2. On the everyday experience of school: What does the learner think, see, hear, feel, do?

Empathy map.png

I am passionate about learning design, we need to shift the experience of school from teachers as technicians delivering curriculum to teachers as learning designers. Rethinking education and starting from a zero-base is critical for all learners, but especially for the 40% and empathy mapping is the place to start.



Lynch, D. & Smith, R. (2006). The learning management design process, in R Smith & D Lynch (eds), The rise of the learning manager: changing teacher education. Pearson Education Australia Retrieved from: http://elearning.tki.org.nz/Teaching/Future-focused-learning/Learning-design





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