Designing for Purpose: Clarity around the ‘WHY’ with serious fun!

Like me, you have probably been in workshops and think-tank sessions designed to bring fresh ideas to the surface. Yet, the same-old processes are used and the same-old people take the floor and the same-old solutions are implemented. Senge calls this the problem-fix loop and to uncover fresh ideas this cycle requires deliberate disruption.

How might flatten the strategic process and bring out the gold, especially from the quieter group members?

Earlier this year I participated in a workshop to hone my skills, learning to implement suite of tools called Liberating Structures, developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, and facilitated by Keith, in Australia from the USA.

Liberating Structures make it easy to transform how people interact and work together. . . they are designed to include and engage everybody. . . They “liberate”, so to speak, everybody’s contribution to the group’s success.

(Lipmanowicz & McCandless, )

As I facilitate workshops in corporate, social and education sectors, I employ these tools. They are designed to include and unleash everyone, as participants engage in seriously playful curiosity.

For clarity around your ‘why’ one particular workshop, Purpose to Practice, facilitates a process that empowers people to shape core elements:

PurposeWhy is this work important?
What are our core values?
PrinciplesWhat norms must we observe in the pursuit of our purpose and values?
ParticipantsWho must be included to achieve this?
What do they need to succeed?
StructureHow will we organise to support agency and encourage active participation?
PracticesWhat are we actually going to do?

There is a lot of hard work and serious fun as team members grapple with what matters to them and to the big picture. Curiosity is amplified by the unfolding visual representation, a tangible artefact that I create as part of the workshop, becoming reminder of why they do what they do and where to from here.

Do you need clarity?
Do you need a way to unleash all voices?
Are you stuck in the problem-fix loop?

I can help you.


6 Principles to support longevity and health in co-teaching teams: Reflecting on my own experience

I commenced my teaching career unconventionally, as a teacher-librarian. ‘Literature and library skills’, that was about the extent of the briefing for the job.  

Me, circa 1982, taking a ‘Library Lesson’ whatever that was?

A few years later, I faced my very first class of Year 1 students. Who in their right mind would leave me in charge of their education for an entire year? This comment reflected the degree of induction and support young teacher had back then (late 1980s). It was tough, as I felt I was muddling through.

The K-2 section of that school was accommodated in two most unsuited former residences. Little had been done to convert them into workable teaching spaces. My first classroom was known affectionately as ‘the goldfish bowl’, probably once a small reception room on the ground floor of the old house. The doors were glass, so I left them open anyway and we regularly spilled out beyond the doorway, I guess we’d call it a ‘break-out’ space today, back then it was just the area at the foot of the stairs that made it difficult for others to get through. 

The following year, I moved to the other building to teach Kindergarten. Over time, the teachers in the K-2 section had formed a close bond of collegiality and friendship. These connections led to each of us working closely with our grade partners. The Kindergarten classes shared a large common area, probably the living room, that separated the two classes, most likely bedrooms. The other Kindergarten teacher, Sue, and I naturally developed as a co-teaching-team over time. We shared lessons and utilised each other’s interests and strengths. We knew the students across the two classes, as if they were our own. Back then, we didn’t read anything about what makes great co-teachers, we just grew into our professional relationship. Sue had come from a special education background, sharing space and practice with other teachers was normalised. I learn so much from her.

In looking at research and best practice into co-teaching, much of the literature comes from the special education sector. Often cited is the work of Marilyn Friend (1993), she writes:

“Co-teaching in special education is an instructional delivery approach in which a classroom teacher and a special education teacher share responsibility for planning, delivering and evaluating instruction for a group of students”. Friend recognises that co-teaching is gaining popularity among general education teachers, suggesting the rationale as:

  1. To provide students with a more individualised and diversified learning experience.
  2. To enable teachers to complement each other’s expertise while providing a mutual professional support system.

These two points match our evolved co-teaching experience precisely. 

Launching into co-teaching today, is something that requires strategic consideration. The design and provision of shared learning spaces is increasingly common, however, I suspect the commensurate work in preparing teachers for this, is less so. 

There is no magic bullet to reaching team-nirvana. Main and Bryer reference the 1960s model by Tuckman – Stages of Team Development: forming, storming, norming and performing. They suggest that “these stages may not be sequential, may overlap, and may fluctuate back and forth. Stages may be omitted completely” (p.201). Teams can get stuck in the politeness of the forming stage, or shift into the storming stage and, without the development of requisite interpersonal skills, an unworkable culture may develop.

A perusal of literature (Friend, 1993; Main and Bryer, 2005; Murawski and Bernhardt, 2015; Stivers, 2008 ) suggests common threads to support longevity and health in co-teaching teams:

  1. Block time for planning
  2. Understanding and implementing models of co-teaching 
  3. Attending to the environment – the layout, furniture and resources 
  4. Gaining shared understanding and expectations from co-teaching team members
  5. Proactively dealing with interpersonal ‘issues’
  6. Participating in PD as a team

Finally, Stivers (2008) notes:

“Remember: It is not a marriage… your co-teacher may not be someone with whom you would choose to have a close personal relationship, but you can still build an effective professional relationship” (p.124).

I was fortunate to experience the organic development of a co-teacher relationship within an adaptive, if not unconventional, learning environment. As with any human endeavour, attention to the quality of the relationships between/amongst team members is critical to enhance the learning experience for students and for teachers to be professionally engaged. 



Friend, M (1993) Co-teaching: An overview of the past, a glimpse at the present, and considerations for the future, Preventing School Failure, Vol.37, Issue 4

Main, K. & Bryer, F. (2005), What does a “good” teaching team look like in a middle school classroom? Conference proceedings: Griffith University

Murawski, W. and Bernhardt, P (2015), An administrator’s guide to co-teaching, Educational Leadership, Vol. 73, No. 4.

Stivers, J (2008), Strengthen your co-teaching relationship, Intervention in School and Clinic, Vol. 44, No. 2

The learning debate is nothing new, it goes way back: Dismbodied Universals vs Contextualised Particulars

In 1896, John and Mary Dewey opened their laboratory school,

Dewey wished to ensure that learning was grounded in real-world contexts and activities rather than abstract ideas and rote learning… the educational process should mimic normal social behaviour, as opposed to the regimented kind of work he witnessed in traditional schools. 

Gislason, N (2009) Building Paradigms: Major Transformations in School Architecture (1798-2009) The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol.55 No.2 Summer 2009, 230-248

The Deweys wanted to create a learning paradigm which was “intrinsically motivated, authentic and context rich” as Gislason describes it.

However, 1896 is more like last week, when we look at the origins of this thinking – it goes back to Aristotle and Plato in the 4th century BC. My interest was piqued went I down a reading rabbit hole. Starting with a Twitter link to Forbes article We’ve Got It Backwards: Starting With Content Rather Than Learners Doesn’t Work by Tom Vander Ark 

Why are high school students so bored? How could we engage them to learn the required content? How can we nudge, support and coerce college learners to graduation?  What if we”’re asking the wrong questions? What if memorizing content and procedures wasn’t the point?

Vander Ark (2019)

In answering these questions, Tom referenced a short paper, Aristotle and Learning as Engagement in Particulars by Sasha Barab. In 350BC Aristotle warned:

Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience”. Whereas, the Platonic ideal is focused on, transmitting abstracted universals into a learner’s disembodied mind. (p.1)

Barab, S. (2019) Aristotle and Learning as Engagement in Particulars, Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

These ‘particulars’ and ‘universals are at the heart of the debate – not merely ‘knowing about’ with a focus on content, but ‘knowing for’, uniting the person and context with the content.

Barab concludes with, “Imagine if schools were laboratories for transforming particulars rather than factories for memorising predetermined structures”. (p.6) 

I’m with Aristotle.

Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; People become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.

Nicomachean Ethics Book 2


Destination Christchurch 2019: What I learnt about learning?

It’s the learners who matter, not the curriculum, not the teacher, not the timetable, the learners.

This past week Christchurch-based colleague, Cheryl Doig and I facilitated a week of professional learning for Sydney-based school leaders.

Sharing my reflections here:

We visited school working within the NZ system and simultaneously stretching boundaries of ‘what’s possible’. These schools reflect a growing shift, communities who are prepared to challenge convention.

Why? Because learner engagement matters, it becomes the driver. This is what is measured before achievement. Authentic student voice is sought. After all, happy, interested and curious learners want to come to school. Learners are asked:

“How challenging is the work for you?”

“Where do you think you will have success?”

As one principal said,

“Break every silo to implement change – not just tinker around the edges.”

Silos, the things schools normally ‘do’: subjects, timetables, staff meetings, age/grade groupings and teachers in control of their domain. Instead think, “Maths teachers needed to be literacy teachers as well”.

How did it work?

To unpack this question, Gislason’s School Climate Model, outlined by Cardellino and Woolner (2019) is very helpful,

the success of the learning environment can be understood in terms of alignment between the interdependent elements:



staff culture

student milieu

together define the environmental quality of the school. Should one of these elements be significantly out of joint…then a design may falter in its intended purpose”.

P. Cardellino & P. Woolner (2019) Designing for transformation – a case study of open learning spaces and educational change, Pedagogy, Culture &

Gislason, N. 2010, “Architectural design and the learning environment: A framework for school design research” Learning Environment Research, 13: 127-145

Each of the schools had new or refurbished school buildings and learning spaces, however, the provision of material elements (ecology) alone is, of course, insufficient to see the transformation.
(These points are aggregating a range of ideas)


Building design, technology and other material elements

  • Shared spaces, zoned areas and homebases
  • Teachers and classes in the open
  • Variety of furniture – purposefully considered
  • Attention to acoustics (emphasis deliberate)
  • Welcoming entry to the school, buzzing with activity and library as part of this space
  • Kitchen on each level, accessible for learners
  • Multi-level school, connected by broad stairs
  • No teacher’s desk in any learning space


Assumptions, values and patterns of thought and behaviour

  • Why, why, why do we do what we do?
  • Teachers observed engaged in a variety of ways: explicit teaching, small groups, one-on-one.
  • Equip teachers to effectively utilise 100 minute blocks
  • Know learners beyond academic
  • Recruit teachers in a group process
  • Learners first mindset
  • Adaptable and flexible
  • Collaborative problem solving
From: Collaborative Design of Learning HCC Tuakana April 2019


Learning and motivation, social climate.

  • Choice in focus – PINs: Passion, Interests, [learning] Needs
  • Self-directed learning
  • Mentoring and pastoral care consistent with values
  • Autonomy and choice in learning focus
  • Strong links to family and culture
  • Uniform dependent on the culture of the school
  • Asking: “How challenging is the work for you?”
  • The hum of productive noise
‘Connect before correct’ –


Teaching, scheduling and curriculum

  • In each school – 3x 100 minute periods/learning sessions
  • Subjects were not siloed, but connected
  • Timetable changes every five weeks
  • Range of curriculum subjects synthesised into three strands: STEM, Humanities, Kinesiology
  • Learning supported by teachers through
    • Integrated curriculum courses
    • Passion and interest-based courses
  • SOLO taxonomy used for assessment and measurement of learning
  • Collaborative design of learning and timetabling
    • Teachers had freedom to develop courses
    • Teachers pitch ideas for courses to colleagues to decide what’s next
  • Timetable all classes for a year level at the same time

A huge thanks to Andy, Karyn, Brad, Hamish, Ian, Steve, Sean and all the amazing learners, educators and community members we met, from Haeata Community Campus, St Thomas of Canterbury, Ao Tawhiti, Rolleston College and Lemonwood Grove School.


How might we provide the optimal environment for learners to flourish in STEM?

Short read: The headlines

In January 2020, I am leading a professional study tour with a STEM focus, visiting schools, universities and science centres in Scandinavia, Europe and the UK.

Across the world, innovation hubs, maker spaces and STEM centres are developed to inspire young (and old) scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. 

Where do you find the inspiration to develop the state-of-the-art learning environment?

I will be leading a tour this January to explore best practice in the design and application of STEM. Exploring schools and universities, but also the most exciting science centres in Europe, with behind-the-scenes tours where possible (more is explained in the long read). Concluding with a visit to Bett Show, billed as the world’s biggest technology event is held annually in London.

Curious? Head over to Culture Learning Design [STEM] Tour 2020 to find out more and register your interest.

Longer read:

STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and maths, are critical knowledge centres as we take advantage of the emerging opportunities, and address global challenges.

This might entail designing a wholistic STEM environment that will inspire curiosity and creative thinking, enable multi–disciplinary exploration, and where learning is hands-on and ‘body-in’ as much as ‘minds-engaged’.

Where learning is not just hands-on, but also body-in and minds-engaged, at Danfoss Universe in Nordborg, Denmark.

During my earliest study tours to Scandinavia (2010 and 2011) we visited Danfoss Universe in Denmark. The founder, Jorgensen Mads Clauson, believed that:

We need a new place to bring passion for science and technology back to our children. Danfoss Universe shall be such a place.

Danfoss Universe  was borne out of a commitment to develop a place to inspire creativity and innovation in young people, successfully combining the ‘wow factor’ of the theme park, with the ‘aha’ of the science centre.

The philosophy of Danfoss Universe was explained to our group as based around the Theory of Interest Development, perhaps drawing on the work of Andreas Krapp (2007):

This process takes the learner on a journey from providing the context for extrinsic inspiration, toward the individual learner developing deep intrinsic motivation, independently pursuing further learning. It reminds me of another young scientist I met in the UK a few years ago, we were visiting his school:

UK Student Corrects NASA Data Error

Miles had his interest triggered through providing the opportunity, and he then maintained a personal interest. To Miles, spreadsheet interrogation is ‘a lot more interesting than it sounds’.

How might your new (or current) STEM Centre or Innovation Hub support the diverse interests and passions of learners?

As I begin making plans for Culture Learning Design [STEM] Tour 2020, Danfoss Universe will be closed for the winter, but there are a number of other science centres on the radar to provide inspiration. Where possible, I am hoping to organise a behind-the-scenes tour of the places we will visit. Hopefully including:

Experimenta in Heilbronn, is Germany’s largest science centre, opened earlier this year. The building’s five pentagonal shaped stories are twisted and stacked. The design provides a place for the four worlds that shape the visitor experience – Metabolism, Head Stuff, World View and Adventure Playground

Science Centre Delft  – Science, design & engineering are the three main themes of the Science Center Delft. A unique gathering place for all research that is done at TU Delft (university). Visitors can experience the research setups of TU Delft researchers and students. (Netherlands)

Read: The Making of a Science Centre (TU Delft)

NEMO Science Museum – I have visited NEMO numerous times, along with the quality of the exhibitions and activities is the high level of engagement from the children and young people. NEMO’s mission is to bring science and technology closer to the public in an interactive and accessible way. (Amsterdam)

Den Bla Planet in Copenhagen is Northern Europe’s largest aquarium on the shores of Oresund. Designed by Danish firm 3XN the architecture is inspired by a vortex. ‘The Blue Planet’ is at the international forefront with world class architecture, with thousands of animals from all over the world and advanced presentation technologies.

In addition to this, I am on the lookout for schools and universities with exemplary STEM facilities and programs, particularly in the UK. The Northern Hemisphere is presently on summer vacation, so these will be confirmed in a couple of months.

Each year at the end of January, Bett Show, billed as the world’s biggest technology event is held in London. It is the industry event for the ed tech sector. Along with exhibitors, there are headline speakers, focusing on the future of education. The tour will conclude in London with BETT.

Curious? Head over to Culture Learning Design [STEM] Tour 2020 page to find out more and register your interest.

Is design thinking a nice idea for the creatives-types or a strategy for transformation? 3 ways leaders create the context for transformation by design

Leading change today requires a set of skills that is responsive to the collaborative and empathic culture that many organisations now value. In times past, leadership was transactional, aimed at efficiencies and relationships, negotiated within a hierarchical structure.

Sustaining a culture that is built on empathy and collaboration, requires an approach that values people and grows the capacity to embrace solutions beyond what is already known.  For schools it means that we shift the focus from a content delivery priority, to creating the context for optimising engagement – an ‘each learner’ culture.

A sustained commitment to transformation means that design moves from the realm a few keen creative-types, to becoming a culture – ‘we transform by design’. This can be achieved by becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, embracing the unknown, enabling divergent thinking and celebrating failure as an option. 

As with any change, maintaining momentum for the long haul starts with leaders providing the necessary guidance and support and walking the talk. It can often be challenging for leaders to relinquish control and refrain from making arbitrary decisions by default, but this is what needs to happen. 

In “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking” (HBR 2019) Bason and Austin outline three ways that leaders can create the context for transformation by design:

  • Leveraging empathy by helping teams to take a positive path:
    • Letting go of preconceptions and long-held beliefs
    • Reframing problems into positive, such as ‘How might we…so that…’ statements
    • Getting closer to the user
  • Encouraging divergent thinking and navigating ambiguity.
    When generating ideas, Bason and Austin suggest coming up with seven ways. The first three come easily, while the next four bring potential new solutions beyond the easy answers
  • Rehearsing new futures – also known as prototyping and testing, making, drawing doing, not just talking about it.

“Such tangible artefacts generate conversations that tend to be much more detailed, concrete and useful than hypothetical discussions are”

I witnessed this first hand recently. When I facilitate workshops, using design thinking it’s practical, hands on and playful. This sometimes messes with particular participants’ expectations of professional development (I can usually spot them, in the opening sessions). 

Recently, as the days progressed, I witnessed one such person open up and go with the flow. On the final day, as we were building and making prototypes, it was encouraging to overhear the language and concepts being applied to the prototyped designs. 

Each of the ideas can feel like slowing down the process, often a challenge for the leader. But it needs to, yielding more creative and unexpected ideas.


Collaboration – where do you begin? Six steps for your design team to get collaborative

A couple of days ago I concluded the three day Design for the Long Haul workshop with the team of teachers from an elementary school in Toronto. The ideas around learning design-thinking, collaboration and empathy mapping were relatively new to most of them. But they were up for the challenge.

As a methodology, design-thinking is inclusive, it challenges long-held assumptions and creates new possibilities. To be effective for the long haul the process needs to be sustainable and embedded in the culture.

In this workshop, each stage, each day, builds on the last. A lot of time is spent on core practices, modelling a culture of empathy and collaboration, these are the foundations. In terms of empathy, the ‘user’, the subject of the design is the focus. For me, the essence of learning design is to create an ‘each-learner’ culture, especially the hard-to-reach, asking

How might this student experience success?

How might this student feel they belong?

Collaboration is the vehicle that drives the process of design and it needs to be fit-for-purpose. A family of four can’t easily get around in a sports coupe, or a city transportation system can’t rely on whim of the drivers to get people to work on time. The vehicle needs the right specifications, as well as systems and processes that make it all work.

They were still unable to truly achieve the desired outcome because they confused pleasant, cooperative behaviour with collaboration.

HBR Blog, April 2015

This remains one of my favourite quotes. When we are truly collaborative there is curiosity, disagreement, uncertainty and humility. Letting go of our own ideas, being open to something new and accepting the decision of the team is fundamental to success.

Merely bringing people together around a whiteboard, a pile of post-it notes, and a problem to be solved isn’t necessarily collaboration, either. In her recent post on Medium, Jaya Ramchandani outlines eight practices for successful collaboration, each deserving further elaboration (Read the article here, it also includes a helpful planning tool)

The first on the list is “Start with mutual trust and respect”. Each person on the design team puts aside agendas, believes in the process and has faith the outcome. Meirink et al researched teacher learning and collaboration, finding that that effective collaboration, in a trust-based context, encouraged the teachers in the research to let go of existing beliefs and try something new. This is a huge step. Reaching that level of trust takes time, ultimately leading to interdependency amongst design team members.

From Meirink and colleague’s research, I adapted these levels of collaboration.

I have been thinking about all this as I reflect on the workshop this week. Whether the context is empathic design of learning, rather than content delivery; an irritant problem that won’t go away; or a strategy for professional growth, when collaboration is relatively new, how do you begin?

  1. Create the ‘Design Team’ – a committed group of people who genuinely want to explore a new way forward
  2. Put aside the way you’ve typically worked, and ask those who usually have all the answers to play along
  3. Seek agreement from each person to trust the process (and each other)
  4. Identify the common problem and reframe it into a question:
    ‘How might we…so that…?’
  5. Agree on a strategy or tool to facilitate the process (open dialogue will just lead you down the same old path)
  6. Stick with the process – prototype and test solutions (until the design team agree on the way ahead)



Ashkenas, R (2015), There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration HBR (Blog), April 20, 2015

Meirink, Imants, Meijer & Verloop (2010) “Teacher learning and collaboration in innovative teams”, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40:2, 161-181

Ramchandani, J. (2019) “Successful collaboration starts with eight simple practices

A beginner’s canvas for making collaborations work”
Retrieved from:

What could be made possible if schools were driven by empathy?

What could be made possible if schools were driven by empathy?

  • Leadership: A consultative culture prevails
  • Teachers: Focus on learning design not content delivery
  • Students: Feel like they belong and their voice is valued, become co-designers

Imagine the scene, I’ve found the perfect sofa. Colour and style matches with my dream for the space. I’ve sat on it, it’s comfy, colour and style are appealing, so I say ‘yes’ and arrange delivery, When the sofa arrives, it doesn’t fit. What happened? Perhaps, before committing to the purchase, I needed to assess the room capacity against the sofa’s specifications.

Design thinking, also known as ‘human-centred design’, puts people first,

For design thinkers, behaviours are never right or wrong, but they are always meaningful.

(Tim Brown, Change by design p.39).

Brown describes empathy as standing in the shoes of others, gaining deep understanding from behaviours and feelings, and taking notice of people in their natural habitat. He suggests that the progression from insight and observations to empathy means that the subject of the design might then become a co-designer, resulting in an enhanced level of collaboration.

Even if we are very experienced, maybe we’ve designed schools before, we know kids and teachers, so the idea of spending a considerable amount of time on empathy mapping feels like it’s slowing progress on the project, and ultimately the cost to reach the solution. Without it, the solution may not be fit-for-purpose.

When we show empathy, we deeply know another’s feelings, we feel what they feel and then respond compassionately to their situation. To sympathise is to care, but to empathise is to genuinely feel what others feel. When we deeply understand someone else’s experience

we utilise the same brain wiring that is active during our own experience

(Goleman, p.59)

What happens when we shift the language from…

students will to each student will ?

(Acknowledging Greg Miller for this provocation)

I know what you’re thinking, an individual learning plan for every student in the school? This would be impossible. We can learn from the experiences of other sectors. Design thinking has transformed many government services. While not isolating the needs of all customers, personas are developed to represent key demographics, so services become more inclusive. In one project, this enabled the design team to

develop deep empathy for people they are designing for, to question [their own] assumptions, and to inspire new solutions

Service Design for Public Policy

How might we gain deep empathic insights, using design thinking:

  • Re-inventing the school arrival experience?
  • Teachers transforming thinking and practices in new learning environments?
  • Learning design for inquiry-based approaches?
  • Re-imagining the timetable?
  • Establishing new systems to address embedded routines?
  • Creating the desired culture?

Tools include:

Journey map – trace the subject’s journey on a matrix that progresse through time (horizontal) and response at key interaction points (vertical)

Expectation map – What does the subject see, hear, say, do, think and feel? What might they hear from other voices?

Scenarios – Create a scenario, from information gathered to storyboard their experience. This helps to align the design team around a clear vision

Pain Point Mapping – What does a student experience across a day. Map each instance on the severity and probability/frequency

Simple ethnography – As a design team, observe and record interactions and activities to identify issues and opportunities.


The Future of Learning: If you only work on TWO SKILLS…

Yesterday I had two conversations that really made me think. First of all, Adrian, a consultant working in the tech sector who’s ahead of the game with technology for learning and work. I was keen to know what’s next in tech, we spoke about the future trends in digital innovation. When I asked about what we need to teach our kids and enhance their capacity, his immediate answer was ‘collaboration’.

Collaboration has been a buzz-word for so long, but I do wonder if we actually get it? Collaboration is purposeful, robust and honest, within a context of trust, and, as Adrian reiterated, it can be just as successfully achieved in a virtual environment, all the players no longer need to be in the same physical proximity.

The next conversation was with Derek another colleague in the education space. We were discussing a school he had visited recently, immersed in inquiry learning, with a strong design-thinking approach to pedagogy from the early years, right through. What was clear from the conversation, was that the students spent significant time developing empathy, deeply considering, who are we designing for?

Collaboration and empathy, imagine what could be achieved if these became the drivers of skill development.  Taking it a level further, what if empathy and collaboration were underpinned by humility and curiosity?

(c) Anne Knock

The 20th century industry grew through mass marketing, mass communication and mass production. Large commercial ‘boulders’ provided what we needed for commodities, media and services, and we dutifully complied. In recent years, we’ve seen a seismic shift toward a culture of pebbles – opening opportunities for all, providing voice, agency, innovation and influence of the people.

In most industries, the customer experience culture is drilling down to identify the particular needs/desires of the individual user, shifting from mass production to the artisan, from one-size-fits-all to bespoke. This is the essence of empathy. Yet, in education we still seem to be driven by the big data of national assessment and benchmarking standards, when we need to be more curious about small data at the human level.

In the ‘boulder’ culture, we trusted the person paid the most, because they apparently knew best. But now, we are tapping-into the wisdom of the people, listening to the ‘pebbles’. This involves genuinely seeking the best solution, drawing on the wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise of the collective. This is collaboration.

Empathy and collaboration are learnt and practised skills in a context of authentic opportunities for application. Our students and team-members need to grow their capacity, and teachers and team leaders also need to acquire, model and apply these skills. Then empathy and collaboration become a culture, from the top, all the way through.

It is easy to allow one or two people to make executive decisions and then we (grudgingly?) comply. It is much harder and can be exhausting to tackle a problem through a collaborative and often iterative process.

But it is rewarding and durable to achieve success as a team.

It is easy to assume I  know best and can meet need through applying a blanket solution. It is time-consuming and can be personally challenging to deep dive into an empathy mapping exercise.

But when that one outlier or that hard to engage student achieves a sense of success, there is no feeling like it.

Where would you rather be?


Four Important Ideas: Learning Environment as the ‘Silent’ Contributor Student Wellbeing

“The physical space influences behaviour and ultimate wellbeing of every member of the community”

Dr Helen Street (2018)

Student wellbeing is not well-served as an extra program, an add-on to the crowded curriculum, as Dr Street argues in her book, Contextual Wellbeing: Creating positive schools from the inside out, it needs to be part of the DNA of the school, clearly evident in the approaches to learning, the policies and practices and the foundational culture. As a ‘silent’ contributor to wellbeing, the physical environment cannot be overlooked in this equation.

“Buildings exist as reflections of the values, attitudes and behaviours of their designers, owners and occupiers” (p.122).

Student wellbeing can be supported by the environment in four ways:

1. Power of Outside

As I consult with schools in masterplanning and the pre-design in-house research, I often talk to the school community, asking ‘What would enhance learning and the overall culture?’ More frequently they say ‘we want more green’, a ‘connection to the outside’ and ‘bring the outside in’.

Institutional school buildings of the past have prioritised corridors, moving the inmates, I mean students, from one cell, sorry, classroom to the next. School buildings were once only considered as the container for teaching, set up to maximise the impartation of knowledge. Now, we are seeking to design the optimal environment for learning.

In many cities, with increasing urbanisation families live in medium and high density housing, the idea of ‘outside’ is critical. As students spend a considerable part of their day at school, we can provide this link to the natural environment, to plants and making a connection to the outdoors.

2. Comfort and Design

There are many inspirational images of shared and open learning environments, seeking to inspire a sense of openness, showing multiple zones for a range of interactions. However, with insufficient attention to acoustics and other sensory elements, Dr Street notes that,

“Many teachers ended up ‘surviving their open plan environment rather that using them well and the potential benefits of teaching in flexible and collaborative learning spaces were often overshadowed by high noise levels and insufficient cooperation between staff and students.” (p.124)

3. Ownership

Enabling ownership of the design by the school community can be transformational when creating a place for learning. I regularly hear stories of how the key users of the learning environment, the students and teachers, had not been consulted. This usually doesn’t end well.

In my talk on this topic, I present a to don’t list, as opposed to a to do list, when embarking on a journey of school transformation. This includes no ‘ta-da’ moments, the temptation to have a great reveal to the community when the building is completed. New building projects are directly related to change in practice, habits and attitudes. This can be scary for many. As the project nears completion, anxiety rates can increase.

“The most effective physical environments are created when the whole school community is consulted and involved in the process of change and development, from classroom decor to the shared spaces.” (p.129)

4. Voices from the Walls

I’ve written previously about the idea of ‘small data’. Walk around any school or workplace, and small data abounds. This can be the information displayed on the notice boards, and shape everyday cultural clues that lead to broader trends. I’ve become a ‘small data detective’ when I’m visiting a school and if I see a sign or message on a wall, I often ask the host ‘why?’. My perception of the message as an independent observer, is often different from the original intention.

Dr Street asks,

“What messages are being given out by the reception? The hallways? The canteen? The classrooms?” (p.131).

She explains that these messages reflect the culture of the school,

“Do they suggest that education is a race you might win or lose?” (p.131).