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





Future of Learning (is design): Let’s talk about ‘the lecture’

When was the last time you, as an adult learner, placed yourself in an unfamiliar, yet necessary learning context? Learning something that made your brain hurt?

I like to use the expression in my workshops ‘create the need-to-know’, asking educators about whether the content has purposeful application to a context that matters to the learner. Right now, that’s where I am. Why else would you take an online learning course on deductive reasoning if there wasn’t a compelling need-to-know?

Back in 2012 I wrote a couple of posts about the value of the ‘lecture’. While I often cringe at reading my early posts, I took a deep breath and revisited these. I found that in 1706, the term was described as “to address severely and at length” and I encouraging readers to think about the place of the lecture in today’s education and suggesting that we have something to learn from TED talks. (June 8, 2012 and June 10, 2012)


I was reminded of these posts when I read this interesting article on Edutopia recently: Getting rid of the lecture bottleneck, which states that when it comes to learner engagement, the lecture is the problem.

The lecture is a bottleneck for several reasons—one size does not fit all in learning; there’s no replay, rewind, or fast-forward button in a lecture; and a large group of students are all dependent on one teacher to access learning.

As a learner of deductive reasoning, I have realised the difference between sitting through a live lecture of this subject (cue: glaze-over) and the opportunities the video lecture affords to replay, rewind, or fast-forward.  I know my limitations very well, when it comes to attention span and my note taking scribbling technique, if I was in a live lecture. I would quickly lose attention, my mind would wander and I would begin thinking about what’s for dinner that night.

In contrast, in this online learning experience, the videos with a duration between 6 and 14 minutes and short regular quizzes that I can retake until I ‘get it’, are helping me and if I do start to glaze-over I just rewind and replay. So when I come to analysing data and applying deductive reasoning, I have knowledge to apply. It’s my need-to-know. My learning is purposeful.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 8.50.14 am.png
As you can see from the screen shot – the background and lighting aren’t the important things. Look at the note on the side.

A few things to think about

  • Empathy
    • When was the last time you were a learner with a need-to-know?
    • What do your students do when they have their own need-to-know outside school?
  • Engagement
    • How might you reconsider the lecture for student learning or professional learning?
  • Experiences
    • How can you start to utilise video presentation of content?
  • Ecosystem
    • How can the organisation of the learning environment support rethinking the lecture?

5E model







CLD Tour 2018: Wish you were here!

CLD: Culture – Learning – Design
These three words were the compass guiding this uniquely rich professional learning experience

  • Culture: How might we challenge our own paradigm regarding the people, the content and the  context of learning?
  • Learning: How might the experience of school be enhanced and deepened through learner-centred practices?
  • Design: How might we design the student experience, the supporting systems systems and structures, along with the physical environment, to facilitate greater connection and learning?

The travelling crew gathered on Sunday 30 September 2018, to meet for the first time and find out a little more about each other.

  • 5 educators
  • 3 architects
  • 2 tour leaders and occasional cat herders – Mie and me!

From Australia, Romania and a Denmark/Netherlands hybrid


This marked the beginning of a whirlwind of travel and activity across the next 12 days, as we visited:

  • 13 schools
  • 5 universities
  • 4 libraries
  • 10 cities
  • 5 countries

Excluding the much-needed weekend for RnR in Amsterdam, we walked a total of 88km across the 10 days, this is not for the faint-hearted, averaging 12,500 steps per day. This average was boosted, however, as we took almost 22,000 steps on one day!

CLD Talk and walk.jpg
In Malmo Sweden. Remarkable weather.

This is not just walking the streets, but extensive tours of schools, libraries and universities add to the count as we traverse each site, upstairs and down.

We  met with the amazing Becky Parker and were instructed by young scientists, who researched: What can we learn from Viking poo?

We also caught eight trains, including the direct Eurostar from London to Amsterdam, one flight and had the luxury of a coach and driver on five days out of the ten days of the tour itinerary.

Inspiring schools around Edinburgh

At the conclusion, as we shared a traditional Danish ‘smorrebro’ lunch together, we laughed, joked, debated and challenged one another as if we were friends of many years, rather than a couple of weeks. In addition, I was delighted that over that time, as I shared our adventures on social media, that so many of the travellers of earlier tours joined in and recalled their experiences (actually, they were wished they were joining us as well!).

At Glasgow Caledonian University

One of my greatest motivations is seeing vision, plans and strategies translate into reality.  As we embarked on each day, we saw the vision take shape:

How might we enable our travellers to look beyond their current paradigm, to have their thinking challenged, and present new and transformational ideas that might serve as inspiration to their own context?

Mie and I had been working on this tour since the last one concluded in January this year. We considered the places and people we’d visited on earlier tours and then looked for new and emerging opportunities.

When people decide to join this professional study tour, it is usually the itinerary and the photos of places to visit that may be their motivation. Yet, what is less tangible are the conversations along the way and the opportunities to unpack ideas with trusted friends on a train or over a local beverage in the evening. These conversations also include the people we meet, hearing their stories and catching their passion for their learners.

What about you?
We were so grateful that this group said ‘yes’. Is 2019 your opportunity to join us?  Mie and I are putting plans together for Culture Learning Design Tour 2019.

Here’s the  expression of interest form, of course it’s non-binding but it means we can keep you in the loop.




The Future of Learning: Leaders with a design mindset

When we talk about the ‘Future of…’ anything it is a defiant moment because we are challenging where we are right now (and have been). People are generally comfortable with the status quo, but as leaders, we know that we can’t settle. We live in an era of disruption, which is code for ‘change on steroids’. It’s faster than it has ever been, yet slower than it will ever be again. There will always be another horizon looming. Yet as more gets piled on, little seems to be taken away.

Retrieved: http://en.scoopers.com/tag/19137/house-extension-

For those of us working in education, we often feel like this house. Another addition, another storey, another family-member to be accommodated, more gets added, nothing seems to be taken away. Additions and extensions continue to be made without assessing the safety, durability, simplicity and even aesthetics. As a result, it is un-designed, unsafe, complicated to navigate and ugly.

My own focus is the ‘Future of Learning is Design’. Design starts with user empathy, that is the learners, and designing learning and learning environments from their perspective. However, critical to the success of the design mindset is leadership. This support, in terms of vision, direction, encouragement and resources can mean the difference between a nice idea and pushing through genuine change and disruption.

At the leadership level there are two questions to ask about any strategy:

  1. Is this just adding another thing without taking anything else away?
  2. What ‘could be’ if we had an open field?
Retrieved: http://northamptonpropertyblog.com/2017/12/13/northamptons-building-plot-problem/


This open field is also called ‘zero-based thinking’. I’ve been reading Timeless Learning: How imagination, observation and zero-based thinking change schools. The authors pose this scenario:

What might it look like if we’ve never seen a school, but needed to bring our children from age 4 to age 18, or age 22?

What would we do?

What would we ask?

What should the childhood experience be?

What should the adolescent experience be?

What do we want our students to understand as they grow? (p.248)

Zero-based thinking is the essence of design-thinking, abandoning preconceived ideas and returning to our ‘why’. In a corporate sense:

Leaders must question what is happening in their company and use it to feed clean sheet design. Not just in moments of existential angst, but also when things are going well to keep the business fresh and aligned with customer and market realities. (p.5 Accenture Strategy: Zeroing out the Past)

‘When things are going well’, not as a knee-jerk response to problems. Leaders set the conditions to prepare the open field. This report from Accenture Strategy describes it as ‘designing from the outside in’. It suggests that 70% of time in companies is not directly related to creating value, that leading a design mindset brings the activity of the company a ‘customer-first spirit’.

Sometimes I wonder who the focus of the activity in school really is. Is it the comfort of the adults (whatever their role in a school), the structure of the curriculum, or reinforcing parents’ belief of what school is? These can ultimately be at the expense of present and future needs of learners? Leading a design mindset is leading change and this makes people uncomfortable. I wonder if the people in that house realise what they were living in, did they just get comfortable with it?

How might we lead a design mindset that encapsulates a ‘learner-first spirit’? By taking a fresh look at these elements so resources (time and money) can be allocated strategically:

  • Content – Identifying the knowledge and dispositions that support authentic learning, or as the Timeless Learning team call it: Project-based everything!
  • Context – Articulating the evolving role of the teacher and the design of the purposeful learning environment.

To lead a design mindset, start with a green field, have the learner as your focus and challenge all prevailing beliefs around school.

Ready. Set. Go!


The Future of Learning: Designing for differentiation not settling for standardisation

A bowling alley is characterised by a cavernous spaces made up of lane-upon-lane, with weighty balls hurtling down each one. As a ball is bowled, it’s heading toward the pins which are standing at attention, awaiting the impact at the other end.

Bowling alley.jpg

Is your school like a bowling alley?

The pins, like students, are passive recipients standing straight in rows awaiting the lesson. The teacher, as the bowler, approaches the top of lane and bowls the ‘Maths’ ball down the lane. And repeated along each lane, bowlers after bowlers drive their ‘Maths’ balls down toward the pins, each separate to the others, yet going through similar motions. Behind them the ‘English’ ball is waiting, followed by all the other subjects. Ball after ball, lane after lane until game over. Some hit, some miss.

If these bowlers represent my prowess at the sport, then I might have a 60% impact rate, leaving four pins untouched. Sometimes the ball hurtles down the gutter without a connection, and occasionally I manage a strike and knock down all the pins.  When the craft of teaching is viewed in this way, the mindset is ‘I’ve taught, therefore they’ve learnt’. The bowling balls are standardised issue, and after it’s bowled, it’s up to the student to learn.

Yet, each student is different. With their own personal motivations, challenges, passions and interests. They aren’t all the same, the same approach ‘lane-upon-lane’ or class-upon-class, or even year-upon-year, may satisfy the documentation, but not necessarily all the learners. How teachers reach their own understanding and definition of learning matters to the effectiveness of their practice and the quality of learning.

When I took courses for a masters in special education almost two decades ago, I remember the lecturer saying, ‘every class is a special education class’, that every class has a wide range of learners. Since then, standardisation and efficiency measures have diminished many teachers’ capacity to differentiate as a normal part of their practice, ‘so much to get through, so little time’.

Masters quote

According to Geoff Masters’, every class may represent a range of five or six years in learning capacity, therefore differentiation needs to become part of the repertoire of every teacher.

“learning must be social, active and meaningful. And instead of viewing personalised and blended learning and differentiated instruction as separate approaches, we should consider them interdependent components of great learning experiences”. ‘Arriving at a Definition of Learning’

This is why learning design is so important, it embeds differentiation and personalisation, as it begins with empathy, seeking to know and understand the learner. It doesn’t start with the standards/outcomes, the text book, the resources available, or that favourite lessons you bring out each year. Learning design starts with the learners, especially the ‘outliers’, those less likely to be engaged, those pins that seem to be regularly missed by the bowling ball.

Learning design is best when it is collaborative, utilising the combined knowledge, experience, skills and passions of a team of teachers. It can be supported by a process that gives the teaching team a scaffold.

5E model.png


The Future of Learning: Teachers as perpetual learners

The Future of Learning depends on teachers who are passionate about learners and skilled at their craft, who also see themselves as learners. Where learning is more about change than knowledge acquisition.

File_000 (45)

When I speak or facilitate workshops about the future of learning and the disruptions we are facing today, I often sense angst in the audience when I mention shifts in professional practice and the changing role of the teacher.  I point out that didactic teaching is one tool, within a toolbox at a teacher’s disposal, and make it clear that we will always need great teachers who are passionate about the learners, the learning, and have deep knowledge to impart. These teachers seek to find the potential within each of their students and want them to succeed.

Yet, in the obvious face of change, evident in every aspect of our lives, there are those who seem committed to maintaining the status quo, who see change as merely a pendulum that will eventually swing back. ‘Back to where?’ I often wonder, when in reality the pendulum has been ripped out and we are checking time on our smartphones, anyway.

My recent curiosity around this was sparked by reading about Jacob Morgan and his book, The Future of Work, in an inflight magazine. Whatever our life’s work we need to be a perpetual learner. He wrote:

Being a perpetual learner means that you must accept the idea that learning never stops… ever. Your job is to think of yourself as an app that has regular updates and bug fixes. You are the killer app! But if everything around you changes rapidly while you don’t, you will quickly find yourself in a difficult situation”
(What is the Future of Work? Virgin Australia, August 2018 p. 123)

As perpetual learners each of us are the chief developer of the app-of-me, taking responsibility for the updates and bug-fixes, in order to stay relevant and fresh. In education, as in many workplaces today, the onus is increasingly on the employee to take responsibility for career development, to improve and update their app-of-me.

If your default position is resistant to change, perhaps you do need a new perspective. Step out of your comfort zone and teach at another school, work in a new team, or openly declare that you are making a new start in situ. It’s scary. You have so much to offer, don’t allow your fear of change, or negative voices around you, to impact how your see your potential or your future.

Here are some reflective questions for your own app development:

How long have I been working in my current school? Is it too long?

Do I need a perspective of another school, context or new challenge?

Every year, do I just expect to have the same – routines, workspace, classroom, furniture, classes – as I have always had?

Is my inclination to resist change consistently stronger than seeing the potential of the opportunities presented to me?

Are professional development opportunities only for compliance or are they essential for being a perpetual learner?

What’s your next step? Your honest responses will provide your answer.

Refresh and stay fresh.











Learning Design: Creating the ‘need to know’

img_1617.jpgOver the last few months  I have appreciated working with future-focused educators and school designers in Australia and Asia exploring ideas around designing learning and learning environments that support engagement. The essence of the keynotes and workshops I have presented is the future of learning, I see this as the pointy end of human growth. It provides the foundations for exploring potential and inspiring learning as a lifelong pursuit.

Today, we talk a lot more about learning, than teaching. There is a shift in emphasis from content-centred to learning-focused approaches, in school education, as well as workplace and corporate environments. There is even a Wikipedia page for ‘Chief Learning Officer’, described as  “the highest-ranking corporate officer in charge of learning management”. Once upon a time this was called ‘training’. It usually involved specific job or task-related skills, where the trainee was assessed for competency.  Now we appreciate that learning goes deeper and extends further than the technical and cognitive skills required, and that all of us are learners on a life-long journey.

What is ‘learning’?

The online dictionary definitions describe learning as the acquisition of skills and knowledge through study, experience or being taught. It doesn’t seem quite adequate. Perhaps this one is better:

“We define learning as the transformative process of taking in information that—when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced—changes what we know and builds on what we do. It’s based on input, process, and reflection. It is what changes us.” From The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner (here)

Learning is about creating the conditions for change within the individual with the view to enabling a broader benefit, perhaps to the community or society. It’s a transformative process, where information is not acquired for its own sake, but the learning has purpose, it is added to life experience. Knowledge acquisition has its place, where an individual may pursue an area of curiosity just for the sake of it. But I will argue, that learning occurs when this knowledge is applied and transferred to a meaningful context, enabling the individual to solve authentic problems, making human connections.

Each of us come to the process of learning with prior knowledge and experience, and if we have the privilege of teaching, this applies to ‘our’ learners as well.Therefore the context for effective learning deliberately creates a ‘need to know’, asking What do I already bring to this and how can I take it even further? If this isn’t enabled, then the learner may pass the test, but what has been taught is of little further benefit.

Today it is the need-to-know that sets learning apart from acquiring knowledge and delivering content. For a century or more, the act of ‘teaching’ was considered effective when it was didactic, delivered and content oriented. This was when knowledge was held by limited individuals and resources, today knowledge is open.

How might we create a need to know?

  • Understand your role as designer of learning rather than deliverer of content
  • Explore how the prescribed content standards or outcomes can provide opportunities for learners to find solutions to problems that have meaning to them
  • Inspire learners with an entry event that releases their imagination
  • Plan authentic mountain top experiences (culminating events/products) for learners that share learning with an audience beyond you.



Teachers as designers: Reframing problems, How Might We…?

post itsThe view of teachers is evolving from technicians who implement the educational ideas and procedures of curriculum to teachers as designers of learning environments and as experts in the art and science of teaching. (OECD p.21).

As designers of learning and learning environments, design thinking is a necessary skill for educators to learn and apply. However, professionals ‘designers’ – architecture, technology, fashion or interiors – have spent years dedicated to the pursuit of this specialisation, so how can educators, almost by decree, become designers?

First things first, why does design thinking matter?

Do you find the pace of change overwhelming? It will never be this slow again. 

If the speed and intensity of change continues apace, the ecosystem of the learning environment needs to be adaptable to the prevailing and changing conditions? The same thinking that brought us to this point, does not necessarily have the capacity to take us to the next level. A design mindset supports us see the problems and develop new solutions through applying a creative process. Is this for all educators?

Tim Brown, IDEO CEO sees design thinking as accessible to all. In his book Change by Design (2009), he explains how the tools of professional designers, “can be put into the hands who may never have thought of themselves as designers and apply them to a vastly greater range of problems” (p.4). The core ideas of design thinking:

  • Human-centred problem solving
  • Tap into our ability to be intuitive, recognise patterns and construct ideas
  • Express ourselves in a range of creative ways, not just words
  • Shift from an over-reliance on the linear, rational and analytical processes
  • Generating ideas and prototyping, then testing

Empathy, as I have written in an earlier post is the starting point for design thinking. The next step is reframing problems.

Reframing problems: How might we…?

To shift from a problem orientation that leads to linear, rational analysing and perhaps a dead-end, the situation needs to reframed toward a solution orientation, posing the ‘How Might We…’ question.

Like IDEO, Stanford D-School have been leaders in design thinking. They utilise ‘How Might We…’ questions to reframe the problem and develop ideas – or ideate, “The goal is to create questions that provoke meaningful and relevant ideas, by keeping the questions insightful and nuanced”.

Are you focusing on the right problem?

Here is an example of reframing: The Slow Elevator Problem
(from HBR  reference below)

The tenants in an office building were complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they had to wait a lot. Several tenants were threatening to break their leases if the problem wasn’t fixed.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 6.07.04 pm

But after investigation, the problem was reframed:  How might we make the wait feel shorter?

What are the problems you are facing?

There isn’t any time for ‘creative’ learning

These new learning spaces won’t work

De-motivated and disengaged students are disrupting other learners

It takes too much time to plan to team-teach

How might these be reframed?
Let me know how I can help your team.



Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation.

Paniagua, A. and D. Istance, 2018, Teachers as Designers of Learning Environments: The Importance of Innovative Pedagogies, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris

Stanford D-School Resources: How Might We Questions

Wedell-Wedellsborg, T (2017) “Are you solving the right problems?” HBR Jan-Feb 2017 Issue https://hbr.org/2017/01/are-you-solving-the-right-problems

Default-thinking the enemy of design-mindset: 10 Steps to scaffold change.

Default-thinking is a significant problem in making changes to support future-oriented learning. Because school has been around for some time strong mental models dictate thinking and practice. Without the provision of time, support and encouragement to break-out of default thinking it will continue to prevail. I read a tweet from Australian teacher rock-star Eddie Woo this morning: I remember my principal once told me, “Some people have 25 years of experience. Some people have had one year of experience repeated 25 times.” Default-thinking is the biggest challenge to developing a design-mindset.


In the 1980s, Harvard psychologist William James wrote “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” Imagine if this was true. Around 15 years ago I went to a seminar where they started talking about the emerging trends in neuroscience, with the claim that in years to come these developments will change our world. We do know now, that over time our neural pathways become more embedded, and as our brain is somewhat lazy, it defaults to the known route to solving a problem, but we can change it. (Fast Company).

What does default-thinking look like? The Cambridge (online) Dictionary defines ‘default’ as “the thing that exists or happens if you do not change it intentionally by performing an action”. This definition sums it up well, ‘the thing’ will continue to happen, unless there is an intention to change.

What might be ‘the thing’?

  • The most effective way to get the content (to pass the exam) in the heads of the students is teaching-talk.
  • Time pressures mean that I just can’t put the cognitive effort into even thinking about change, the immediate is too pressing.
  • Curriculum constraints don’t allow for more creative responses
  • The text book covers everything I need.

In a world of increasing change, we just can’t afford to maintain ‘one year repeated 25 times’ because, as I heard recently “Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again”.

Here are steps you can take to start to change default-thinking. A downloadable resource is provided for you to get your change strategy started.

1. Make a decision to start.

2. Who can you engage in your quest? Find some like-thinking colleagues struggling with the same ‘thing’.

3: What’s the problem this ‘thing’ is trying to solve?

4. Reframe the problem into a positive action? ‘How might we __ for __ to be able to __?’

5. Generate ideas from your reframed question – collect ideas from a wide range of sources.

6. Decide which ones are in your top 5, then your top 1, 2 and 3.

7. Try number 1. Before you start determine:

  • What length of time do we need for this?
  • How many attempts?
  • How will you know it’s successful?

8. Review, refine

9. Is it working?

  • Yes? Meet regularly with your colleagues, reflect and refine.
  • No? Go back to Step 6 and repeat with your second idea.

10.  Write, blog, share what you’ve learnt. Then find the next problem to solve (this never actually stops).

Our brain can change, it is malleable, there is no excuse to remain fixed in our thinking. To break habits and think in new ways we need to be deliberate or intentional in making the change from default-thinking to a design-mindset.


Downloadable: Resource Shifting Default Thinking





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