Thanks to the help of family, friends, and faculty and staff at Arizona State University, last month I officially graduated with a PhD in Learning, Literacies, and Technologies.
My dissertation entitled "Teachers as Designers: Epistemic Diversity and Sensemaking Amidst Indeterminacy" included three journal articles (one published, two to be submitted soon) about my work on teachers as designers.
Here is the abstract:
In this three-article dissertation, I explore what it means for teachers to be designers in three different ways. Each article can stand on its own, but taken together, they paint a rich and nuanced picture of the relationship between teachers and design.
The first article is an analysis of a decade of literature on teachers and design seeking to answer the question, “What does it mean for a teacher to be described as a designer, or for the act of teaching to be considered an act of design?” The analysis combined an interpretive content analysis of central terms and constructs with a network analysis of co-authorship and citation practices. The results highlighted 10 strands of literature around teachers and design, each describing a different perspective on what, how, when, and why teachers design.
The second article focuses on a design-based professional development (PD) program I conducted with four teachers in a rural junior high school. The program was designed to support teachers in approaching problems of practice in designerly ways, including exploring problems using various epistemic perspectives. Using an embedded case analysis approach, I found that although each teacher interpreted the program differently, all described outcomes related to coming to know in new ways, developing a deeper understanding of students, and being impacted at a personal level. These outcomes could be interpreted as a type of sensemaking, where teachers came to re-interpret the past and present in ways that allowed them to shape the future. Sensemaking was supported through epistemic diversity and the acts of framing common in design practice.
The third article is a scholarly essay arguing that the PD program and its implementation suggest design is not only about creating things but is also about seeing and addressing the indeterminacy inherent in complex situations of practice. Designers interact with this indeterminacy through imposing a frame on the situation and interpreting the results. When teachers are designers, they are empowered to integrate their personal and professional selves with the design situation, all while maintaining a form of skeptical optimism within complex and shifting contexts.
If you would like to dig into the details (who wouldn't??) you can read the Full Dissertation Here.
This piece was cross-posted on TalkingAboutDesign.com and SilverLiningforLearning.org
The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths.
∼Herman Hesse (Siddhartha, 1922)
I love lazy rivers—water park streams that gently push swimmers through the water, allowing them to soak up the sun while they float. I go with the flow, letting the river guide my movements. I move along without much effort. All I have to do is accept the direction the river is pushing me in and I move forward.
In February, I was floating along in my river, beginning my dissertation research on teacher education, identity, and design. I was working with four teachers in a small rural junior high school, trying to help them see themselves as designers who create learning experiences for their students. I hoped that this approach would be empowering; it might help them develop ways of acting and being that would help them be more intentional in challenging contexts.
Then COVID-19 hit. My lazy river changed to Class V rapids--jarring, unpredictable, and fast moving. There was no point in resisting; my world was changing. And so was the world of the teachers I was working with.
Sometimes I can laugh at the fact that my research focuses on supporting teachers in developing a way of being that will help them navigate complexity and uncertainty, and it just so happens that I started right before a pandemic. Other times it feels like I’m smashing into boulders. But it turns out that the turbulent water revealed facets of teacher identity and design that I might never have noticed otherwise. Harnessing the shifting rapids, however, has taken learning new ways of being, acting, and understanding—for me and for teachers.
Rapids, Whitewater Kayaking, and Emergent Design
We are deeply embedded in a fast moving and a complex terrain of knowledge and skill building, information, events, and disruptions. Disorientation is often part of this environment and can be productive when it catalyzes revisions in prevailing assumptions and practices, or generates deeply creative insight.
∼Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown (Design Unbound Vol. 1, p. 143)
First, let’s consider what it takes to not just survive the rapids, but to harness their power.
Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown described people that thrive in the volatility of (literal) rapids: whitewater kayakers. In whitewater kayaking, the kayaker uses the force and pull of waves to propel themselves forward. The rapids are never the same twice—they shift and ebb and flow across times. But rafters know how to perceive and leverage the power of the rapids to progress down the river.
The whitewater kayaker does not have the luxury of time or contemplation, but moves through an environment of highly dynamic flows, deeply embedded in an environment where conditions and constraints change quickly and continually. Diverse forces generate different, often unexpected, conditions . . . the kayaker must be able to rely on skills, tools, and knowledge that are deeply embedded in a way of doing.(p. 142)
The authors call this way of being and doing emergent design. It’s about taking advantage of changes and using them to shape the future. It requires flexible ways of being, acting, and understanding—a designerly identity.
We might compare rapids to the very real ways that social and educational contexts shift and morph, and teachers as the kayakers that must learn to navigate the turbulence. But teaching practice is often conceptualized as something stable and steady, with research and techniques that apply consistently across time and contexts. Perhaps shifting how teachers view their practice—their professional identity—could help them navigate the complexities of teaching today. Conceptualizing teachers as designers might provide a framework for this change.
Teacher Identity and Emergent DesignTeachers design all kinds of things: curriculum, worksheets, bulletin boards, classroom procedures. They are used to designing lesson plans and enacting them in the classroom. They are used to the gentle waves that occur—when a student raises their hand with an unexpected question or becomes disruptive. Teachers think of new ways to explain concepts, they bring students back on task, they go with the flow.
But what happens when the gentle shifts become turbulent rapids? Teachers must learn to use new tools and practices. This requires trying things out, reflecting on the results, and then trying again. What teachers have had to do during the pandemic is navigate new kinds of rapids (or even waterfalls) with a whole new kind of kayak. It has shifted what it means to be a teacher; it has disrupted the core of teachers’ professional identities.
Teacher identity is about what it means to be, act, and understand as a teacher. (See Sachs 2005) Educating teachers as designers means helping them develop a designerly identity—ways of being, acting, and understanding that will help them adapt to whatever rapids they are thrown into. We can’t predict what teachers will need to know and do in the future. We can’t give them all the knowledge they will need to teach the students in their particular contexts. But we can help them develop ways of being that allow them to continually learn and capitalize on new situations.
Hitting Rocks and Harnessing Rapids
When I started my research on teachers and design, I never imagined how relevant it would become. Within a month of starting my research, schools had to rapidly shift to online learning, requiring a new kind of teaching practice. The unpredictable context has been a challenge for both me and the teachers I’m working with; we have hit many rocks in our personal and professional lives. COVID-19 has required new tools and skills for both teaching and research; it has demanded flexibility. But COVID-19 has also highlighted new understandings, new ways of being and doing. It has provided new rapids to ride.
In the spirit of silver linings, I’d like to share two things that I’ve learned because COVID-19 reared its ugly head in the middle of my dissertation research and how the teachers and I have harnessed the rapids to move forward.
A quick caveat, the ideas here are based on my work with four teachers in a small, rural middle school as well as other conversations I have had with teachers and those who work with teachers (including my sisters). So when I say “teachers,” think of it as “the teachers Melissa is working and talking with.”
First, teachers’ identities are centered on students. We—those who are reading about, thinking about, and influencing education—can use teachers' student-centeredness in research and design collaborations. Second, perhaps because they are student-centered, teachers focus on synchronous interactions with students. Researchers and teacher educators talk less about what happens before instruction—how teachers design for learning. A focus on design before learning time offers new ways for teachers to support students.
Let’s take them one at a time.
1. The professional identities of teachers are closely tied to students, and teachers intuitively make empathy-centered moves.The junior high teachers and I had several discussions about how teachers are feeling during the pandemic. In short, they are struggling. They feel guilty and frustrated. They want to be with their students; helping students in a classroom is at the core of who they are. The changes in their practice—and the misalignment with their professional identities—have felt devastating.
Harnessing the rapids: When advocating for change, we should capitalize on the center of teacher identity: the student.
There has been much talk (see, for example, EdSurge, Higher Ed Revolution, a fellow named Peter Stanton) about how teachers need to move from the “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.” The theory is that instead of teachers delivering information from the front of the classroom (i.e., sage on the stage), they should be working next to students to help them solve problems and come to their own understandings (i.e., guide on the side). This is more difficult to implement than it might seem. For example, sage on the stage approaches better support the types of things we measure with standardized tests. However, it has been a bit puzzling to me that this approach has been talked about so much with so little change in instructional methods. But let’s capitalize on the rapids here; let’s move with teachers’ student-centered identity. Consider two implications, one for research and one for practice.
First, because students anchor teachers' professional identities, teachers naturally want to place students at the center of their work. However, the persistent focus on applying research to efficiently teach content and raise test scores interrupts their ability to do so. If we recognize and validate teachers' innate tendencies to focus on students, teachers might feel empowered to leverage this piece of their identity. Teaching practice would be centered on supporting particular students in a particular classroom. Supporting them academically, yes, but also socially and emotionally.
Importantly, teachers provide new perspectives for research and educational design because of their close connection to students. Too often we are telling teachers they need to be student centered, when they could tell us much about how students learn and grow.
Second, most design thinking models emphasize empathy at the beginning of the design process. Although I’m not a huge fan of these types of process models, I do recognize the importance of empathy in human-centered design. However, my experiences suggest that empathy is not necessarily where teachers need the most help—teachers seem to make empathy-based moves intuitively. This isn’t to say we should ignore empathy or assume teachers do not need practice with it. Rather, from a pedagogical perspective it is not necessarily where design needs to start. Early design work might focus more on other types of design activities—prototyping, testing, analyzing—that can leverage the empathy-based approaches teachers gravitate to. Later work might then return to empathy to enhance how it is used intentionally for design.
2. Asking teachers to design for learning rather than deliver content is difficult—but critical to the professionTeachers struggle to see what they do other than work with students during instructional time. Although at their hearts they are student-centered, their training often focuses on content delivery rather than creating opportunities for learning. Leading a class is what it means to be a teacher; direct interaction with students is at the center of their professional identity and how they make a difference. When teachers moved online, particularly in cases where “school” became “packets” of work for students to complete and return, teachers felt disconnected and powerless.
Harnessing the rapids: Reframing what teachers do can be empowering
Most who talk about teachers as a “guide on the side” emphasize what teachers do during instruction, but what about what teachers do before instruction? How do they design for learning (see Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013)), setting up the classroom experience that allows them to move aside?
Teachers focus on impacting students during instruction; they give less attention to the impact of learning materials and lesson plans. In other words, they rightfully see power in what they do while working with students. Thus, the primary place where they attempt to make improvements is in instructional time. In teachers’ pandemic-ridden practice, that option became limited, and, in some cases, removed all together.
Throughout July, the teachers and I experimented with asynchronous activities for building connection and relatedness. We participated in each other’s activities, interviewed each other about our experiences in the activities, and made revisions. Revise, review, repeat. We found ways to change the learner experience by changing the activity, even though we weren’t next to the learners while they worked. It was a new type of power: the power to design an experience for learning. It allowed teachers to see their practice in new ways, supporting a shift in professional identity.
Finding New Ways of Being
When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come. ∼ attributed to Leonardo DaVinci
Both the teachers and I developed new ways of being and doing because of the pandemic-driven rapids. My dissertation is no longer a traditional research study; there were too many rapids to follow a detailed research plan. However, the teachers have helped me navigate the rapids by sharing their challenges and struggles, highlighting new topics for investigation. We have developed new skills, tools, and knowledge and begun perceiving our practices differently. We converted these new perceptions into new ways to be, do, and understand, developing our professional identities in productive ways. It has been challenging, frustrating, invigorating, fascinating, and empowering.
Together we have harnessed the rapids, leveraging emergent currents to propel us forward.
This post was originally shared on TalkingAboutDesign.com
Can designing systems be done piece-by-piece, or does it require revolutionary design?
Let’s start with two parallel stories of automobiles.
Story 1: Waymo
In September 2012, Sergey Brin, a Google executive tasked with leading Google’s autonomous vehicle program, suggested autonomous cars would be available to the public in five years. Five years and three months later—December 2017—Waymo’s (Google’s self-driving car division) CEO John Krafcik shared a video of autonomous vehicles on public streets, running without drivers. He described how Waymo was testing fully autonomous vehicles. At the time, analysts expected public use of autonomous vehicles by 2020, but Krafcik claimed the technology already existed and was implemented in the Phoenix Metro Area. I had moved to that Phoenix Metro Area—Tempe, Chandler, and Mesa, Arizona—several months earlier. Autonomous vehicles were everywhere, with one catch: technically they were not autonomous. They always had safety drivers behind the wheel.
Now it’s 2020, and Waymo cars continue to be seen in my neighborhood. However, despite continuous reports that Waymo will soon be removing safety drivers from the vehicles, I have yet to see one without a safety driver (note, others have reported that the cars are going driverless).
Story 2: Mazda and Honda (and Toyota and Tesla)
In September 2012, I was driving an ordinary, 2005 Mazda 3 around. Unlike Sergey Brin, I didn’t think much about self-driving cars. But there were at least two things my car did without me. First, it could keep my brakes from locking, increasing traction in emergencies despite my tendency to jam the brakes (what we call anti-lock braking systems or “ABS”). Second, it could maintain a speed without my intervention (or cruise control).
Five years later, I bought a 2016 Mazda 3. In addition to anti-lock brakes and cruise control, it included features that helped me monitor my surroundings: a backup camera, blindspot monitoring, and warning sounds that (annoyingly) did their best to keep me from backing over a pedestrian or crashing into a car in my blind spot.
Now it’s 2020. My parents recently bought a 2020 Honda CRV. Their car not only has anti-lock brakes, backup beeps, and blindspot warnings—it can also automatically engage the brakes when it senses a collision coming. Its cruise control keeps the car inside highway lane lines and modifies the car's speed to maintain a selected following distance. These “driver assistance” features make it seem like their car is basically self-driving.
What’s the Difference?
While cars with driver assistance features are already on the road and impacting the driver experience, Waymo continues to struggle to fully implement their autonomous vehicles even within a small geographic area. Why is Waymo having such difficulties? It comes down to systems and systemic design.
Driver assist features can be implemented in a relatively isolated manner. The features occur at the artifact level--they are changes to the car itself and have a limited impact on what happens outside of the car. Fully autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, are not only about the car technology (the artifact), they also require change on a systems and cultural level. They require coordinated interaction of many systems—road design, transportation laws, and the transportation system as a whole, as well as a shift in cultural attitudes about computer-run vehicles.
For example, technologists claim that one of the most difficult tasks of self-driving cars is not even about the car itself—it is to redesign roads created for human drivers (and the humans on those roads!) An article in the Harvard Business Review claimed:
The key question we should be asking is not when will self-driving cars be ready for the roads, but rather which roads will be ready for self-driving cars. (emphasis added)
The safety and navigational elements on today’s roads are designed for human drivers. They assume human eyes will see the lights and human brains will interpret the signs. However, autonomous vehicles would be better supported by standardized infrastructure, radio signal-emitting traffic signals, and systems that allow vehicles to communicate with one another. These elements are part of a larger transportation and safety system, and changes would need to be widespread to be effective.
Self-driving cars also impact a different type of system that links to culture. Currently, most self-driving cars support rideshare-like service: riders can request the car when they need to go somewhere. But most of the cars on the roads are privately owned vehicles. Although other rideshare services have made sharing cars more common, in order for self-driving cars to truly become integrated in the transportation system, they need to either match the convenience of owning a car or change the cultural expectations surrounding automobile transportation.
Wide-spread use of autonomous vehicles requires other cultural shifts—riders must feel safe both inside and outside of the vehicles. Sitting in a vehicle that moves itself can be a bit unsettling—even a 2018 video from Waymo shows riders nervous about riding in a car without a driver. This isn’t to say this can’t be overcome (in fact, we might someday have the opposite problem as demonstrated in the video clip below); a similar phenomenon presented itself when automatic elevators entered the scene--but it took 50 years for the public to become comfortable with riding on a self-moving platform.
Citizens must also be comfortable outside autonomous vehicles. Although human drivers might present more danger to pedestrians than computers, people are unforgiving of errors in self-driving car systems. Gill Pratt described that people demonstrate more empathy towards accidents that are the result of a human driver than they do for computer error (or perceived computer error). Sadly, in 2018 an Uber self-driving test car hit and killed a pedestrian just down the street from where I live. The accident was eventually attributed to human error (the safety driver was enjoying the evening’s broadcast of The Voice instead of watching for pedestrians crossing dark streets; the pedestrian darted out in front of the car in the dark), but Uber and the State of Arizona were criticized for not paying adequate attention to self-driving car policies and procedures. Uber ended its test program in Arizona.
Evolutionary and Revolutionary
One way to compare the progress of self-driving vehicles is by considering the type of design processes. Are the designers striving for evolutionary (step-by-step) improvements, or revolutionary (complex, all-at-once) shifts? If we imagine a spectrum ranging from evolutionary to revolutionary design, Waymo is on the revolutionary end.They are focused on a whole system of autonomous cars, including how cars operate as part of the whole transportation system. My parent’s Honda, however, exemplifies evolutionary design by gradually introducing monitoring and self-driving features.
Toyota is approaching design from both ends. Toyota claims to follow the policy of “kaizen,” or making vehicles incrementally better each day, an evolutionary design approach. However, in 2019, they announced the design of two types of autonomous cars: Guardian, which includes self-driving features that enables the car’s computer to work with the driver, and Chauffeur, a car designed to be fully autonomous. Engineers suggested the Guardian might be purposefully designed to acculturate drivers by starting with minimal features but ramp up control as drivers become accustomed to the new driving experience. This gradual approach brings self-driving technology into existing systems and cultures, making it an easier fit. On the other hand, Chauffeur seems to be the goal of a more revolutionary design process, similar to Waymo.
Evolutionary OR Revolutionary?
So. Which is better: revolutionary or evolutionary design? Waymo believes revolutionary design is needed, but writer Andrew Hawkins isn’t quite sure:
Waymo has long argued that driver-assistance technology like Tesla’s Autopilot will just exacerbate the problem. Only by completely eliminating human involvement can we be assured that driverless cars are safe, they argue. But is Waymo getting around this problem by removing the driver, or actually creating new complications altogether?
In other words, driver-assistance technologies are not really changing the system, and attempts at small changes without addressing larger systems might be counterproductive. However, Waymo’s revolutionary approach might result in unforeseen complications.
Let’s break it down a bit more.
The Argument for Evolution
In evolutionary design, the designer can continually adapt to what happens when designs are implemented. It’s like prototyping, with each prototype making its way to the market for real-world testing. Changes that don’t work can be tweaked for a better fit. If new features are added a piece at a time, it’s easier to see their effects and make adjustments.
In revolutionary design, full implementation requires all elements of the system to work together. Although pieces of the design will likely be created through prototyping, the prototypes are not designed to work in the real world. This limits the designers’ ability to evaluate how the elements of the design will work in a larger context. Then, when all elements are implemented at once, the designer may struggle to isolate the effects of individual elements. As Andrew Hawkins wrote, designers might unintentionally create new complications. Worse, if something doesn’t work, designers may have to start from scratch.
The Argument for Revolution
In evolutionary design, changes are made to fit within the current system. Each element brought to market must work within the current system, and saying something “doesn’t work” usually means it doesn’t work in the current system. Such a process might keep us stuck in a box. In the end, truly changing systems will likely require a leap out of the box.
In revolutionary design, change begins and ends at a systems level. Designers are free to imagine new systems. In theory, their work doesn’t have to be implemented in what is available today. Revolutionary design enables new types of thinking and working. It supports throwing away the box and creating something entirely new. But, eventually, something has to be implemented--and the implementation might require larger changes than other systems seem to allow.
For example, I have an app that allows me to use Waymo self-driving cars. However, despite being offered a few free rides, I have yet to try it out. Although Waymo is attempting a relatively complete implementation of their model, it does not actually change the system enough to make it useful to me. The area Waymo cars run in isn’t large. I live on the north end of the boundaries, and, as luck would have it, my daily transportation is almost exclusively heading north, in an area where Waymo doesn’t yet have permission to operate. My trips south are mainly recreational and usually include a friend, but my friends can’t ride in Waymo cars because they are not part of the early-adopter program. For every day trips, such as grocery runs, I prefer to drive myself. Although, theoretically, Waymo is attempting revolutionary design, practically it has to take some smaller (evolutionary) steps to meet legal requirements and policies. And the evolutionary implementations seem to struggle—perhaps because Waymo designed their technology to exist in a different kind of system.
On the surface, evolutionary design of autonomous vehicles seems to be making more progress. Such designs actually impact the driver experience today, while Waymo seems to be floundering. But what about long term? Will evolutionary design (like my parent’s Honda) ever lead to significant systemic change? Let us know what you think in the comments!
I recently published a piece of systems change in education with Steven Weiner and Punya Mishra. Read more here.
Weiner, S., Warr, M., & Mishra, P. (2020). Fostering system-level perspective-taking when designing for change in educational systems. Tech Trends.
Two new publications in TechTrends: Creativity and Play with Sandra Russ and online critical dialogue
Shagun Singha and I interviewed creativity and play expert Dr. Sandra Russ for the latest in the Deep Play Research Group's series on creative experts. We were inspired by her dedication to supporting children's creativity through play.
Singha, S., Warr, M., Mishra, P., Henriksen, D., & The Deep-Play Research Group. (2020). Playing with creativity across the lifespan: A conversation with Dr. Sandra Russ. TechTrends. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-020-00514-3
Paulo Friere described a pedagogical approach that empowers learners to take action to address inequities. But can this embodied, dialogue-centered approach happen online? Carrie Sampson and I explore what this might look like.
Warr, M., & Sampson, C. (2020). Achieving critical dialogue in online doctoral programs: An exploration of student perceptions and experiences with multiple modalities. TechTrends. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-020-00499-z
Some thoughts about--and tools for--process design.
Three cheers for process design!
Rah rah process design! Process design supports all design!
Rah rah process design! Process design scaffolds creativity!
Rah rah process design! Process designs iterate!
Read my Talking About Design post!
Process design tools (for facilitation work and lesson planning):
Thanks to Claire Gilbert and others in the Office of Scholarship and Innovation at Arizona State University for producing new videos based on a framework I worked on last summer!
This semester, I have been experimenting with creative interview protocols. Here's a 3 minute video I created about it. I'm continuing to explore these ideas through my dissertation.
You can learn more about Liz Lerman's Atlas of Creative Tools on her website.