Excerpts from Design Salon I: Shift Happens

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Once a month we hold a design salon to discuss design-related topics that pique our interest. This month, we changed our topic to discuss how the current pandemic has been shifting our education system.

The conversation raised a series of important thoughts and questions about the current shift in education and how design relates to those shifts. For example, current education systems are breaking down leading to more inequitable education and other failures, but the breakdown also provides an opportunity for a fresh look at some of the current systems. Is this a time to redesign some of the old systems? After all, school as an institution is a designed thing. With educators and policymakers scrambling to rethink school, the design of schools (including their strengths and weaknesses) are more visible than ever.

We also discussed how wild these times are in the scheme of the history of education and how during these times our society needs to think about humanizing students. As schools shift to digital environments, educators should think about the experience of students as they work at home, in order to create more effective lessons. 

The conversation then shifted to the ways in which the pandemic may bring about a new normal and how society may have already shifted their view of schooling. School used to be thought of as a place for learning. Period. But now society is beginning to understand that schools provide childcare so adults can work, schools provide food, schools provide places for social interactions, schools provide places for counseling, and so on. Is this the new normal? Lastly, as a group we discussed collecting data during these times and how to preserve some of the lessons that we have learned during the pandemic.

Here are edited excerpts from our digital salon held on March 20, 2020:

Current Education Systems Are Breaking Down. Is that Bad?

Punya

I think what we are seeing here is a breakdown of systems. We have all the artifacts so to speak. You know we have the internet, we have the laptop, and zoom, and all that.

But we are really trying to figure out, what are the systems?

K-12 schools are going to move online. Well guess what, there are legal things that we have to deal with. There is a fundamental issue of equity if you are a public school. Which is that anything that is offered to a certain group of people, you have to offer to others as well to everybody. You cannot ignore a whole bunch of people just because they do not have access to the Internet, just because they do not have access to a tablet computer. Libraries are closed, they can’t go to public libraries to access these anyway. What about special ed? What about second language learners? So, those are systems which are in place and we are struggling to build the systems from scratch.

Unless we think in terms of designing systems, we are missing the boat.

Steven

Is the system’s level, does that seem to be the real issue here like Punya is saying, are there other places where we might point to, I don’t want to call it the breakdown, but the challenges of this very rapid shift?

Melissa

So what’s been interesting to me actually is kind of the opposite. I think to some degree, we’ve been able to break down the systems and processes a little bit.

Like with this vaccine that went through the FDA super fast. We’re letting go of some of the rules and processes and systems that we always had in place. A lot of states aren’t going to require end-of-year testing or other things like that. It’s almost like we’re letting go of some of the systems and processes and I’m really curious to see what result that has. If it’s lasting or if it’s just going to go back to like it used to be.

It’s curious to me to see where we place emphasis and what we let go of during this time.

Education As We Know It Is Designed. We Forget That. This Reminds Us.

Ben

I think it just shows … the extent to which all of these systems and structures are artificial in the sense that they’ve been designed. I think it was Richter and Allert1 … gave us this great quote that I’m seeing that:

“Educational systems are artificial phenomena. In the sense that they emanate from human intervention and effort, irrespective of whether we look at policies, curricula, instructional measures, tools, networks, or environments, educational processes are essentially shaped by man made inventions and artifacts and, as a consequence, educational processes are not uniform and lasting but contingent on the sociomaterial historical conditions in which they take place.”

And so we’ve been thinking just about that a lot this week, especially as we’ve seen people shift and think about how well these things serve us.

And I think there was a question about how well they serve this when they were built for efficiency and mass delivery when everyone was getting the same thing and that we’re seeing, you know, some of these principals the Punya and I’ve talked to. They are just scrambling to get food to their students. They are just scrambling to make sure that folks have basic needs met.

So, you realize that these things that we have taken for granted as given have always been a product of design. It is in these moments we get to reconsider how well did this serve us what could be or how do we hunker down? So I think that the notion that design plays a big role at the system level is really important.

Steven

Yeah, I think that’s a really great point. I think it’s really fascinating to take the moment now to think of how, as we attempt to change systems that have been running for so long, we attempt to redesign them. It’s interesting to think of them as designed objects which we might not always do. We might not always look at the school system or look at a learning infrastructure and necessarily say, “Oh, this is a designed thing.” And because it’s been around for so long, and because we take it for granted, and [because it] has all these structures that we see as very hard to change, well, in a time of crisis, we find ways to do it. So I think that’s, that’s kind of a fascinating thing.

This is Actually Crazy

Guest 1

My own observation about just the weird times that we are in. So this is my third year of a research project … where we’ve been doing research in schools and this is our second shutdown in three years … this has never happened before … for those of you who weren’t here then it was the Arizona teacher strike. So it shut down school for like three weeks [last year].

Thinking about Humanizing Students

Guest 2

All these themes you’ve been thinking about, I’ve been thinking about for a while, but the past two weeks… So one thing I’ve been thinking about particularly was how can we balance between the experience, like humanizing the students’ experience. And also the affordances of the technology. I’ve also been thinking a lot about equity and equity beyond just access to tools and infrastructure. Because even if kids get to a laptop …, still, there are other things that can shape their experience.

So, I’ve been talking with teachers a lot, [who ask] “OK, What do you think we should do?” So, it’s been interesting to see how replicating the school system at home is not really the best thing to do now. Especially with the anxiety that the parents are having, that the kids are having. I wrote a few pieces this week about how we can think about humanizing the experience now by leveraging existing practices of families. Instead of just replicating the school system in their home.

Steven

It is interesting to think back and translate this into the design spaces. The initial reaction of people was to recreate the school system at home, which is a really ambitious or maybe even misguided thing to try to do. And now there are some people who are saying well let’s look at the affordances. What are the design strengths of having the kids at home? Of having people in a different environment? It’s a challenge.

Challenges to Data Collection/Rethinking Our Assumptions

Guest 3

I have not yet collected data for my dissertation. And, of course, now we’re in a giant different scenario. And so I’m trying to think of just some, it sounds ridiculous to say, “tweaks” given all that is happening. But some tweaks that I can do, so that I can acknowledge that we’re in this vastly different world, but at the same time still treat students with respect as if they still, of course, have something to say. But also, acknowledging the extent to which they can concentrate at home and feel comfortable is going to have a big impact on, really anything they have to say to me. And so, It suggests the type of data cleaning that has never been, this sounds just so esoteric, but really a type of data cleaning that I’ve never heard of before. Relating to how comfortable students feel just in general because usually we consider schools at least a relatively safe place. …

Steven

I loved your point about this data cleaning based on the fact that, you know, there are like huge assumptions that we can’t have any more about experiences. That students are having. I’m actually grappling with the question of: Do I start doing interviews, even virtually, of teachers in the field that I’m interested in? Because it’s like: How do you have this conversation anymore? How does the current situation not actually affect the data when I talk to people about this? Even though I’m asking questions about the past.

The New Normal

Punya

Yes, this is transformational, but at some level it’s not going to go on forever, right. So I think that’s something that’s important to keep in mind.

But it is questioning assumptions and all kinds of things in interesting ways. So, at some level, I feel like there is no going back. Or it’s like there is a new normal that’s going to emerge from this, which we will then take to be the air we breathe. And we will stop seeing it.

To me, the biggest thing when we talk about learning and schooling and all of that is what it’s revealing is: The surface thing that we think about when we think about school.

And this is why all the teacher bashing and all of that stuff happens and the school bashing happens is, like, “Oh, they are not teaching my kids! Look at my test scores!”

Look at all the messages that are going around among parents. “It’s okay if your kids don’t learn for these few months. Just stay sane.”

And you took 30 of those [students] and you put them in one room with one person and you made that system take care of their food, their well being, that this, that, and the other. And then you complain. You cut resources. And then you said, “Why aren’t these kids learning?”

I mean, I think this is a really a point of sort of reframing what we’ve been doing with education all along. All the stuff that we put on our public school system.

Now we’re realizing all the things that we have tagged on top of school. And that really when you are a parent with your toddlers, or teenagers, or middle schoolers jumping around, trying to figure out what to do. And you’re trying to control them to focus and study and this, that, and the other. Now, you realize all the other things that need to be taken care of before learning can happen.

And we have defined school as learning and we have thrown all this other stuff on it as well. So, it is a system which needed to be shaken up. And if anything comes out of it is this realization of what we have done to this thing called school. I mean, are we measuring it for the economic impact of the fact that school works as a daycare center? Or the economic impact of the fact that they are getting food? Or that there are counselors that look after their well being?

Sharing is Caring

Guest 4

And so this week I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers.

As I’m looking through the Facebook posts, I’m seeing a lot from parents. So parents are talking about how they’re dealing with it. I’m seeing a lot from organizations or experts that are putting out resources for teachers and parents, but I’m not seeing a lot of teachers sharing what they’re doing. And so I’m thinking you know that we’re missing this time where they are actually having such a huge shift in what their constraints and freedoms are now.

What is actually going on? How are they planning? What are they able to do now? They all have to think outside the box now, because everything is different. So looking at creativity and teachers, what is it that they’re doing now to come up with ways to create learning experiences for students.

Actually, I talked to the principal that I worked with before I came into the program about this issue and he felt that it was really important, but I think where most schools are right now is that they’re so focused on trying to figure out what to do right now for their students that they don’t want to think about the future, very much.

I’m like, “let’s save some of this stuff. What are the artifacts, what are, what are the lessons that you’re coming up with? What are the videos you’re doing? Can we all compile them and just have them so we can go back and look at them later?” And his response was, “I think we’ll wait until maybe October and then we’ll think back.”

But my fear is that all the good stuff that’s coming out of this, a lot of it’s going to get lost because everything is going to shift back into where we were as quickly as possible. So, you know, that is one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about this week.

Melissa

I just want to give a quick comment on that, because it has been really interesting to me, actually, because I got into a couple different Facebook groups.

There are actually a lot of teachers sharing compiling internationally. So there’s groups in Asia that are saying, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for two months. This is what we’ve learned.” And sharing across … But there are some interesting resources that they’re starting to compile. It’s interesting.

If you are interested in meeting or writing with the Talking About Design (TAD) group, please reach out through the website, send us a design question, or comment on an article. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the next design salon!


  1. Richter, C., & Allert, H. (2017). Design as critical engagement in and for education. EDeR. Educational Design Research, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.15460/eder.1.1.1023

     

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