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March 8, 2021

Design Thinking, Empathy, And Equity

I honor and admire Design Thinking for many reasons — its ingenuity, how engaging and rigorous it can be for students, and ultimately that it serves as a vehicle for Deeper Learning. But mostly I value Design Thinking because it gives me hope — hope in the power and potential that it holds for our students as human beings. Design Thinking has the unique power to leverage the intersection of equity and innovation through deeper learning and empathy.

My Introduction To Empathy

A few years ago, I was given the gift of attending a National Equity Project institute. It was during one of their early workshops that I was first exposed to the idea of empathy when working to design with others in mind.

We were assigned to sit with a complete stranger and then introduced to a listening dyad protocol. I remember experiencing a bit of anxiety thinking about the idea of talking uninterrupted for three minutes, and then in turn having to listen to somebody as I sat completely silent for the following three minutes.

Somewhere between the second and third minute of being a listener, I realized that although my body was displaying all the right signals for actively listening, I had completely tuned out my partner. My mind was anticipating what I thought he was going to say, I was churning up questions about what he said ten seconds prior, and I was jumping ahead to thinking about how it reminded me of my own thoughts and ideas.

After the alarm sounded and we returned to our seats, we were introduced to the various forms of listening. While I don’t remember now what they were, I remember having the sinking realization that I was not a good listener — not in that moment, not in my work, and not in my personal life.

It was a guilt-ridden moment of consciousness, but one that I continue to feel thankful for every day of my life. At that definitive moment, I understood the power of listening to others, the power of empathy.

It was that moment that helped me see that if I was ever going to affect the life of another, I had to seek to truly understand their experience — their feelings, their challenges, and their perspective.

“What Is?” And Says Who?

Early on in the process of Design Thinking a problem must be identified. This is the problem upon which the rest of the design process hinges. Some methods of design thinking call this first step “discovery” or “search for problems,” where students are seeking to understand a challenge in a particular context. Other approaches, such as Stanford’s d.School, see this first stage as a two-step process whereby students empathize, then define. In this case, designers would work to fully understand the context through research methodologies that truly require them to interact with a community, prior to developing a problem statement.

I appreciate the latter approach to design thinking because I think it asks students to really grapple with “what is” — meaning they have to work hard to listen, and seek to understand the “user experience” before jumping to defining what they, as a researcher or designer, believe to be the problem.

If we’re not mindful of the role that empathy must play in the design process, student mindsets could easily represent dominant assumptions, thus reacting to false realities and creating misplaced “solutions” to perceived problems. In other words, if we don’t dedicate the time to deconstructing critical questions about context and ourselves, our children could easily silence the voices of those they are hoping to serve.

From an equity standpoint, my fear is that if done carelessly, design thinking could reproduce stereotypes and pejorative actions, and to me that is antithetical to the philosophies of Deeper Learning. But not all is lost — there is hope! I believe there is great power and potential in design thinking: the power to disrupt the dominant agenda. And here are some ways we can do that:

Explicitly Teach Empathy

Through my work with National Equity Project, I learned that empathy is a skill or “set of muscles” that must be built. You must dedicate time explicitly to enhancing this skillset. And so we must do that for our students. Here are a number of ways to go about doing that:

In The Classroom:

  1. Teach the skill of listening. And use a protocol! Human beings by nature are not great listeners, so be sure to use a series of steps to hold space for sharing and listening to happen. One of my favorite exercises I learned from Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, was simply to provide students with a low-barrier writing prompt, ask them to write, ask them to read what they wrote to a peer, have the peer write down exact phrases in quotes, then share back “I heard you say…” The Constructivist Listening Dyad is another wonderful approach to ensure students are actively listening to one another.
  2. Teach students the craft of asking beautiful questions — of themselves and of others. Dedicate the time to setting students up for success by learning how to ask open-ended questions that foster curiosity and understanding. Check out the work of Warren Berger for great resources on helping students ask the kind of questions that let them flex their empathy muscles.
  3. Teach students how to analyze assumptions. Elena Aguilar offers a wonderful visual for this process in her book The Art of Coaching. And while this is likely a bit advanced for younger children, it’s a good tool for you as the teacher to begin to recognize when student assumptions are kicking in. Through the art of questioning you can probe student thinking to unpack their beliefs. This empathy map has some great examples of questions you can ask students to reflect upon throughout this process.
  4. Teach students the power of a lens. The National Equity Project uses five equity lenses when entering into a situation. And while this is not a student-friendly resource, it does provide a rationale for being aware of the lenses you wear in a particular context, and the value of wearing a variety of lenses over a period of time. The skillset of taking on different perspectives and analyzing points of view is critical for students. You can use a protocol as simple as a Visible Thinking Routine: Circle of Viewpoints, or something as advanced as developing your own lenses for students to wear when looking at a particular event, context, or process.

Experience Empathy

In the field:

  1. Teach students ethnographic research methods for collecting data in the field. It can be as simple as offering workshops on how to conduct an interview or how to conduct observations, or as advanced as diving in to decolonizing research methods. Hold workshops or bring in experts to help you teach how to interview, observe, and document.
  2. THEN get students out into the field… and as much as possible. Send them to observe human and animal behaviors or natural processes, send them out to experience a community as though they are part of it, arrange for them to interview people, or have them produce surveys for random participants. Any way to get them to roll up their sleeves and experience life through the eyes of a “user” or local, do it!
  3. Go virtual. Sometimes pairing students with the most authentic connection isn’t possible in the flesh, so don’t be afraid to line up virtual connections, using Skype or Google Hangouts to conduct interviews and observe behaviors and processes.

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