Does it matter?
(originally written in the fall of 2015 for Traverse 2016.)
“Do you care about the problem you’re trying to solve?” I asked our iDesign students.
Most of them responded with “Yes.” Whew! That was a relief. I honestly thought they did care about their challenges, but I didn’t want to be naive. I had a hunch it would be multi-layered so when I asked more questions, the layers began to show.
A colleague and I started iDesign & 3D Prototyping for eighth graders this fall, the first course of its kind during the regular school day at Park Tudor. It was new, and their attitudes were generally positive. They were motivated by the challenges they identified and by being at the core of their own learning. The were energized by a teacher asking them, “How might you?” instead of telling them, “You will.”
For the students, brainstorming and designing their initial sketched prototypes were by far the most engaging and exciting pieces of the design process. But then, iteration two happened based on feedback from the first. And then, again, onto iteration three based on more feedback. They then hit a creative roadblock. I’d seen it before so I was expecting it, but I didn’t know how to handle it. I had no idea how to reignite their enthusiasm.
I didn’t ask the question, “Do you care?” out of the blue. I didn’t even know to ask until I reached out to Greg Bamford and asked, “Is this normal?” and “What do I do?” Greg helped me by reminding me to ask them if they care about the problems they’re trying to solve and making sure their prototypes matter to them.
Ta-da! Failure on my part. I didn’t ask the powers that be if the kids’ prototypes would matter before I let the them take on some pretty impactful challenges. I didn’t ask if there was a budget for implementation, or even if the same challenges were already being handled by adults. The students were redesigning the school schedule, prototyping a digital tool for kids and teachers to stay organized, reimagining a shared outdoor space, and building a device for charging personal devices while at school. Because when the students told us they cared, it was followed by, “But it’s hard to care when you think it might not matter.” Heart dropping - thud. Really, this is just a reminder that eighth graders are smarter and more intuitive than I thought to give them credit for.
Of course their designs matter! They’re based on human need! The design teams are tackling real, deep needs for our school that were discovered through their empathic exploration. It matters! But does it really? They know it might not.
Beyond seeing a prototype come to fruition, the students question whether their voice will be heard. Will their designs be taken seriously? Will their design hold the same value as one created by adults? Does it matter? I didn’t know but promised to find out. Eventually, the design teams will present iterations to decision makers within the school hierarchy and hopefully this will encourage them and reaffirm that their designs will matter, even if in just a small way.
Then a deeper layer was exposed. Our students said, “It’s hard to care when we don’t know what will happen to the prototype, or our idea.” Uncertainty. Lack of clarity. Unpredictability.
It’s uncomfortable for kids to work on something that may or may not have a concrete outcome. More than just the question of whether their designs have value, the students discovered that uncomfortable reality of not knowing. Each day, they’re told what to create, how it will be graded, and how to maximize their grade. A product is created, or an assessment is completed, and the outcome is mostly within their control. And more often than not, their confidence is rooted in that process. They get the road map and directions, then do what they need to arrive at the destination. This unfamiliar terrain of “not knowing” is frustrating, irritating, scary, and exasperating (I’m sure I’ve seen some eye-rolling at times).
For me, this raises more questions than answers. Do kids really need a sense of finality in order to maintain their creativity and motivation? Or, do they just need time to discover another way? As their consultant/teacher/navigator, I care more about how the kids create together than what they create - will that be enough for them? Will they grow to understand and be driven by creativity and wonder, rather than a set of directions and a letter grade? How do I help them feel safe in this zone of discomfort?
We get a new group of students next semester and a new opportunity for a second iteration of iDesign & 3D Prototyping. Come January, the group will absolutely know their designs matter because I’ll have done my research beforehand.
When you’re out there, standing on the crossroads between Highway “Follow the Crowd,” with all the road signs and mile markers to the next big destination that make you feel safe and confident, and County Road “Take a Risk,” which, if you know Midwest County roads, they look like endless roads to the middle of nowhere, you need a group of people who will remind you that it’s okay to not know where you’re going - the journey is what’s meaningful. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. I’m sure more failures will be discovered because there are no real road signs for how to teach like this. All you can do is turn to traveling companions who will encourage and inspire you along the way. Moreover, your companions should be able to say, “I don’t really know either - let’s figure it out together!” That’s why I’m looking forward to Traverse16.