The subject of my Masters thesis was design in education - specifically how design could help American teachers and students overcome the challenges they face in resources such as time, money, and faltering government policies in grades 5-8. This project took place over several months of research, user testing, and iteration before cultivating into a final gallery space presentation. Our thesis process was broken into three sections structured through our curriculum: Research, Design, and Documentation.
My research and testing quickly brought me to the field of Student Centered Learning (SCL) which ended up shaping the entire development of my work. SCL is a teaching style that instead focuses attention to the students and how they best learn. Although curriculum is still directed by the school system, areas of focus are directed by interest, activities are introduce and are typically hands-on. These changes see great results in retention and interest. Although I could excitedly dig into many details of SCL and current American procedures, I will focus this study on the process of developing my thesis and mention only facts with a direct influence. For those with a greater interest, I offer you an open invitation to connect with me directly to chat!
My interest in American education came from my own personal frustrations with it while growing up. Generally most Americans would be ready to complain about the terrible testing systems, endless lectures with no escape, and never being allowed time to focus on subjects you’re interested in due to constraints driven by curriculum. Beginning my formal research I found SCL very quickly, which provided a learning style that combated these pain points. More importantly, they assisted me in nailing down my demographic. SCL is found more commonly in very young audiences (Grades K-4) and older audiences (Grades 9 - college). That dead zone settled very tightly on Middle School grades (5-8) and I knew this was where I wanted to focus.
About 2 months into our research, we were tasked to present our findings to a small board of professors and professionals in the design field. I hinged my research on the facts that I found most potent - American government policies that restricted budgets and resources while causing teacher burn out. As well as testing systems that damaged the way students approached learning and how it impacted their ability to adapt to a professional field. I presented my findings with great pride, knowing I dug up a concrete case as to why this needed attention and how design could help through the language of SCL - but I hadn’t impressed anyone. The reality was that I had devastated my panel board, who were primarily parents themselves, and all of which were teachers who had goals to support and care for their students.
This was a hard lesson in planning my presentations. Although I saw the presentation of reason and purpose, I was really communicating default by showing how immovable the core of these issues are. Instead, I wanted SCL to become a compromise available for teachers and students. SCL is so similar to the concept of design thinking which could easily be applied to any subject, but I had failed to showcase that.
Anyone familiar with design thinking or even just trying to predict the minds and actions of children know that process isn’t truly a linear process. So, my process didn’t truly meet the Research - Design - Documentation phases that Suffolk had prescribed us. Although research was largely by the book, design was really a sometimes gracefully chaotic exchange between the three phases, oftentimes circling in sub-circles of various designs. For every test result I needed to adapt to, I had to research the best alternative. For every success, I needed to pursue and ensure I knew why it succeeded. Then everything, every mistake and miracle needed to be documented.
The first obstacle was just getting into a classroom to observe and speak to students. There was no room to negotiate any levels of visitation, from the ground level I was simply not welcome. Having many friends as teachers, they were willing to try and help but the few that could arrange it were typically teaching students that were far too young to be useful for my testing.
Teachers most often would cite that it was against policy or not allowed by the school itself. Notably some said they simply could not fit in any material that was not a part of the demands of their curriculum, sometimes that they had no say on the curriculum or the order it’s reviewed. These obstacles were constantly cited in my research as barrier to proper education and poor testing, which only further throttled their resources.
My solace came through a fellow lover of the arts. An art teacher at an Alternative High School in the Boston Area offered to let me in to her class so long as I met with the principal - to which I happily agreed. Although 9th grade was outside my targeted demographic, it was the closest I had come and I wouldn’t miss it. Plus, these students were in an alternative school typically for behavioral or legal issues. If anyone needed help and extra attention, they certainly were at the top of the list.
Hope and faith was bustling from the art teacher for her students. Talking to her only doubled my excitement to talk to the students and ask them what they wanted. When I met the principal I had explained SCL and design thinking, telling her I wanted to speak with her students and see what they were looking for out of school and what they felt they were missing. With little hesitation she explained to me in return that she felt these practices were far too conceptual for the children at her school to understand. She explained she didn’t think I would be gaining anything, and better that it was probably best I left. Despite being crestfallen, I didn’t. I instead went to meet the students.
Unfortunately, it still didn’t go much better. They greeted me with the similar feelings the principal had - they were disinterested and angry. They didn’t care to do anything, even hands on or ‘for fun’ activities they’d choose. This rattled me since I had researched students simply needed the opportunity for this and they’d engage, but realistically it wasn’t that simple.
Phase 2.2: Changing Course and The Secret Win
Unwilling to give up, I knew I had to figure out how to engage my audience. I spent time spinning in my design and research before it finally dawned on me: I had done it again. I had given a dreary lecture with a couple questions sprinkled in, instead I needed to practice what I was preaching and use SCL.
I revisited my notes from my visit to the alternative school. Instead of focusing on their disinterests (me) I focused on what they were interested in: breaking their pencils to bits, playing with small toys, and fidgeting with anything they could find to distract them from the boring lecturer! And even better I remembered one student coyly trying to brag about hanging up the drawing they made in art class, I remember the only decorations I could remember on their walls was the drawings from art class. The final bit clicked for me.
I built out environmental design that was intended on being broken and repaired. It was intended to endure the frustrations of these children, add color and creativity to their bare schools, and most importantly provide some control in their environment.
I built 3 signs based off of my time with those students. One made of broken pencils (flattened out most of the sharp bits with a machine), one of eraser toppers, and one out of bouncy balls. Each of them were typographic, giving words of encouragement.
“Think & Create”
“Commit to Yourself”
“Feed your passions”
Okay yes, I was asked not to return but of course I did anyways - these children needed help finding their drive! I had a moment of concern when the art teacher emailed me to say she wasn’t allowed to let me back in, but since she was also passionate to get these children engaged and excited to learn, she promptly followed it up with when I could return.
When I got there, the students were fighting in the hallways and had to be yelled at to stop, ordered to get in the room. Obviously, not the best opener to my session. They started with defiance, the teacher asked them to sit and they all stood around me waiting with clear frustration that I was back. Sometimes even vocalizing as much. They didn’t want to sit, so I didn’t make them! Instead, I stood with them. I began pushing the chairs and tables out of the way while casually explaining my work. I laid the signs out carelessly and encouraged their most honest feedback. We stood in silence.
Eventually, one student told me, “I don’t like that. It looks like worms.” while pointing to the sign that was made of erasers. I thanked him for his feedback generously following up with the invitation to break it if it’d make him feel better. More silence, but this time it was much more encouraging to me. I tossed my signs around some more, even more carelessly. One said he wanted to break it, I encouraged him to! Some said they thought I wouldn’t get anything good out of this and I expressed how much I would appreciate any help they could give me - especially pointing out my failures and the importance of that to make my next move.
Suddenly students started walking among the signs. In an almost lightswitch flick moment, their hatred turned to praise and concern. They wanted to help me protect the signs and I had to work to convince them breaking it was intentional. They started to propose new ideas, they challenged me in saying I was thinking far too small and that I should be braver and doing more! They challenged their teacher to give them more enticing work, who did remind them she often presents as much but they turn her down - which began a waterfall of insight.
These students almost perfectly vocalized the research I found in only a few moments. They expressed feeling restrained and held back by droning lectures, they felt they had no room to be humans in the machine like churning of their education process. Even better, when the art teacher had asked if they knew why I had done this, why I had brought my signs to them they said, “DUH it’s obvious.” They relaid the entire concept back to me, my dream of helping them realize where they had fallen apathetic to their own interests and where they could find control, my goal of livening up their school to help them become engaged. They so beautifully proved their principal wrong and outdid my wildest hopes, all in one sitting.
There had been one student who had only said one sentence the entire time, who spent the session sitting in the back and never engaged. As I packed up my signs to leave, he came up to me and asked to hold the sign he told me he didn’t like because it had looked like worms. I jokingly told him there was still time to break it, but he just kept looking at the sign and quietly told me that it was actually very nice up close. After I left I had an email from the art teacher, saying that boy had asked to be a part of any more projects I brought to the school. My heart had absolutely melted.
These experiences ultimately accumulated in weeks of refining 3 products for my thesis. I wanted to provide a full harmonious environment dedicated to the student, supplemented by the teacher. It consisted of a website, a project guide, and environmental design.
The first was a website, intended as a database of projects cultivated and circulated by a community of teachers and students looking to engage their learning. This deliverable was formed based off of the common frustration of not understanding how to transform lessons. It would bring visibility to successful practices and share the knowledge from failures. Most importantly, this could be a beacon for everyone to learn the idea of design thinking and how it is truly the base of SCL. It would teach to adapt and iterate as you progress, that there is no hard path to success. It would share that as critiques are taught to be a positive learning experience, students will learn that finding failure shouldn’t be seen as a failure - it is simply an indication for change.
One deliverable was what I referred to as a “Thought Box” which was a simply designed patterns to print that would make boxes. These would be sharable between the student and teacher. It prompted the teacher to select a lesson to be learned and prompted the student to select a way of learning and demonstrating the project. At a bare minimum, it would be the physical presence and reminder to share the lesson.
The signs were the final piece, which needed very little refinement after my session with the students (although they did need some repair work!). The cultivation of these three assets together created a solidarity through the school that would bind the teacher, student, and lessons to equal terms.
The documentation process broke into 2 deliverables: A gallery showing and an official documentation material. Most often it was opted as a book, but the professors allowed us to document our design and research in whatever method we wanted.
My gallery show came to me so organically - what else would I do but show the work I had built for these students and showcase their reactions to it. The entire event circled around those two days because in that from the wild failure and success I experienced every fault of the system that I read about as if the months of research were truly just a drawn out premonition. Better still, I was able to see most rewards come to fruition with just a little extra care.
The truth of the matter is that in order to iterate enough and to negotiate my way into classrooms, I actually had forsaken almost ¾ of my documentation time - and as a result my document really suffered.
A poorly bound book with a very generic design was clearly a cast out in my collection - but I wouldn’t change anything about it. My show, my work, my very experience was drenched in my love, hard work, the connections with teachers and students as in need of this success as I was. So I didn’t mind my book just meeting criteria to meet criteria, and neither did my professors. I passed, gaining my degree without revision.
Still feeling invigorated by the experiences made, I submitted my work to the AIGA New Voices, New Visions gallery show and won a space in their event. I was beyond thrilled to show my work and speak of the students again with more people, as well as hear the stories of the works around me.
In speaking with my manager in the SAP CX team, I spoke on this interest and discussed speaking on this work during our Design Sharing Sessions. I was fortunate enough to have many people interested after my show, even one private call where a fellow designer told me “I felt you were speaking from my heart” which moved me greatly. From this, I spoke again with my manager and organized the a workshop for those who were interested to engage in ways to encourage design thinking with their children during this pandemic, and for those without children, learn how to construct lessions and potentially find a way to help encourage this change in classrooms across America. Should I have enough interest, I hope to continue this as a series.
I’m always looking for more opportunities to be active on this front or in any other spaces where help and change are needed, please feel welcomed to contact me if interested.