Design challenge

Alysha English (left) and Lusmaia Diaz (right) of IDEO, a global design company, conduct a presentation on improving communication between parents and teachers.

At Kutztown Area Middle School, students, parents, teachers and administrators recently convened for the first of two sessions of an interactive workshop focused on improving communication between parents and teachers.

The Kutztown Area School District partnered with The Teachers Guild, a California-based organization that searches for solutions to some of the most pressing issues in today’s education system, to present the “It Takes A Team” design challenge. The Teachers Guild was formed by and continues to work with IDEO, an international design company.

IDEO’s Lusmaia Diaz and Alysha English, both of whom have dedicated their careers to the field of education, steered the event through the use of IDEO’s process of “design thinking.”

“It’s about encouraging innovative thinking and creative ideas through collaboration,” said English in describing the methods by which IDEO functions.

The need for creativity and alternative thinking was apparent immediately after walking through the door. At each seat, there were colorful sticky notes, sharpies, stickers, and cards that asked “What’s your dream?”

“Tonight’s going to be interactive,” said Dr. Scott Hand, Kutztown’s Director of Educational Technology. “It’s really about having a dialogue and having a conversation. We’re going to stand up, we’re going to move around, we’re going to use multi-colored Post-it Notes.”

Hand was responsible for organizing the event after he worked to have Kutztown chosen as one of just two districts in the nation to participate in the exclusive program. He was one of many members of the KASD faculty present, as parents, teachers and administrators at the elementary, middle and high school level all attended.

The goal of the program is to design creative solutions to answer the question of “How might we strengthen communication and trust between parents and teachers to support student success?” Although many of the attendees believed that they entered with little experience working with design, English assured that in reality, the definition of a designer is not as rigid as one might think.

“Design doesn’t have to be [computer-based]. You don’t have to be a software developer. Everyone in this room is actually a designer.”

In order to reach the desired “design thinking” state of mind, Diaz and English directed a series of activities intended to begin tapping into the brains of the participants. This process began simply with a room-wide game of rock-paper-scissors. In true tournament style, each time that a competitor beat an opposing player, they would go on to play another undefeated challenger. The losers trailed behind the person who had beat them, forming a chain of cheerleaders for the winners.

In the final round, the last two remaining competitors played one last game, each with a crowd chanting their names in support. The winner’s reward was only pride, but the challenge had helped to introduce participants to one another and to engage a more playful and free-thinking mindset.

Next, Diaz and English presented a series of polarizing questions to the audience, instructing them to split the room in half, with those who favored one opinion moving to one side of the room and those who favored the opposing opinion moving to the opposite side. Participants debated on matters ranging from whether they preferred polka dots or stripes to whether one should think with their head or their heart. The final question offered two options—either that our education system is good enough as it is, or that it needs improvement. For the first and only time, every person in attendance stood on the same side of the room.

In discussing one another’s feelings about these various subjects, attendees began to use empathy. By definition, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others. But according to Diaz, it means much more than that.

“I’m a runner and I use the Nike app, and I think it’s the most amazing thing because they know exactly when I’m not going to plan on running, and they say, ‘Run today!’ and I’m like, ‘Yes sir!’” said Diaz. “Whoever made this Nike app understood that around 4:30 p.m. I’m hitting my slump, and they know to send a notification. That is empathy.”

Diaz and English explained that to find solutions to a problem, it is important to understand the feelings and beliefs of all parties involved. This is part of what inspired the event to be named the “It Takes A Team” challenge.

As the group broke into smaller sections to begin discussing potential solutions to the issue of communication between parents and teachers, students, parents, teachers and administrators were all mixed together so that every viewpoint would be represented.

One of these administrators was Superintendent Dr. George Fiore, who was overjoyed to have the opportunity for his school district to be involved in such an exclusive experience.

“This is a really, really cool opportunity for us here at Kutztown to partner with IDEO, because the process is what we’re focusing on,” said Fiore. “We’re hoping we can translate some of the things that we learn not only into our parent and teacher communication, but also into our classrooms and our general practices.”

Within each small group, participants created brainstorms with colored Post-it Notes and came up with a number of potential methods to improve parent-teacher communication. At the end of the event, each group submitted their two favorite ideas on a collaborative online form. They’ll refer back to these ideas at the next meeting, where the design process will be taken to the next step: creating models and prototypes.

The second and final session of the workshop will take place on March 19 at the middle school. For more information about the event and how to participate, contact Scott Hand at shand@kasd.org.

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