Let’s Get Some Context.
I was accepted to Michigan State University’s Master’s in Educational Technology program almost exactly three years after I took my first class in user experience design (UXD). I know because I found the original Instagram post I made from a “take a picture of something that makes you happy every day” challenge and it showed up on my “On this day…” feature. Welcome to mood lighting, selfie-taking, long-hair-with-bangs, 2015 subway platform Lindsay.
You could easily profile me. Young millennial living in Brooklyn, working for a large corporation in New York City, not using her degree from a public university. My job wouldn’t provide any additional training, so I decided to take this class after my dad suggested I might enjoy UXD and that I would make a better living with it. Considering I lived in a small apartment with two roommates, one of which was making pot cookies once a month on MY cookie sheets and dating a man who was almost her boss’s boss, twice her age, and married…but I’m getting off track.
I took the UXD course from General Assembly and made a fleshed out prototype of a Google Docs extension that would help educators assess who of the group members really did the work. It wasn’t real, and I didn’t have the ability to code it, but I made it! It was mine! But not enough to build a portfolio to get a job in the field. Lucky for me at this time, I had decided to move to Seattle in August 2016 and go back to teaching: I was tired of being the one who had to invoice and take money from school districts (even if they were paying for a product, most of them never used it).
Regardless, here’s the three years later equivalent social media post. Meet 2018 optimistic, Twitter-happy, itinerant music teacher Lindsay (who learned her lesson that bangs are way too much upkeep):
I’ve leaned on my design knowledge throughout my Master’s coursework at Michigan State University, and had looked forward to taking a design class again from the moment I put it on my proposed academic schedule. From the moment the class started, I felt right back at home, familiar with the content, proposed technologies, and the process itself. Proof:
It has not been the easiest few months. My husband’s application to be an Army pilot was denied after preparing for ten years to become one, my grandmother passed away in late January after two months of declining health, and COVID-19. That alone has impacted my job, my safety, where I live, and my plans for the rest of the year. This tweet from earlier today felt so accurate:
You Teach the Same Class How Many Times?
When I took the UXD course in 2015-2016, I remember thinking how much teaching was a lot like designing. I kept constantly making connections back to teaching throughout the course, and one of my biggest takeaways was that design thinking is perfect for teachers. They must do it all the time without thinking as part of their lesson plans. Then I started teaching again, and discovered I was incorrect. I really saw my design thinking this year was in the repetitive music classes I taught since. Over the past two years I have taught 10 kindergarten music classes for 50 minutes twice a week. That’s a lot of numbers, so here’s part of my schedule:
|11:20-12:10||Class A||Class F||Class A||Class F|
|12:30-1:20||Class B||Class G||Class B||Class G|
|1:20-2:10||Class C||Class H||Class C||Class H|
|2:10-3:00||Class D||Class I||Class D||Class I|
|3:00-3:50||Class E||Class J||Class E||Class J|
This setup meant that for two years, I have taught the same lesson ten times in a row before switching plans. Only as I took this course did I realize that each set of ten classes was an encapsulation of iterative design.
The content was there to start, and I knew what the students needed to learn, but it was a matter of pacing, delivery, and adjusting the lessons to my students’ needs. My first lesson of each set was always the roughest sketch – barely prepared fifteen minutes prior, sketched on the board so students knew what we were doing, and delivered. You’ll notice that there’s a 20 minute break after my first class. This was invaluable: I could teach the first class and if anything didn’t work, needed different supplies, caused issues, needed more content, I could redesign the lesson and test again with the next class. The next “break” my lessons got was between each set of five classes. After teaching five of the same lesson on Monday, I might discover that these students are not ready to do partner dances or that we never got to our last activity. The next day I would come in, change our schedule, and see how it worked.
Depending on the needs of the classroom I might change the process as well. One class had a nonverbal student, who would do motions if I had them, but if I didn’t would space out and constantly go to use the bathroom. That class had movements for every single song. My class at the end of the day had more movement in their activities, as I discovered the students were antsy to get home and movement helped them focus.
Framing and Reframing
Design thinking has impacted how I have looked at the world around me as well. My husband and I had a discussion recently that framed how different our thought processes are when it comes to some of society’s biggest problems. It started with this tweet and article while drinking coffee this morning:
The ideas discussed in this article and the ideas it created in my mind had me instantly messaging my husband:
After he read it, we had an in-depth discussion of the implications of what redesigning the restaurant industry would be, how many other industries and facets of society had also been living on this razor’s edge, and how COVID-19 would industries and patterns of human life going forward. Design thinking helped me frame these larger questions as problems that needed to be clarified and defined rather than immediately jumping in with the solutions that may be put in place. At first I thought it was the difference between being an idealist and a pragmatist, but I realized it was actually the difference being able to reframe issues in various ways and immediately making solutions based on what you know.
Design thinking has made me even more of an optimist than I already was. Being able to frame a problem, then reframe, define, then redefine, then throw it all out without feeling bad. As the “artsy” one of a friend group who prided themselves in being in the top 5% of our high school class, failing was not a thing I did. Honestly, it’s still not much of what I do. But I’m more comfortable with small failures far more than I ever have been. My cooking and baking has definitely been improved because I am willing to take chances and make substitutions, knowing that if this meal isn’t perfect, I’ll still eat it, and I’ll make even tastier food next time. For example, this fantastic “vegetarian” ramen my husband and I made a few weeks ago:
That “homemade vegetable ramen” clearly has eggs in it that were not a part of the recipe. I discovered early that afternoon that it called for dried shiitake mushrooms, not fresh ones, and had to learn how to dry mushrooms quickly. The broth is not vegetarian either; its water base we swapped for equal parts chicken stock and bone broth because I thought it might amp up the flavor. And in these times, those are definitely not fresh ramen noodles. They’re dried packaged “Asian noodles”, whatever that means. The fact that I can recall each of these substitutions 15 days later means that yes, the mistakes still bother me. But I was able to iterate on the original recipe to make something that I would probably enjoy (and did!). A lot of social distancing cooking has involved finding solutions that I would not have been ready for before.
Looking forward, I hope the principles of design thinking help define my style as a leader. I love being in a classroom and singing with students, but the testing of this step of my career has shown me that there is more that I could be doing in other positions. I want to be able help those in struggling positions feel supported, like I tried to do through my problem of practice for this course. I want to be comfortable testing something to see if it works, and trying something else if it doesn’t. I want to be creative with my solutions by defining the problems I encounter properly. Even if it’s as simple as keeping the design model steps on a Post-it on my laptop, I want to ensure that I remember this model.
I hope it keeps me an optimist. Everything is so unstable right now, I’m not even certain what I will be doing Tuesday. But I feel more prepared to tackle problems ahead with the wealth of knowledge that comes from theoretical and practical experience in design.