In today’s public high schools, standards are rising, funding is declining, and employer expectations continue to grow. Mastery of the fundamentals, such as language arts, science, and math are still at the core of American education, yet according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the cultivation of life skills and innovation skills in public education is increasingly emphasized: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
How might we teach these skills to students in a manner that provides them greater ownership of the educational process, and greater respect for each other and members of their community? How do we create environments where students feel comfortable working together to address issues that matter to them most? And, most importantly for teachers and school administrators, how can such efforts create consistent results in a classroom setting?
If you’re a designer interested in teaching in the high school classroom, or you’re just thinking about bringing student-led problem solving into your classroom or community group, try the following best practices we discovered during our pilot of frog’s Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) in high schools, in partnership with Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD) Design for Sustainability program, Design Ethos, Gatorball Academy, and teachers and classes at Beach, Groves, and Savannah High Schools. (You can read more about the pilot program in my recent FastCoDesign article and follow-up articles on Design Mind, where we shared stories from the high schools and the ripple effects felt in the community.)
1. Start by building trust and sharing issues through student-led activities
When students feel like they haven’t had the opportunity to share their perspectives, disinterest or even tension can rise in the classroom. When the students lead activities, however, they have a chance to speak up and relate more directly to the content. Teachers and designers can encourage rather than control the conversation, working to understand the needs of each student and their collective perspective as a class. Along the way, the teacher or designer may learn something crucial about student needs from their discussion, which can then be addressed at other points through the school semester. As a result, students feel like they’ve been heard, both by the other students and their teachers. As one of the student participants said at the conclusion of the SCAD pilot:
“When they came, we didn't understand what they were saying … 'Are you serious, it's our opinion, it's what we want to do? It's really that?' Within our school, we're not heard, so to have a program like this come and actually hear us out, and we have an opinion about things…”
Make sure you also get to know each student individually, separate of the group activities. Balancing individual and group perspectives will lead to stronger outcomes.
2. Encourage ‘looking for a problem’ over problem solving
Requiring solutions right away can be counterproductive for group problem solving in the classroom. Class activities should focus first on fostering personal connections between students, exercising critical thinking and communication skills, and being sensitive to issues under discussion. Otherwise, you may be too prescriptive, steering your group towards outcomes that don’t fit the conversation.
This process was summarized well by designer Carol Lora, who described their problem-solving experience at Savannah High in the following way:
“It was 'look for a problem,' not solve a problem… It was really flowing, that was what I liked. As designers, we’re saying, ‘We have to have this, we have to finish…we have to figure it out.’ And the solution ended up building itself up… it’s the dialogue that happens that’s more interesting.”
How did Carol’s team create this kind of result in the classroom, where the dialogue “built up” the solution? They focused their first class on discovering what role models the students admired through the CAT activity “Who Inspires Us.” Then, as part of the activity “Find Issues, Uncover Needs,” the students shared their personal goals in life and potential obstacles that stood in their way. By starting with personal topics and better understanding each other as people, the students were better primed to identify and agree on issues they all cared about—well before a solution was identified.
3. The larger the issue, the more time students need to trace its complexity
Before starting work with a class, see how many class periods you will have. Set expectations with your students about what you believe can be accomplished in the time you have. If the students want to tackle a complex topic, be prepared to invest the necessary time in making sure they understand it.
When working with high schools in Savannah, the SCAD designers encouraged their students to build a systematic understanding of larger issues that mattered most to them, which helped them clarify what elements of those issues they could influence or change. Once they could find the “Why” that all of the students shared, they understood which parts they could change.
For example, the Beach High class had to explore the implications of violence in their neighborhood to start generating potential solutions. This is how Nathan Sundberg described what happened in the classroom:
“After we realized that violence was a topic that [impacted] all of the students in the class, we started asking them how they thought it showed up. What’s an example of violence? Do you know people [impacted] by violence? We worked through breaking violence into components. Anti-violence is so abstract… being able to personalize it and being able to take it and break it into tangible parts was really important.”
If you have only 5 to 6 class periods, you can explore a wide range of issues, but the class may not be able to generate a wide range of solutions and decide which one they want to act upon. If you have more than 10 to 12 class periods, you may be able to work your way from building trust, to exploring problems, to creating a draft version of the solution to pitch or implement.
4. Know your activities in advance and be prepared to adapt them
School class periods are brief, often less than an hour—and not all of that time can be used for group activities. The SCAD designers creatively adapted the CAT activities, yet refused to compromise the dialogue and reflection period at the end of each period that would be carried into the next activity. Based on the in-class dialogue, the SCAD designers would then adjust their plans for the next class based on student progress.
To do this, a strong command of the activities available to them from the CATwas required. Designer Carol Lora said: “The [CAT] was the means to make our project easier. We needed a toolkit, definitely… But we needed to tweak it… You have to read it and see what scenarios might happen, and just change them a little bit, and then deliver it.”
If you’re going to adapt activities from the CAT for use in your school, these are the things you can easily modify:
The SCAD students were also willing to improvise, inventing their own activities on the spot in order to advance the dialogue. What we’ve learned from the pilot is that new group activities had to conform to the following five principles to be successful:
5. Bring community expertise on local issues into the classroom
The knowledge and expertise of a group has its limit. If students can’t take a field trip to explore an issue, students should work with their teachers to reach outside of the classroom and invite subject-matter experts and local role models to visit. They are often more than willing to share their stories and insights for a class period.
Designers Eric Green and Marina Petrova describe how easy a process it was to invite homeless advocate Marvin Heery to their class:
“Over the weekend we reached out to [Marvin]… We shared [our class's] desire to connect with the homeless community and if he would like to be a part [of it]. Mr. Heery’s response was ‘When can I come?’ Our response was ‘You can come next week.’ That’s how community action takes place.”
6. Keep a visual record of everything the students explore
Group conversation is valuable, but without a record of that conversation, much of what the group members have explored will vanish when the class period is over.
Many of the activities in the CAT require keeping a visual record of questions, insights, reflections, ideas, stories, and plans of action. When present in the room, it’s a “visual resume” that students can draw from and build upon from class to class.
One of the reasons Beach High School’s presentation to their principal hit a home run was because the principal could easily trace their thinking from their first questions to their final proposed solutions, and why they felt it was worth supporting.
7. Provide support as an enabler of voices
It can be tempting to step in and provide a helping hand when seeing students struggle. Designers should facilitate what happens in the classroom without slipping into an overbearing role. Nathan Sundberg said this best:
“I think that this whole process has been illustrative of the role that I see designers having in any process: as an enabler of voices… everyone has a story and a point of view, but they don’t always get a chance to communicate that point of view. They don’t always realize that their point of view is important.
This could be applied to any number of different situations, but in this particular situation, our role was to come in and tell the students that they had a voice and their voice mattered. It was a partnership and an enabling process. We weren’t coming up with ideas, we were just guiding the process. It was all a result of the students, and it was in this participatory and collaborative space that couldn’t have happened without everyone being there…
I am wrestling personally with how do I make sure that my design work is enabling people to progress, opening spaces and starting conversations. It’s not just coming in and providing a solution. That’s not the role of the designer anymore. The role of the designer is to stand there and say, “I’m a human and you’re a human, I’m here to listen to you and to move forward from that standpoint.”
The feedback from the students echoed this philosophical decision on the part of the SCAD graduate students:
"Through this program, I actually get to talk and fit in."
"It's not only school. Y'all help us with our home lives, too… It's a time to vent, but also fun."
“We feel accomplished because we came from something so small, and now we're actually going to do it, and hopefully it'll spread out to more and more schools.”
These best practices are drawn from interviews that I conducted with the SCAD graduate students, as well as We Have a Voice: Facilitating Community Action with High School Students, a 100-page document the graduate students created that documents how the CAT was used with Savannah-area high schools.
David Sherwin is an interaction design director at frog. He has built his reputation as a design leader, interaction designer, and researcher with 17 years of experience in generating compelling solutions for systemic business problems. David is the author of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills and Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers. You can follow David on Twitter @changeorder.