Reimagining the 21st-century Classroom

Education teaches students the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed and, in turn, become good citizens. Kat Davis explains how teachers can apply the lessons learned from service design to that end.

Education in America faces tough challenges. Innovative solutions to these challenges can be found when teachers and students apply service design to the classroom, solving short-term problems while also giving students long-term skills.

The 21st-century, American classroom faces major challenges. The threat of the privatization of schools1, the lack of funding, and the erosion of traditional societal institutions, has forced schools to take on the roles of “priests, psychologists, therapists, political reformers, social workers, sex advisers, or parents.”2 Now more than ever, schools are expected to not only teach children subject matter, but to teach life skills as well.

This, in turn, fundamentally changes the teacher’s role in the classroom. Further, legal mandates for test-based performance evaluation have not only trickled down to the teacher’s workload, but threatened their very job. After all, if a computer can teach individualized math better than a teacher and students get higher test scores, why are teachers needed?3 This threat is most acutely manifest by the proliferation of online courses. Michael Sandel of San Jose State University recently foreshadowed the future of higher education in an open letter to fellow professors stating, “Let us not kid ourselves…administrators at C.S.U. are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”4 For teachers at all levels, overcoming internal and external pressures and continuing to provide fundamental value requires an innovative re-envisioning of the classroom and making it a shared experience, one that cannot be replicated by an automaton.

Teachers must overcome the digital-age metaphor of learning, one which compares the human to a computer, putting knowledge into memory, emphasizing logic and measurable outcomes. Teachers must define their role not as data providers, but service providers. The two-fold purpose of education is to teach students to think critically about their world and, ultimately, to teach them to become good citizens. The Service Design techniques and tools – building empathy, customer journey maps, and prototyping – which originally arose to help businesses ideate on tough, multi-faceted problems, should now be used in the classroom to help teachers re-imagine and co-create the student experience.

Class in empathy

Before starting any service design project, designers work to understand the primary actors in their system – indeed, this is a foundational premise for any human-centered design endeavor.

Despite this, teacher‘s often overlook the classroom‘s primary actors, the students. After all, most teachers reason, “I was once a student myself. How could my students experience differ from our own? Neil Postman, the educational scholar and cultural critic, points out the fallacy in this logic:

Most teachers…teach subjects they were good at in school. They found the subject both easy and pleasurable. As a result, they are not likely to understand how the subject appears to those who are not good at it, or don’t care about it, or both.

Teachers, while well-intentioned, may have trouble empathizing with students struggling to understand the curricula or how it relates to them. As a practice in empathy, Postman goes so far as to suggest that teachers teach a subject they are bad at for a year as a way to gain understanding of how many students might feel in their classroom.

From a service-design perspective, teachers can bring more empathy into the classroom by giving students a voice. What do students like to do? What do students want to learn? A simple interview or class discussion can prove quite enlightening. Even switching roles where the student teaches for a day would prove to be enlightening of the other’s experience for both student and teacher.

The student journey

For further insight, students and teacher could employ another service design tool known as the Customer Journey Map. Customer Journey Maps trace the main actors in a system as they interact with its various touchpoints. This, in turn, helps designers discover opportunity areas that might benefit from creative problem solving.

As a classroom activity, a teacher can guide students in groups through making their own “student” journey map of several different time periods: the student’s experience in the teacher’s class, the school day, the student’s year, or even the student‘s entire school career. Doing so provides the teacher with deep insights about what students do outside of his or her classroom. If History class comes after an English class, for example, there might be an opportunity for cross-disciplinary learning cross-class relevant topics might emerge. Understanding the context of the class and getting insights from other classrooms can lead teachers to discover techniques students enjoy in other classrooms and use them in their own. Teachers may even get tough critique and suggestions on how to improve their own classroom from the stakeholders that really matter, the students.

A student journey map exercise also carries the potential to provide deep insight into a student’s life outside of the school environment: what other challenges do students face that might affect their academic performance? By identifying pain points, students and teachers can collaboratively brainstorm possible solutions, creating the ideal journey map to understand how students might better enjoy their school experience. This exercise places both student and teacher in a design mindset understanding that the classroom setting does not have to remain in the status quo. Furthermore, even if student ideas are not implemented, students will be left with the notion that their voice was important, was heard, and did contribute to the structure of their classroom experience.

Life imitates life

Once the teacher and students have created a new classroom model, they should try it out to see if it works. If it’s a success, great. If it’s a failure, even better. As John Dewey, the great 20th-century philosopher and educational theorist wrote, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Furthermore, this trial-and-error mentality cultivates one of the principle purposes of education, critical thinking.

Postman, again, writes:

When we incorporate the lives of our ancestors in our education, we discover that some of them were great error-makers, some great error-correctors, some both. And in discovering this, we accomplish three things. First, we help students to see that knowledge is a stage in human development, with a past and a future. Second…we acquaint students with the people and ideas that comprise “cultural literacy” – that is to say, give them some understanding of where their ideas come from and how we came by them. And third, we show them that error is no disgrace, that it is the agency through which we increase understanding.5

Teachers should encourage the prototyping of an idea and create an environment that allows for failure. This should permeate not only into the ideas and environment that students and their teachers co-create, but also into the students’ ability to jump into new learning feeling comfortable with the possibility of failure.

When students and teachers use service design tools to re-imagine their classrooms they fulfill the key purposes of education: thinking critically and being a productive member of society. Through collaboration and group decision making, students learn what it takes to organize and empathize. This makes them better citizens. By being part of their own classroom’s design, students understand that they have an important voice that can lead to change, skills applicable well beyond the classroom.

Designers think critically, and students and teachers must, too. By using Service Design techniques, teachers learn to better understand their students and their changing role in the 21st-century classroom. Instead of the “authoritarian ruler” in charge of imparting a narrow set of knowledge, the teacher becomes a choreographer, setting up the environment to teach and take into account the whole student. Through the Service Design process, both student and teacher realize that the classroom is a prototype that might sometimes fail but never fails to produce some kind of learning.

Excited about the intersection of service design and the classroom? Curious about how to further apply Service Design in Education? Check out these resources and examples:

Note: Service Design Tools are referenced from http://servicedesigntools.org/repository.

Footnotes

  1. “Secondly, we have seen an increased role for national nonprofit and for-profit organizations in providing educational services, and in acting as self-interested players in school politics.” John Thompson, “Seismic Shifts in Education Policy”
  2. Neil Postman, The End of Education, 143.
  3. Motoko Rich, “Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/14/education/study-gauges-value-of-technology-in-schools.html?_r=0
  4. Let us not kid ourselves,” the letter said, “administrators at C.S.U. are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/education/online-classes-fuel-a-campus-debate.html
  5. Neil Postman, The End of Education, 125.

About the Author

Kat Davis

Kat Davis is an Interaction Designer for frog in Seattle, WA. A former teacher, Kat is passionate about applying design thinking to re-imagining the educational experience.

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2 Comments

  • Mihaela Vorvoreanu Reply

    Thank you for your thoughts. I am an HCI prof at Purdue U. in the College of Technology. I can tell you that we think quite seriously about these issues. At least from my somewhat limited point of view things are not as dire as they might seem. :)

  • Victoria Chattopadhyay Reply

    Designing education programs with kids as consumers. A food for thought for teaching subjects which are difficult or considered uninteresting!

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