Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

Innovation is when something new is created and implemented that adds value. Inventions happen every day, and every year inventions find their way into our classroom. 

It’s only when an invention adds value that they become an innovation. A lot of times we get caught up in the invention, or the idea. I call this the glitter dust syndrome. 

Ever receive a card with glitter on it? It’s pretty and you’re excited to receive it. But after you read the card and put it out for display, you see it… glitter. It’s everywhere. It’s stuck on your clothes, your skin, your carpet.

It added no value to the card. In fact, sometimes the message of the card gets lost because you’re too busy cleaning up the glitter. If there is no value add, there’s no innovation. Just invention. 

So how do we determine whether something is going to be a value added innovation in our classroom or a case of glitter dust?

Design thinking.

We are all designers. Every lesson plan you write, every bulletin board you create, every assessment you assign, even the outfit you put together for today. But that doesn’t mean you’re a design thinker. Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others. 

Design Your Mask

During my keynote presentation at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Saturday, I asked everyone in the room to design a mask that they could wear without holding it. They also had to be able to see through it. One piece of cardstock paper was the only material provided. The timer was set for three minutes.

Just about everyone was able to design a mask and wear it. But then I asked them to trade masks with the person sitting next to them. Quickly, they realized that their mask didn’t quite fit their colleague as well as it fit them. Maybe the eye slits were off, or the way it latched on to their face didn’t quite work. Those who used their glasses to hold it on had to also give their glasses to the colleague, which caused some blurry moments!

Why didn’t the mask fit as nicely on the colleague as it did on the designer? What needed to happen for the mask to fit somebody else?

Innovation in Education

Human-centered design requires us to step away from our own needs, our own assumptions, and look at the world through the lens of others.

When considering innovation in education, it’s important to differentiate between invention and innovation. What is the value add for our students? Is there one? Schools implement adaptive tech programs that promise to increase reading scores. Tables on wheels are placed everywhere. Social-emotional curriculum is purchased. 

But whose face are we designing the mask for when we do so? Are we simply covering our students in glitter dust?

When we recognize that our mask doesn’t fit everyone else like it fits us, we realize how our bias, our experiences, our beliefs, impacts student learning. And we start becoming human-centered designers. 

This is the difference between designers and design thinkers. 

This blog post is adapted from a keynote I gave at SDCOE’s Learning and Innovation Summit Feb 8, 2020.

Yesterday I watched as teens came together to use their design thinking and entrepreneurial skills to tackle the subject of human trafficking, which is prevalent in San Diego. They came up with innovative ideas to increase awareness and inspire action.

The day kicked off with a motivational talk by WIT Founder, Sarah Hernholm. She stressed to them how important their voice is to solving big issues in our society. “You’re so much more than your school, your GPA, your AP course load… what matters are your ideas.”

Sarah and Don sharing with teens about the issue of human trafficking.

To provide more context as to how important the issue of human trafficking is to San Diego teens, Don from Saved in America shared with the group how 3,000 teens from San Diego alone were lost within the past year. He shared signs of distress to look for in friends who may be involved in unhealthy relationships, as well. When asked why teens don’t know more about this epidemic, Don responded that it’s a hard conversation for adults to start with teens. One of the teen participants responded, “Just because it’s a hard conversation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it.” Another added on, “Teens have to be at the table for issues impacting teens.”

Brainstorming ways to encourage teens to avoid unhealthy relationships.

And at the table they were!

Don’s talk lit a fire in the teens. Split into smaller groups, they brainstormed solutions to:
– Ensure teens know the Human Trafficking Hotline Phone Number
– Provide education to teens on healthy vs unhealthy relationships
– Encourage parents to engage in conversations about human trafficking with their teen
– Use social media to increase awareness of human trafficking amongst teens

Sorting ideas on how to encourage parents to engage in conversations with their teens about human trafficking and unhealthy relationships.

Design Thinking the Challenge Presented

Empathizing. Defining. Ideating. Prototyping. Testing and Refining. Teens spent six hours developing their proposed solution to one of the problems. Unlike past WIT Hackathons, this year the teens did not have an adult coach assigned to them. Instead they were trusted to use the design thinking process on their own, seek out feedback or assistance when needed, and most importantly, have their voices heard.

Students had not met prior to the day, but by the end, they were family.

A Bias Towards Action

It was an honor to coach them, and a thrill to listen to their pitches. Two groups tapped in to the power of Instagram to get their message out to peers. One group connected with local and national businesses to ask that the hotline be printed on their product packaging. We had a group developing curriculum for middle and high school teachers, and another group developing signage for public transportation stops and gas stations.

Hotline Heroes is partnering with local and national companies to add the hotline to product packaging.

Each proposal was unique, and their pitches were on point. Just like Shark Tank, students tackled all the key components of a pitch: Why, How, What, Target Market, Competition, Unique Selling Proposition, and Financials. They were scored on how well they met the challenge; their ability to address all the components; their presentation skills; the feasibility of their solution; and their adherence to the time allocation.

This video uses a snack analogy to discuss healthy vs unhealthy relationships

Change Agents

Although three groups won a monetary award, the reality is that all of the teens were winners. They came together, used empathy to tackle a tough issue, and spread the word about an issue that affects their lives. These kids are world changers!

If you haven’t heard of WIT, check it out. Hackathons and college credit courses are available for all San Diego County high school students. It’s also available in Austin, TX and New York City. And hey, if it’s not in your town (yet), reach out to Sarah and make it happen!

Last night, my district received the Innovate Award for its District Design 2022 initiative. This initiative is focused on providing an extraordinary school experience for all students. Using the Design Thinking mindset, curiosity is promoted as students seek out real world problems and formulate innovative solutions. Students connect with contemporary and historical issues, and with industry experts in their local community and around the globe to develop empathy and a greater understanding of the world.

 Students develop a sense of purpose when they have opportunities to engage in relevant and meaningful learning experiences. By creating a learning culture of innovation, curiosity, imagination, and creativity, students are empowered to ask questions, explore ideas, and take action.

These students are changing the world today. So much of schooling is focused on preparing students for this big, scary, unknown future. But the fact of the matter is, we need to be equipping students for the world that surrounds them today so that they can make an even greater impact on the future.

It’s been an honor to work alongside teachers who are willing to embrace ambiguity and join me on a journey of learning transformation. And it’s an honor for Classroom of the Future Foundation to recognize their dedication. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

The Power of Empathy

When we talk design thinking, we talk empathy. But it seems that empathy is struggling to keep its place in society. In the article “The End of Empathy,” a study was shared that showed a serious decline in empathy starting in 2000. Per the article:

More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

The End of Empathy

I’m hopeful that this data has shifted since the study was completed, but regardless, it is a reminder to teachers that empathy is not a given. We need to intentionally bring it in to our classroom.

Selfish Empathy?

In the book The Dark Sides of Empathy the author Breithaupt suggests we give up on the idea that empathy is about helping others. Instead, we should use empathy to expand our own imaginations and help ourselves. By seeing the world through the eyes of a migrant child we can make our own minds richer. He calls it selfish empathy.

Not sure that selfish empathy is the answer.

But I think we can all agree that empathy is needed. And it’s needed beyond the design thinking framework. So with that in mind, here’s some more resources to think about empathy and its role in our lives and our classrooms.

More Thoughts on Empathy

Low & Slow (vs. fear) – Seth Godin’s blog post cautions us to consider the time it takes to make change. 
Status Roles – Another Seth Godin entry, but this one is a blog and podcast. When working with others, perceived status roles can impact the message being delivered and received. 
Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking – Although Empathy is the first element of a Design Thinking approach, empathy plays a role in every part of a Design Thinking challenge.
Empathy Mapping – Consider what people say, think, do, and feel to truly empathize with their perspective. 

Empathy is not always about people – we also build empathy for the world around us. 

Roundme – These 360 degree virtual tours provide an immersive experience. Some have sound, or links to learn more about the location. Being able to experience a location without being there helps builds empathy. 

And while you’re checking out Roundme, consider the world that is right outside your door. Out of Eden Walk is all about slowing down, sharing stories, and making connections. 

This past month our innovation team has been fortunate to work with a school staff that is looking to reimagine their library space. Currently a traditional space with plain walls, a large circulation desk, and giant book shelves, the staff is wanting to build a space that reflects the joy of learning they want students to experience every day. In their words:

Imagine a space where students of all ages and adults could create, innovate, and explore the world in an inspiring and natural environment designed to enlighten and change the world! Students need a way to access a variety of learning and discovery spaces in order to respect their age and place in the world and ignite their inner genius and advance the world.

We’ve been using the design thinking process to guide us on the journey, which has been a fabulous way to keep us grounded in the WHY of our work. Today, I realized that a consistent theme kept reemerging during every brainstorm or prototype session – JOY.

Adults design schools. Adults who have been schooled for years on how to build buildings. And then adults come in and furnish those buildings. They paint the walls. They choose the chairs. Somewhere in that process, the children become secondary. And often times, so does joy.

Which brings me to the book Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee.

In her book, Fetell Lee points out that joy isn’t reserved for religious gurus that have attained enlightenment. In fact, it can be found all around us. She summarizes 10 big ideas in which joy can be found:

  1. Harness the power of color.
  2. Live abundantly.
  3. Find your freedom.
  4. Discover harmony.
  5. Fill your life with playful shapes.
  6. Surprise yourself.
  7. Go higher.
  8. Feel the magic.
  9. Spread the love.
  10. Start anew.

Schools, and libraries, should truly be places of joy. They should allow for playful wonder. Fetell Lee explains that “play etches itself deeply into our memories for a good reason: it is the only known activity that humans engage in solely because it produces joy. ”

Play lets us practice give-and-take, through which we learn empathy and fairness. It also promotes flexible thinking and problem solving, which increases our resilience and help us adapt to change. When we play, our awareness of time diminishes, and our self-consciousness fades. Play can put us in a powerful flow state, which allows us to let go of everyday worries and be absorbed in the joy of the moment.

Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Children understand joy. All you have to do is listen to them dream up the new library to know that they can see that which adults often forget. Their vision of the space includes waterfalls, cafes, and a loft… they see color, comfortable seats, and places for both quiet and social gatherings. They hear music and feel texture. They break down the barriers and let in nature’s beauty. They get it.

And so did the adults in the room today. I’m excited for the future wonder and joy that awaits the students and staff as they turn their prototypes into a joyful place that ignites genius and empowers students to advance the world.

Stay tuned…

Empathy Can Sneak Up On You!

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

A while back I received an email from a 3rd grade teacher asking me to help her and the music teacher develop an integrated design thinking challenge for the class that would meet both ELA standards and music class objectives. During our meeting, we decided to focus on the topic of JOY.

How might we provide joy to our 5th grade buddies
through an original music composition?

We outlined a plan, and I left the teachers to work their magic.

Today I met with the two teachers because they wanted to discuss how to help 3rd graders empathy map. As the classroom teacher recapped about the experiences thus far, I realized that something far more powerful than just design thinking had already taken place.

As part of the empathy and define process of this challenge, students developed a definition of joy, through their own experiences as well as by interviewing 5th grade students and their parents. The 3rd graders quickly noticed some trends arising in the responses received – many noted happiness; an absence of sadness; and feelings of peace.

When asked what brings people joy, parents shared moments like seeing family after a business trip, or hearing the laughter of their children.

But for one third grader, the answer was very different: not being hated.

Post-It that says "not being hated"


What do you do with an answer like that? For this teacher, she tackled it head on. She asked the class, “Have you ever felt hated in this classroom?” Because she had created a safe place for them to share, a few did share moments when a peer situation made them feel less than loved…hated, even.

Reflecting on the situation, the teacher shared that, even if their musical projects don’t turn out as well as she wants them to, this project is a success because it opened her eyes to the depth of feelings these kiddos have, the complexities of their lives at such a young age, and her need to continue with social-emotional lessons.

That’s the thing about empathy… it can catch you when you least expect it. It doesn’t require an empathy map template or a Post-It. It requires an open heart and a receptive ear, and the capacity to be vulnerable so that you are open to the experiences of others.

I’m always grateful to the teachers that take these risks for our students, and even more grateful when they share their learning with me. It reminds me of how valuable our role is, and how important these authentic moments are to both students and adults.

Humble thanks.

…I may ramble in this post. It’s 1am. I’m tired! Have a head cold. But wanted to share my learnings…


Do I really have to go home tomorrow?

It’s going to be hard to walk away from the synergy of woke educators at this conference, but I know that I have much work to do when I return to San Diego.

Not the work of answering emails and finishing tasks (although there is plenty of that as well), but the work of amplifying the conversations and ideas that have taken place here the past few days so that words don’t just stay words, but instead become actions.

David Hogg and Dan Rathers sitting in chairs talking

David Hogg and Dan Rathers

I started today hearing the voice of the new generation, David Hogg of March For Our Lives, rethink advocacy in this new era. He shared how he had never truly understood what empathy was until he saw his 14 year old sister collapse under the weight of finding out that four of her friends died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. As.a teenage boy full of hormones, he didn’t know what to do with those emotions, but he knew he didn’t want shooting to be just another news story with no change/impact.

Advocacy is born from passion, from desire, from need. So often in education we stifle that drive or relegate to an elective, after school, or GATE program. Education says it is preparing students for the world of work, but when a teenager can say that he never felt empathy until his senior year of high school, then what have we truly prepared them for? What kind of future doesn’t require empathy?

When pressed as to what prepared Hogg, and others like him, to be advocates, he credited experience with speech and debate classes; theater, TV production, and journalism. The very nature of these programs built the skills needed for activism. Hogg learned that it is not his place to speak for others, because he has not shared their experiences. But he can certainly elevate their voices, spotlight them.

When Hogg was asked what his advocacy work had accomplished, he paused before explaining, “We’ve accomplished a little in an area where nothing is expected so we’ve accomplished a lot.” This ability to see progress, to chart a path and stick with it, and to amplify voices through empathy… this is how schools should be preparing students not for the world of work, but for the world of life. The world they’re in now.

There was also a panel of three female teenage entrepreneurs sharing their stories today, and although they weren’t activists like David Hogg, they had a voice that was being amplified through their start-up companies and non-profit organizations. But it wasn’t an easy journey to become a teen entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is like a varsity sport, one of the women explained. “We’re working on it during ALL our spare time..thinking about it all the time. We need adult mentorship outside of the classroom to help us find our way.

But instead, many received truancy letters for taking time out of school to pursue their passion. “Attending an economic summit in Boston shouldn’t result in punishment at school!” Reminds me of conversations yesterday as to what learning is valued, and how antiquated our current learning value system is. How ironic that students are penalized for being successful outside the school walls.

Instead of punishing them, the young ladies asked for mentorship, for people to help them amplify their voice and their passions. People who would offer personal reciprocity by sharing their own struggles; helping alleviate self-doubt; and asking tough questions along the way. Sounds like they were asking for support with the soft skills, the skills that matter most.

One of the women explained, problem solving is just as important as reading and math. As entrepreneurs, they are learning how to fail and grow early. They’re using their creativity to think outside the box to create positive change for society.

And yet, these opportunities aren’t well integrated in elementary schools because the hard skills are pushed more than innovation. Only the gifted, the affluent, or the lucky get to participate. It doesn’t have to be this way. Some ideas shared were to run a pop up shop for a day as part of an entrepreneur project or to have students pick an inconvenience and design a solution.

The advice given to one of the entrepreneurs is just as applicable to all the educators in the audience: You need to take the first step before you’re even ready to take it. A small step is better than no step.

Amplifying voices should be happening all over our schools. “Libraries are like the quarterback [you never knew you had],” so why aren’t school and district leaders leveraging the power we have in our buildings? The library, in many schools, is the biggest classroom in the school. What if we reimagined the space as a systemic gateway to change?

In the 30 minute Reinvention: Designing Future Ready Libraries session, Carolyn Foote articulated that students deserve access to inviting, accessible, collaborative, flexible, tech-rich and literacy centered libraries that support academic and enriching experiences. I’d add that those spaces also support student passions. They elevate the voice of the students by providing them with the resources needed to find and nurture that voice.

#dtk12chat crew posing for a photo

#DTK12Chat Live!

Like every other day, today wasn’t just about the sessions. It was about the connections made between sessions. The best part of Wednesday at #SXSWEDU is actually the #dtk12chat that happens live from the Hilton lobby. There were so many inspiring stories shared about innovation, transformation, and creative change. More importantly, new friendships were forged, and old friends were embraced.

Dan Rathers, in the panel conversation with David Hoggs, shared the line from a Barbra Streisand song, “Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire.” Well, I certainly plan on bringing a fire back to San Diego!

How many times have you found yourself trying over and over again to explain a problem, only to have the other person jump to solutions without quite hearing you? Reminds me of this Sesame Street routine.

What I love about Design Thinking is that the focus on empathy requires the designer to truly listen, observe, and immerse oneself into the problem through the lens of the user, and not the lens of the designer. It requires us to hear about the issue with the fly in the soup.

This hit home for me Saturday at #DesignCamp. I attended Ellen Deutscher’s (@Lndeutsch) “Nurturing Design Thinking Mindsets through Play and Improv” session. I told her I was attending because improv gives me anxiety and I needed to step outside my comfort zone.

Ellen is a wizard at leading people through collaborative experiences that build active listening and risk taking so I knew I was in good hands. At one point, after an activity, she asked if anyone wanted to share how that experience made them feel. She said, “Be mindful of your process. If you don’t like it, why force your students?”

How can a concept so seemingly simple not actually be so? Why do we, as educators, keep forcing processes on students that would make us cringe? Timed tests, novel selection by Lexile level, five-paragraph essays…

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that education tends to search for the middle ground, the average, and solve accordingly. Instead of being mindful of what makes us unique, it’s easier to solve for the middle.

The Air Force learned the flaw in this approach when they discovered that their cockpit, designed based on average measurements of hundreds of pilots, actually fit none of their pilots, resulting in many crashes … on one particularly rough day, 17 plane crashes!

Average doesn’t work in cockpits, and it doesn’t work in education. Randy Scherer (@RandellScherer) reiterated this in his “Design for Extreme Users” session. Randy explains how extreme users (or “radical people!”) lead us to “deep insights about why our designs sort-of, kind-of work.” When we set aside the concept of average, we can make a huge difference in the lives of students.

When we set aside the concept of average, we can be mindful of our processes. We can design education not for the average, but for every user. And when we do that, then we can truly take care of the fly in the soup.

Book Read: Design for Strengths

“‘You can have all the right answers, but it doesn’t matter if you are answering the wrong question.’ The willingness to circle back and challenge the central question and continue to ask it in a better way – and potentially abandon the current exploration – that is the hallmark of Design Thinking.” – John K. Coyle in Design for Strengths


In education, there is a lot of talk about students discovering their passions, their strengths, their interests, and then building upon those through personalized learning opportunities. What does that truly look like? Although Coyle’s book is not specific to education, there are so many nuggets of wisdom that we can apply to our school culture. 

“Skill gaps are easy – you work at them until you master them. Gravity problems – you accept them, quit solving for them, and then design around them.”

“Step Zero: Acceptance. You can’t solve a problem you are not willing to have.”

“Just because you ‘accept’ something does not mean you agree with it or submit that it is ‘OK.’ It simply means you accept that it is.”

“Most companies hire for diversity of talent, experience, and background – and then they waste it… more often than not, they ask each team member to do the same set of tasks in the very same way… they ignore the unique capabilities and contributions that individuals bring and, in so doing, waste all that unique talent they recruited in the first place.”

“The ‘one size fits all’ fair approach to work task distribution is a recipe for an unengaged team.”

“When all the team members have a reasonably good working knowledge of each other’s strengths, they will – on their own (with a nudge of encouragement from leadership) – start to self-organize for their strengths.”

In all honesty, I probably have Post-Its on every other page in this book and could have put so many quotes in this post. It’d be a great book study for teacher groups looking to better understand ways in which to develop personalized, strengths-based environments for both students and staff.

Design for Strengths
Design for Strengths

“I want your absolute WORST thinking…”

The other day I was co-presenting a session to educators that focused on why design thinking is needed in K-8 classrooms. We talked about the need for empathy, for designing a new future, for “soft” skill development, etc. You know how it goes… you sit and listen to a presenter talk about why their idea is going to revolutionize education, and you get all pumped up and ready to take on the world.

Then I led them through a brainstorming activity in which I asked them to quickly brainstorm all the WORST possible ways to introduce design thinking in their classroom. They stared at me. Surely I had misspoke. “No,” I clarified, “I don’t want your best thinking. I want your absolute WORST thinking. The most TERRIBLE ideas you can come up with…” and off they went.

The ideas they shared were eye-opening. Some were:

  • Present design thinking as a worksheet
  • Micro-manage every aspect of the design thinking process
  • Use a K-W-L at every stage of design thinking
  • Grade them on their final product
  • Provide no direction whatsoever and expect them to figure out what design thinking is
  • Make it a mandate

And so on… from those terrible ideas, we were able to springboard into great ideas because underneath every bad idea is a great idea just waiting to get out. It was a fun activity, yes, but a meaningful one as well.

Then today I read an article called “How You Can Get Better at Predicting the Future”  Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, discussed the importance of a premortem before making an important decision. Opposite of a postmortem, a premortem figures out what killed a person before the person actually dies. It has fantastic implications for the edu sector.  In the premortem, you take your decision, or planned course of action, and describe how it proves to be a “catastrophic failure” in two years time. Why was the idea so terrible? How did it fail?

Johnson explains that this forces people to look at their decision from a different angle. Usually, we ask, “Do you foresee any issues with this idea/program/solution?” and people say, “No, looks good” and we move forward with the idea. But when you ask people, “Okay, invent the story of how this path ends up leading to disaster,” they see flaws they might not have seen otherwise.

How many school initiatives or even classroom lessons have been failures because we didn’t conduct a premortem? Even our best laid plans have room for improvement.

Next time I conduct my “most terrible idea” brainstorm, I think I’m going to switch it up and also ask them to brainstorm the catastrophic failure of their best plan so that the plan can become even better. Maybe then, we can eliminate some of our silver bullet solutions and dig deeper for a real edu revolution.

When you know your ‘why’ then your ‘what’ has more impact,
because you’re working towards your purpose.
– Michael Jr. 

Today I was fortunate to present at the online #InnovateSD conference hosted by San Diego County Office of Education, thanks to an invitation extended to me by PowerSchool Senior Director of Educator Engagement Mike Lawrence.

At around 1 hour and 18 minutes of this YouTube video is my presentation.

Screen Shot 2018-11-02 at 11.46.11

Sorry – it won’t allow embedding

I’ve asked about the story of learning to over 300 educators over the past year, and regardless of age, background, or socioeconomic status, the answers were largely the same. The story of learning has been one largely comprised of compliance. Even those who shared about projects and experiential learning still shared a common message that you must do what you are told if you are to be labeled successful.

Many of our practices and our beliefs are so ingrained that they are institutionalized. After all, most educators have been in the school system since the age of four or five. It’s all many of us have ever known so it’s not a surprise that we don’t notice the messages we send through our systems, structures, and beliefs, or why we send them.

This video is about how Del Mar Union is pushing back on those systems, structures, and beliefs. It’s about the importance of providing students with the foundations and the experiences needed to think and to know their voice matters. It may be the story of Del Mar, but I am hopeful that it becomes the story of learning for all of us.

Empathy is Always Worth the Time

There are days when we all probably ask ourselves, “Is anyone actually listening?!?” Then I read tweets from teachers like this, and I realize the ripple effects from a pebble can travel much farther than seen from shore.

A Tweet from Meg Money about using empathy mapping with her students

Meg is one of those teachers I get excited to know and work with because she is willing to reflect on her practices as she continuously looks for connections that make a difference for students. After the above tweet, I asked her to blog this experience for others. Since she doesn’t have her own blog, I am giving her the space here to share. So this is Meg’s story in her own words…

There’s a little saying that goes, “a stitch in time saves nine.”  
Is Empathy Mapping worth the time?
By: Meg Money, Sycamore Ridge 4th Grade teacher

“As teachers, how do you want to invest your time?” Ron Ritchhart, Harvard’s Project Zero, asked a cohort of DMUSD teachers recently. This question has replayed in my mind time after time since.  Last week I was at a crossroads; time or making a difference? You see, our 4th grade class was in the thick of a Design Thinking challenge. All groups were collaborating ferociously and productively…all but one. But hey, it was my fault. I designed that group knowing that it had a 50-50 chance of working. This group of three included  kids who were bright and capable in their own right but different as day and night. Unfortunately I didn’t play my cards right, and now I had a group on my hands that had potential but was so far behind because productivity and collaboration were nonexistent.

Now comes in the saying, “Timing is everything.” Fast forward two weeks to another training led by our very own DMUSD Design Team.  Paula (@CDMDreamers) and Sarah (@SarahZRaskin) led us through a Empathy Mapping exercise, and a light bulb went on. This is what my lagging group lacked… Empathy! However, this would take time; time a group was running out of.

“How should I invest my time?” replayed one more time in my head. Yes, this is exactly what this trio of budding engineers deserved. They deserved to feel safe in a group and showcase their talents. Their assigned grouping shouldn’t be the barrier holding them back.

I wasted no time and asked the group how they were feeling halfway through the research/prototyping phase. As you can imagine, they were frustrated and asked if they could just work alone. It was then I suggested that we come together and build empathy through the mapping exercise.

What happened from there surpassed every expectation I’d anticipated. The kids were open, honest, polite and so insightful. They really didn’t need much prompting; they got it! They created NEED statements that immediately inspired them to hurry back to their learning. I watched in AWE as this group of young scholars immediately started approaching a difficult task with empathy and producing with the maturity of adults. I’m not going to lie, I had tears, goosebumps, and a swollen heart.

So, was this worth the TIME? Oh, you have no idea. Just ask the group members.

“Ms. Money, thank you for taking the time to do the mapping with us,” said one student.

“This was the best day of the year,” another added with a hug.

“Ms. Money, hurry, come see our idea!” shouted one from across the room.

I will forever be reminded of this experience that truly confirmed that helping students find their potential and giving them a chance at success is absolutely worth the time. Empathy Mapping is now the frontrunner of my long list of “Must Explore and Practice” list. It is worth every second of TIME!

Connect with Meg on Twitter at @mmoneydmusd