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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

Will we expect too much from our teachers and principals again this year?

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

I really hope we won’t but, deep down, I know that unless something changes, 2019 will see the trend of increasing expectations continue.

However, the best way to ensure that something does change is to lead it yourselves and this blog will help you to do this. Initially I will explain why the expectations are continuing to grow year on year. If you understand why something is happening, then you are in a better place to manage it. Then I will show you how to manage these growing expectations and how to learn to be a designer of your own future.

The reason why expectations of teachers and principals are growing at an alarming rate is because humanity is currently grappling with the impact of wide-ranging exponential change. However, before we delve into this, I want to give a quick refresher on exponential growth and how this is related to what is happening in education.

You may have heard of Moore’s Law which first described the phenomena of exponential growth in relation to technology. Most people naturally think of change in terms of incremental steps, for example how we age. But technological advancement is not happening incrementally, it is happening exponentially, a concept many people do not fully understand.

Exponential growth is based on doubling and follows the exponential curve. For example: A teacher with a class of 25 students, agrees to a pay rate of one cent per student per day, with the amount doubling each day. On the first day of the term the teacher gets paid 25 cents, and on the second day 50 cents. The teacher’s weekly pay is $7.75 for week one; $248 for week 2; $7,936 for week 3; $253,952 for week 4. By the end of week 5 the pay is $8,126,464.00 - now maybe that is the way to fix the teacher shortage!

Graphing the weekly earnings looks like this:

Note how the line appears almost straight for weeks 1-2, begins to rise between weeks 3 and 4, then climbs steeply to week 5. This is how exponential change works. At first it always looks like nothing is happening and then it reaches a critical mass and rises sharply.

We talk about living in a time of exponential change. It is called this because our understanding and use of digital technology follows an exponential curve. When a new technology comes along, it looks like it is having very little impact. But, in fact, its impact is quietly doubling (like the teacher’s salary in the first two weeks of the example above), but nobody notices because the impact is so tiny. And then the curve starts to lift and quickly becomes steep.

So how does this impact teachers and principals?

When technologies such as email, text messaging, Facebook, cell phones, and apps first came on the scene their uptake and use followed the exponential curve. For a long time they caused very little impact. Over the last few years the impact line has started to rise. As the line rises, and becomes steeper, the impacts of digital technology start to bite.

Lime bikes, Uber, Air BnB, Trade Me, Amazon, human-less checkouts at the supermarket, autonomous vehicles, drones. To all of this add the impact of climate change, which also follows an exponential curve, and suddenly, the world is realising how rapidly everything is changing.

For education this rapidly changing world has many impacts including:

  1. Technology has given parents much greater access to what is happening at schools. This can be either negative, or positive, depending on how it plays out. Thinking about the exponential curve here, the mediating role of technology between home and school was, at first, almost undetectable but we are now seeing the curve rise, as parents are given more and more platforms with which to interact with schools. This is adding significantly to the workload of educators.

  2. As society undergoes its most disruptive change ever, many are realising that schools, as we have known them, are no longer preparing our tamariki for the world which they will inherit. New Zealand has embarked on a significant review of education, but the worry is that changing an education system takes time, and I am not sure we have that much time to spare. So, in the meantime schools will do what they have always done and try to effect change from the grassroots up. This takes enormous professional, and personal, effort.

  3. Not everyone agrees that the education system needs changing, with some people arguing vehemently for schools to remain as they always have been. My hunch, about this group, is that they see schools as a solid point of reference in a world where everything else is changing. I’m not sure anyone has the right to sentence our children to an education which is redundant before they have even graduated. But, trying to bring this group of people on board with what is happening at their local school is long, arduous, work for teachers and principals.

How might we manage these impacts?

We have now explored why the expectations on teachers and students are increasing at such an alarming rate. It is now time to focus on how we might manage and reverse this trend.

People go into education because they have a strong internal need to help others. As a result, educators spend their lives trying to be all things to all people. But here’s the thing - you can’t. No matter how hard you work, how good you are, or how responsive you are, you will never be able to satisfy what everyone wants from you. And educators all over the world are putting their health and family life at risk trying to meet the increasing demands of a world, which is being shaken to the core by unprecedented change.

So how might we manage and reduce these expectations? One way to do this is to change the focus from what parents, students, and government want from education, to finding out what each of these groups needs and then putting the majority of our energy into achieving this. So how might we go about this?

Firstly, let’s not invent a new process! A few years ago IT companies stopped basing the design of their products on the wants of their users; instead they followed a process called design thinking to uncover their users needs. They then designed their products to first and foremost meet their users needs, which meant that the products they designed actually got used!!!

The starting point for design thinking is a strategy called an Empathy Interview. In a school context, this is where you listen empathetically to those impacted by the work you do, for example, students, teachers, parents, support staff and principals. Design thinkers skillfully put together questions to elicit from their interviewees the things that matter, the true things that they need.

Here’s a big question for educators reading this post…

Have you ever sat down and asked a child who is struggling to read, what it is like to come to school each day; how does it feel to not be able to read like the children around them; what is it that they can do really well; and how did they learn to do that; what would be the best way for the school to help them with their learning?

I know I never did when I was principal but, with the benefit of hindsight, I would now prioritise this over just about everything else. This is not to say that I didn’t listen to student voice - I did, but it was mainly in groups and never in the deep focussed way you use for empathy interviewing.

Done well, an empathy interview brings to the surface people’s needs. Once you know what these needs are you can begin to reset what it is that you do, and don’t do, as a school or an organisation.

If you have a deep understanding of what you do, in order to meet the needs of those you serve, you will be in a much stronger place to lovingly push back on other people’s wants that do little to improve a child’s learning but add much to a teacher’s workload. Think about how a parent lovingly pushes back on their child’s demands for lollies when it is time to eat their vegetables...

Being needs-focussed doesn’t mean that you have to stop meeting wants. Often meeting people’s wants is the icing on the cake and really makes your day but, and it is a big but, you only fulfil these wants once their needs are met (think of it as getting the lollies once the vegetables are all eaten!)

Design thinking, or human-centred design as it is called at Stanford University, has been influencing the design world for many years. In recent times, other industries have begun to understand how powerful this approach is in helping to design products, strategies and processes for the people with whom they work. Internationally, education is starting to dip its toe in the design thinking water and a major reason I have started Weaving Futures is to help bring this human-centred approach to more schools and organisations across New Zealand.

I am planning a series of workshops across New Zealand in the next few months, at which you can start your journey as a design thinker. We will spend a day learning about how to put together and execute a great empathy interview, what to do with what you uncover and how to use this to gain deep insights and new understandings of the people with whom you work and serve.

I have other workshops planned for later in the year that will grow your skills as a design thinker and take you to the next level of innovative design.

If you would love to become an effective design thinker and are ready for a fresh approach, and an injection of proven strategies, then register your interest in attending a design workshop. You can do this by:

Filling in this form: I’m interested...

Or reaching out to me directly: [email protected] or 0274349865.

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Together let’s make 2019 the best year yet.