Designing with students in mind

Julia Ciciora

I first learned about the engineering design process in a class called IPRO (Interprofessional Projects Program) while doing my undergrad at the Illinois Institute of Technology. As a non-engineer major, I didn’t think much of it but did my part as a member of the two required interprofessional projects. The class required students from different majors to work together to design solutions. The program originally started with companies bringing design problems to the class for students to work together to resolve. I was a member of the pilot group that actually got to explore the design thinking process from the beginning and explore design problems our group identified and wanted to pursue. We were encouraged to examine our surroundings, complete empathy research, and explore current solutions to our design problem and how those solutions could be improved or reimagined. The interprofessional groups got to present their design problem and possible solution at the end of the semester to propose working on the solution with a company the following semester.

Fast-forward 3 years. I had just finished my first year of teaching and my masters in science education. I knew exactly how I wanted my science class to look and how I was going to get there.  That summer, my principal requested that the 9th grade science team attend the Summer Design Program (SDP), led by The Chicago Public Education Fund and TrueSchool. We were tasked with describing a problem we wanted to solve. Being the problem solvers that we are, my team described the problem and imagined a beautiful solution to go with it.

We got to the first SDP workshop and it was full of enthusiastic educators ready to work on their solutions to their own problems. After a couple of icebreaker activities I started to hear phrases like “design thinking”, “problem statements”, and “empathy research”. Then came the post-its and charts. TrueSchool has adapted the process engineers use to create design solutions to help educators design solutions as well. I had only seen the process work from an engineering standpoint, but had not thought of expanding that thinking to social processes!  Needless to say, the problem we thought we were going to solve evolved and morphed many times throughout that summer.

This year a few teachers were tasked with piloting personalized learning at my school. I was provided with a chromebook cart and some words of encouragement and left to my own devices. I went into the process of redesigning/adapting my curriculum thinking I knew exactly what I wanted this to look like in my classroom. I visualized students working at their own pace, using different resources based on their needs, and demonstrating their mastery of set learning targets when they were ready. I worked hard to ensure that I had a variety of resources available to students, very much like a flipped classroom. My colleague and I wrote up notes, made videos, provided tiered practice all directly aligned to learning targets and presented on a pretty electronic platform.  I realized the first day I tried this new system that my picture perfect personalized classroom was not going to be what I originally imagined. It was disappointing because I felt like I had enough teaching experience to have anticipated the struggles I encountered.

I reverted to my previous class structures and started thinking about what was missing.  I realized that I had been trying to undertake this entire design process on my own without leveraging the assets available to me, my colleagues. While I was the only teacher implementing personalized learning in science, there were other teachers on my grade level that were also trying this strategy in their classroom. I was really struggling with keeping students on task, especially while every students could theoretically be working on something different at the same time. When I opened up about my struggles I realized I was not alone AND that they had great ideas for implementation that I hadn’t considered, such as writing a “to-do” list on post-it notes for students that were having a particularly hard time adapting to setting their own schedule. I adapted their suggestions to my class and was ready for iteration two.

While it didn’t fail as miserably as the first try, it was still a struggle and much more frustrating the second time around. My students were unhappy and I was unhappy. The platform I was using was very linear, where the skill was listed with all of the resources below it. Students that mastered a particular skill could move on to the next one and those that didn’t had to continue working through the given resources. I didn’t understand why my students couldn’t use data from their assessments to determine what resources they needed to help them achieve mastery of a particular skill and if they had achieved mastery the first time around, then simply move on to the next skill (I just laughed out loud typing that sentence).

After a few class periods of trying things out, I realized that I was trying to design something for my students and not once had I considered asking them what they need. I started to encourage my students to participate in the design process with me by providing feedback about the platform I was using. This was their chance to influence their learning environment. I was slightly devastated when I received the an email from one of my hardest working students:

“I wanted to just tell you my thoughts on the Personalized Learning Plan. I, personally, don’t feel that it’s helping me out at all. I don’t feel that I’m learning anything… I’m used to having the teacher introduce the lesson, teaching it, and having us do problems from the book or worksheets from the book.”

She was too shy to talk to me about it in class, but I was so proud of her for having the courage to send me that email. This email led to many more one on one conversations with my students about what they view as “teaching” and “learning”. I realized that before I can implement any new systems, I would have to guide my students to being much more open minded about what teaching and learning look like.

Even after a whole school year of iterations, my design is not complete. After a few hits to the ego, I had to remind myself that my design is dependent on people, teenagers at that! As I opened myself up to the design process, I made sure to give my students a voice in the process.  I encouraged students to not just complain to the wind or under their breath, but to use this as an opportunity to shape their education. I have to view this problem from my students perspective with my students to fully understand the obstacles I have to overcome as we are designing for them. This has not been easy and many times throughout the school year, I have stopped moving forward on this project because I need to “cover the content”. I always end up coming back to this project because I want my students to have a sense of ownership in their learning. Teachers do not just solve problems. We design solutions that are adaptable and differentiated based on the students  that we service.

About Julia Ciciora
Julia is currently a math and science teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective enrollment Chicago public high school. Julia participated in TrueSchool’s program in 2014-2015 and also served as a mentor in 2015-2016. Her school’s project combined the math and science department to create a STEM department that worked to design an inter/intradisciplinary STEM scope and sequence. Through this work, topics and standards have been reorganized to teach topics when students are cognitively prepared as well as to bridge between sciences topics, between math topics, and math and science topics. As a result, she has been working on the STEM I team, which piloted the initiative with 9th grade students. In 2016, Brooks welcomed a new challenge in opening an academic center open to academically gifted students in the 7th grade. As a result, the 7th grade students have been taking the STEM I curriculum with Julia leading the science initiative, while continuing to teach 9th grade math. In addition to welcoming the 7th graders, she has also been piloting personalized learning in all of her classes. Julia is excited to share her experiences and provide support to others.