23 September 2012

Finding UX, Designing UI

Rocking Reading Duck
If you want to design your school... from scratch or in reshaping... you need to begin with two questions...

First: What is the point of your school, in blunt terms, or, in more "professional" words, What is your school's ethos? Why should a child come to your school? What will your students have at the end of their time in your school which will move them toward being happy, competent, capable, passionate adults who will have real choices in their lives in the Mid-21st Century.

And Second: What is the "User Experience" of your students, and what should that User Experience be to best move all students who come through your doors to get to their goals?

Only if you answer these questions can you begin to imagine/design/create the "User Interface" - which in schools is our building, our grounds, our schedules, our curriculum, our pedagogy, and all of our rules - so that all that our "process" is contributes to our goals.

A few days ago I asked a group of elementary (primary) teachers who were wondering about their cafeteria, "begin with, what are you trying to help students learn while they are eating together in your school?"

In the user experience of "school" our users, our kids, see and respond to absolutely everything. Yes, adults do that as well, but adults, in that "the more you know the less you see" filtering, actually see/hear/feel/smell/taste far fewer environmental clues than do kids. So, when a group of American teachers told me, after I had told a story from an Irish Primary School, that "those teachers are teaching life philosophy and not just content," I responded, "I think we are teaching philosophy every minute, it just might be life philosophies we don't much like."

Kids respond to everything...

Henry Barnard, the "evildoer" who designed the American multi-classroom school as we know it, wrote that everything which students saw and did from when they first saw the school in the forming was important - that every entrance, corridor, even where a child hung up their coat was part of the educational process. And he was, in this, absolutely right. It explains why school architecture from 1850 to 1950 often mimicked the authority structures of their age, from churches to courthouses, and it explains why students were pushed to line up - to form queues - entering the school, as compliance, order, and hierarchy were being enforced long before a kid ever got to his or her seat. And why schools after World War II looked like the factories and military facilities of that age.

An hour before school - high school library, Charlottesville, Virginia
website where I found this 1960s
school image sees nothing in doors
to the outside but, "poor security"
But school design and user experience have hardly ever been joined. Even the John Dewey influenced schools with all the doors to the outside of the 1950s and 1960s (really just a recall of William Alcott's ideas of the 1830s-1840s) were taken from the architects by school administrators who never asked the kids how these spaces could be used. And the "failure" of the 1970s open classroom school buildings was never a failure of architecture, but a failure of almost every adult who worked in those buildings to comprehend the idea of "user experience" - they tried to run Henry Ford's 1913 assembly line in a renaissance studio.

Simply put, the reason we find ourselves stuck in Industrial Revolution Era schools, the reason school success in the United States has only crawled from the 1850s adult design of succeeding with 20% of students to our present succeeding with 33%-40% of our students, lies in our inability to begin to match the User Experience of education to what we really want education to accomplish.

Third graders create their computer lab
So, what do we want for our children? If we want them - all of them - to grow up to be critical thinking global communicators who can investigate and succeed with the widest range of choices possible... effective citizens of democracies able to collaborate with each other and make a better world... voracious creators who absorb stories and information and use all that to dig out the problems which bedevil us and build solutions to those problems... empathetic, healthy members of a planet, a society, a tribe, and a family... well... what is the design of our schools - again, spaces, schedule, pedagogy, curriculum - contributing to those goals? and what is doing the opposite?
Working voluntarily and comfortably, in many ways
Last week we turned to our users to try to understand. We asked 500+ "elementary" school (primary, grades K-5) students - all the students of one school - to participate in a charrette to help begin to design the future of their school. We did show them a few images to begin to free them from "the understood," but we worked really hard to limit any adult influence on this work. We adults have seen so many schools, and we "know" way too much - especially about what we think is impossible - and we needed kids to show us the vision they would build with their unblinkered eyes.

We got many, many ideas - from Kindergärtners wanting cow tables and a castle with a dragon (what good is a castle without a dragon anyway?), to multiple requests for rooftop reading decks and reading treehouses, a cafeteria softserve machine, a soft student lounge, rolling science labs, movable cubes to read/work in, carpets, bean bag chairs, more outside doors, a big slide to get between the upper and lower playgrounds (ending in a trampoline or not), more art, gym every day (they currently have it four times a week), a zip line to get from one end of the school to the other, far more color - and kid-relevant color - in the school, a "giant robot bluebird which would walk the hallways saying hi to students," and choice - choice - choice...

Third and Fifth graders at work in Charrette, we had paper, and we had video cameras
they could explain ideas to...
Choice in classroom seating (or choosing not to sit), choice in tables/worksurfaces, choices in how to read books, choices in when to do what, choices in working inside or out, choices of where to play, and the choice to do work in school - with their peers - not at home with their parents.

The ideas spilled out in all directions...
None of this is absurd. None of it. Why can't kids get softserve frozen yogurt after lunch? Why can't the school build a castle and a dragon with the 5-year-olds? Maybe a zip line could cross the playground? You'd have to be a pretty weak teacher not to be able to use that in teaching many parts of the curriculum. When I mentioned the robot bluebird to Melissa Techman, one of my favorite school librarians, her immediate response was, "that's why I need those big cabinets I want so I would have all the stuff to build that kind of thing all ready."

And why can't school teach constant, continuous, internal feedback informed choice? How else can we help kids grow up into citizens of a true democracy, and able to make choices which work for them as adults?

Fifth graders eat lunch and debrief the ideas - "what will grownups say no to, and
how do we argue with them?"
Essentially, if I took in the vast amount of ideas and grouped them quickly - they wanted choices, comfort, warmth (many requests for wood floors), the ability to be outside, better lighting (dimmer switches, lamps), and places to both work together and to get away to quiet. They wanted to explore the world not just read or hear about it. Plus they wanted a school that was fun and that they looked forward to entering every day.

Anything radical there? Anything which really isn't part of our kids learning how to be the mid-21st century citizens and humans we want them to be?

Our next steps seem like a curriculum built in a great dream - some kids will inventory the school and grounds - what do we have now? how do we use it or not? Others might label the trees and plants around the school. Some might consider how a swing becomes a place to teach physics and math and perhaps poetry and decide how that might work. Still others might work over the idea of what might be quick, and what takes big resources and thus more time, along with what might be easy - and what might be very hard.

And we think the end result will be a better school, better learning, and kids with more skills and more capabilities. Which is what we want our user interface to help create, right?

- Ira Socol

12 September 2012

How to talk about what we don't have words for...

Language limits us. Surely, written and spoken language limits us, written, perhaps, most of all.

That isn't a knock on language, an incredible tool - technology if you will, which has enriched the lives of humans in remarkable ways. But every tool has its limits, has things it cannot do. Even my "Sawzall" really isn't even that, and its a crappy hammer by any measure.

So, at times, we must reach beyond language, with ourselves, surely with our students, and see if we might liberate our brains.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick don't use "language" to
describe their tablet computer device, well, not word-based language
Next week we're going to attempt a charrette on the future idea of school with an elementary school in Virginia. A charrette including all students from age 5 to age 11, with a mission to imagine far beyond the concepts of "school" we all know.

our imagination can look a lot like the past,
a 1958 TV version of 2050
But how do we free these kids from what they know? That's not an easy thing. In all the science fiction I have seen from before 1980 only two authors, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams imagined anything like the computers which have come to be. Everywhere else we see analog dials, old radio-style tuners, and 1950s shaped TV screens. Yes, Star Trek had slide controls, an idea which came from theatre lighting controls, but its pretty much like today in education, where people speak of "the iPad (2010) as the future," because they have no words for what is coming next.

So, if we say, "a place for education ten years from now," how do we avoid the deeply constructed definitions we now have about "school," the "school day," the "classroom," and everything else?

We all know what a trap these definitions are. Lots of supposedly intelligent adults moan and groan in whatever forum will give them space about "kids today not reading" because they cannot comprehend "reading" as anything not associated with the Gutenberg-Era definition of a book. Many school librarians still think that if "it" is not traditionally edited - if it might contain contributions from the 'academically unwashed' - "it" is not valid. Many teachers - most state legislatures - the US Department of Education - believe that a report must be "written" to have real value, and that "knowledge" is not "knowledge" unless it can be expressed via a multiple-choice exam. Plenty still believe that I cannot read because I listen to books.

The library at the College of William and Mary is still fighting Wikipedia,
which, is not a "book."
And let's face it, if you really can't understand crowdsourcing (the present), how are you going to imagine the next thing? If you can't imagine the classroom without student (or teacher) desks, how do you imagine - or even understand a description of - what the students of 2020 will need? If you still think "tardiness" or "late assignments" are a problem, how can you comprehend the evolution of continuous learning?

Always a problem: In 1900 the French imagined some radical changes,
but the classroom looks suspiciously similar (now and then).
Thus, I hope we can get these kids up and moving, talking, writing, drawing, moving blocks, moving furniture, making, playing, drawing in the dirt - a sandbox? really... - singing, dancing, doing whatever they can to give understanding to their imaginations, so we will not be limited to the ideas we already have words for. For if we already have the words, the ideas are not really new, right?

This is our challenge. Imagination without the limitations of our experience might be the single most difficult thing a human can do. But if we can help our kids do it, their school experience will be worth the time they've invested in it.

- Ira Socol