A New Approach to Syllabus Design

What do empathy and design have in common?  I'll answer with another question: How many times have you picked something up - a book, an electronic device, the directions for assembling a piece of IKEA furniture - and found it poorly organized, confusing to use or utterly unintelligible?  This certainly happens on a semi-frequent basis in my home.  And I wonder if you too curse the designer or mumble a few choice words that would make your mother blush?  

Situations like this are the result of unempathic design (though I will admit that, at times, they are also the product of my own stupidity).  What do I mean? The designer failed to understand how you would feel with their creation in your hands; they didn't anticipate your needs or questions. To be clear, every thing has some design element to it.  The text you read, the car you drive, and the box of crackers you purchased at the supermarket were all designed by someone.  The building in which you live and the city in which it is situated all had a designer too, for better or worse.  That's the thing about design - it can be done well or done poorly but, either way, it's still design. And in my opinion, poor design is that which is unempathic.

Here's another way to put it: Poor design fails to recognize the relationship between utility and significance.  In his bestselling book, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink (2006) notes that design is essentially "utility enhanced by significance" (p.70).  An item is most valuable and effective when it transcends functionality and begins to create an emotional connection with its user.  That is empathic product composition - a design philosophy that understands the user well enough to anticipate needs and meet them in a way that appeals to their senses on a level beyond mere utility.  Empathic design, therefore, is generative; it creates a connection.

So what does this have to do with syllabi? 

In re-reading Daniel Pink's book, I was inspired to change my approach for at least one of the courses I'm teaching this fall.  As a test case, I chose SSED 331 Teaching Elementary and Middle School Social Studies. Most of my previous syllabus design had been focused on utility.  I have tried only to communicate the necessary details (e.g. objectives and graded elements) without any attention paid to how the syllabus would be read, used or perceived by users.  I also failed to realize the power of helping students connect with the ethos of a course from the very first day (something that I now believe a design-forward syllabi can do).  My design approach had been quite unempathic.  And so I tried a full redesign of the SSED 331 syllabus.

Below is an image of the first page of the syllabus as it previously existed, accompanied by a new design (click to enlarge).

So what is it that I really hope to accomplish?  Is this simply a gimmick designed (pardon the pun) to momentarily set myself apart? Perhaps. Pink (2006) certainly acknowledges the idea that design is a form of differentiation. But that isn't the objective. The goal is an empathic, user-friendly design that also connects utility with significance.  All the information from the original syllabus has been retained, and so the utility is certainly present.  But there's something more.  Have you ever been drawn to book or music album because of the cover art? Does wine with a cool label taste just a bit better to you? Have you ever chosen a certain seat in a coffee shop because of the view from a particular table? Have you ever walked into an art museum, connected with a piece and been inspired by it?

My hope is that an aesthetically-pleasing syllabus connects students to the opportunities the course provides and not just the grade they can earn.  My hope is that an intentionally-designed syllabus draws my students closer to understanding not just the utility of the class, but the significance of it as well. My hope is that an empathically-designed syllabus anticipates the needs of students so that they can move beyond the logistics of the course to focus on the content.  My hope is that, from the very first day, students can get a sense of the spirit and atmosphere of the class just by looking at the syllabus.  Is it possible that a syllabus can do all of this? Perhaps it is a lofty and idealistic desire.  But hey, I'm a teacher...and I know from experience that pursuing the unlikely isn't always a waste of time when students are involved. 

The Danger of Treating Teaching as a Form of Service

This past year, retired four-star general turned Yale professor Stanley McChrystal began pushing for a new culture of national service to take root in America.  To that end, he suggested that several common denominators form the foundation of a national service program – including the notion that service must involve a firm commitment for a specified period of time (in his mind, at least one year).  This sort of sustained service implies full-time involvement and sincere dedication of such a variety that, when undertaken on a large scale, could certainly bend the selfish will of American culture toward service.  McChrystal has said that he will know a new culture has taken root “when a solider stops a teacher in a train station and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’”

For years, Teach for America (TFA) has been lauded as a national model of nonpartisan service in the field of education. In its literature, TFA uses rhetoric centered on justice, equity and opportunity to move students from elite universities to serve as teachers in low-income communities for a specified term of two years.  To fill these positions, Teach for America recruits “a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement” in the hope that their service will fuel long-term impact on the landscape of American education. In the years since its creation, TFA alumni have received countless commendations and accolades for their work; these individuals have certainly been thanked and even praised for their service as teachers.

Nonetheless, criticism has followed on the heels of this praise. Recent data mined from three large-scale, longitudinal studies conducted in Houston, Texas and New York City by a group of respected researchers found that teachers entering the classroom without full preparation are significantly less effective than fully-prepared beginning teachers.  Otherwise stated, teacher training seems to matter; content expertise and general giftedness do not compensate for a lack of training.

The abovementioned data has significant ramifications for our understanding of the relationship between teaching and service.  Specifically, it should force us to ask the question, “What happens when service is detrimental to those being served?”

Consider the somewhat oxymoronic concept of “orphanage tourism”, wherein those looking to satiate their conscience use their vacation time to volunteer at institutions for parentless boys and girls rather than hit the beach.  Such tourists undoubtedly depart feeling pretty good about their service.  On the other side of this exchange, however, the orphans are often exploited as do-good tourists serve for a brief period of time, only to leave the children heartbroken upon their departure.  These children don’t need service – they need consistency, reliability and stability.

Teaching is no different.  No matter how well-intentioned, temporary teachers who are uncommitted to the profession are inevitably ineffective. In the case of Teach for America, a constant turnover of new teachers into low-income schools does not change the landscape. This form of service is akin to orphanage tourism and does nothing to further TFA’s stated mission.  In fact, as previously referenced, it may exacerbate the problem.   Truly, treating teaching as a form of service makes American education worse, not better.   


Enough About Finland, What About Canada?

According to data released last week, students in Shanghai are the best in the world when it comes to math, reading and science.  This is no surprise.  For years, Americans have conceded that Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea simply do a better job of educating their students.  This concession is typically accompanied by references to the cultural differences that we feel result in an unhealthy dose of over-education. Otherwise stated, we are quick to dismiss applying the successful education strategies of many Asian nations on the grounds that they are simply too different from us. 

On the other hand, injecting Finland into any conversation about fixing American education is now the trendy thing to do.  Finland fascinates because it is more similar to the United States than the aforementioned Asian countries. Nonetheless, its lack of socio-economic and racial diversity makes Finland an easy target for naysayers who wish to explain away its success and avoid generalizing its strategies in a global context.  But what about Canada? 

As a nation, Canada spends less money on education than the United States (in terms of both portion of GDP and percentage of total government spending), yet it has managed to routinely place itself as the other top non-Asian country ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) - the same organization that ranked students in Shanghai as first in the world.  Furthermore, Canada is just as diverse as the United States, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research.  So why isn’t anyone talking about the Canadian education system as we search for solutions to the flaws in our own? 

 To be clear, Canada is a relative newcomer to the top of the international rankings.  It arrived only after taking two very specific steps to ensure that its populace is among the best educated in the world.

First, Canada has adopted a high degree of selectivity in choosing and credentialing teachers; becoming a teacher in Canada is relatively difficult.  It is, therefore, no surprise that this selectivity has yielded a unique culture around the education field, wherein teaching is among the most desirable and revered of occupations.  Widely cited scholarship on Canadian education notes that applicants to teachers colleges are usually in the top thirty-percent of their university cohorts.  Ironically, those who are not granted admittance to a Canadian teachers college often seek their training in America, where seemingly anyone can get credentialed in an a field that is haunted by the philosophy, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”.

 Second, Canadian success in education is very much a function of equalized and equitable funding. The OECD notes that Canadian provinces retain a certain amount of money to equalize funding in poorer districts with insufficient tax bases. Furthermore, equitable funding from provinces to districts also comes in the form of grants provided to meet district-specific challenges in special education. This is the opposite of many states in America, where unequal and inequitable funding schemes are the norm.  For example, in the United States, the spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low income families.

So enough about Finland, why isn’t anyone talking about Canada?  We are separated from Finland by a great expanse of water, and our socio-cultural differences seem to further divide us – both of which make it easy to  explain-away their educational gains as inapplicable in the United States, just like many of the previously discussed Asian nations.  Canada is much harder to explain away; America is arguably more similar to it than any other country in the world.  Yet implementing the strategies utilized in Canada would require a cultural shift regarding the status of teaching as a profession in this country, as well as a significant reorganization of priorities. This is why no one seems to be talking about Canada.  This is also why we should be.


Something a bit different...

While conversations with Fulbright Scholars and award winning writers from the Washington Post have found their way onto this blog, I recently discovered that Hall of Fame football player Mike Singletary also has something to say that is worth sharing on the topics of teaching and education.  I had the chance to speak with Mike for about an hour on February 6th, 2014.  Some of our discussion was one-on-one while some of it came during a Q & A session with students from the school at which I teach.  Most of our conversation centered on what it means to be a male student in the 21st century. The audio of that conversation is here:

In a subsequent conversation on the same day, I also had the chance to ask Mike, “What is one thing that every good teacher does?”  This may seem odd to ask a football player, but keep in mind that he is also a coach - which makes him a teacher.  With that said, I think his response is worth hearing.  He shared a story of an English teacher from his college days – a teacher that everyone disliked.  After submitting his very first assignment,  this particular teacher called Mike out in front of the entire class by demanding aloud, “You will never turn in something this poor again.” For most students, this would have been humiliating. But not for Mike – instead, it propelled him forward in a very powerful way.  In reflecting on this experience, Mike says, “I realized that great teachers do three things. They don’t let you off the hook.  They set high standards. And they walk alongside you as you seek to reach those standards."

My conversation with Mike got me thinking about the relationship between standards and success.  The debate on standards (who should set them, what they should include and how they should be used) has been raging in recent years.  Some argue that standards suffocate the teacher, while others argue that standards are necessary to insure equity in our schools.  Some argue that the states should be autonomous in their setting of standards, and others point to those states with very low and poorly written standards as evidence that the state-model is broken.  Whatever one thinks about standards, I wonder if we could agree on this: As Mike alluded to, the "alongside" relationship (teacher-student or parent-student) that develops in the pursuit of meeting a standard needs more of the spotlight, for it is likely more powerful than any state or federal mandate could ever be.


Oh, What Might Have Been (In Praise of President Kennedy and His Vision for American Education)

In both 1961 and 1962, President John F. Kennedy sought to pass a general aid package for schools, which included federal subsidization of teacher salaries and building construction.  At the heart of this legislation was Kennedy’s desire to provide money for urban students affected by poverty in under-resourced American schools. 

Kennedy took a keen interest in solving the problem of inadequate preparation and unequal funding for economically deprived students in urban areas.  As previously mentioned, he twice sought to push legislation through Congress to fund these programs and address the disparity of resources between urban and suburban districts.  Relative to the disbursement of this aid, Kennedy wanted to steer it directly to municipal governments and away from state agencies that tended to allow federal resources to flow disproportionately to suburban areas. This mounting emphasis on poor students in urban areas reflected not only the Kennedy administration's pursuit of urban renewal, but also the growing influence of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unfortunately, the legislation was defeated by southern democrats who feared that Kennedy’s push for urban renewal and educational equality might hasten the desegregation of schools in their states.  And when Kennedy died on that fateful day in November of 1963, so too did his vision for providing federal aid to municipal governments with the expressed purpose of addressing the opportunity gap in poor urban districts.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, made a deliberate effort to carry this banner of equity by way of his “Great Society” domestic policies.  However, the legislation that made its way through Congress during Johnson’s time in office (specifically, Title I) was easily manipulated by suburban districts and used to fund already affluent and successful schools.  This was because, in order to win congressional approval, Johnson’s legislation was written in such a way that nearly ninety percent of all schools in America qualified for the aid.  Title I distributions, therefore, became the antithesis of Kennedy’s vision for addressing the opportunity gap in urban schools.

Fifty years later, we are still greatly in need of the broad implementation of Kennedy’s vision.  One need only look at the manner in which twenty-first century education dollars are spent in America in order to justify this conclusion. Just as it was in the 1960s, those with less money still have fewer tax dollars spent on their public education than those with more money.  In fact, spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low-income families. This is because many states operate under the notion that while a basic level of funding is a fundamental right of all students, that right does not require equality of spending among districts.  Therefore, wealthier districts with significant amounts of money (much of it derived from property taxes) have better schools while students in poorer areas helplessly find themselves in under-resourced districts. Inequality has become an acceptable component of our country’s policy for funding education.

Had Kennedy been given more time to cast his vision and see it through to reality, the American educational landscape may be far different today. Instead, we are having conversations about educational equity in under-resourced schools that should have ended in the 1960s.  Kennedy knew that allowing the states to determine their own educational funding schemes was a recipe for inequity and sought to address the issue by bypassing the states altogether.  Oh, what might have been if his dream had not been permanently bound in eternal sleep?