Design Thinking in Schools: Teaching to the middle!?

Have a comfy drive to work today?

There is a story all designers should know about the US air force during the space race. In short, as test pilots were being put into rockets they were crashing… a lot! Initially the seat was designed for the average pilot and pilots were selected who fitted the average. Crashes continued, and it turns out the average design, based on thousands of pilots, didn’t fit a single one of them. To get the full explanation you can read a more detailed account in “The end of average” by Todd Rose or the full research by Gilbert Daniels who took the measurements in the early 1950’s.

After becoming aware that their cockpit design for the average pilot, and subsequent recruitment of pilots who fitted in this small range of proportions was a problem the air force insisted on manufacturers changing, after some protestations adjustable seats, helmets, pedals and so on were produced and became standard. Because pilots were dying and expensive equipment being destroyed there was an imperative for the Air Force to insist on change. This is the beginning of adjustable chairs, such as those in your car.

Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail.

This is quoted in Todd Rose’s book as the conclusion Daniels came to. Therefore should we consider whether our education systems are designed around the average. If it is… Are we doomed?

I became aware of a tool called Ally, from Blackboard, which scans content submitted by a course instructor through their LMS and gives accessibility metrics on the content. It suggests improvements and the student gets choice of the file type they want, without the instructor doing anything. I am not suggesting you all get this tool, however it shows what happens when you design for individuals. By being user focussed on students with accessibility issues a solution has been created which frankly benefits all students. Understanding their challenge has led to a design which makes the course more accessible for all.

You can find out a bit more about that specific tool below:

How might we design our curriculum for the individuals and not the average student?

This is the challenge we can take on in schools. It does not have to mean 32 lesson plans for each class but how can learning be adjustable because non of your students are average. If you approach this from a traditional teaching and learning standpoint I think the challenge is sizeable.

I was delivering a training session in Scotland on G Suite and the new generation of Chromebook that flip round from laptop to tablet and come with a stylus. As we delved into a task with the devices I noticed that despite the task being the same for everyone (criticism may or may not be fair) the Chromebook was being used in a variety of ways. Some had it in standard laptop mode, occasionally using the touch screen. Others preferred ‘tent’ mode with the stylus in hand. The Chromebook was on laps in tablet mode too. It struck me then more than before that technology is providing us with choice, sometimes about when we learn or what we learn, more significantly it can allow us to choose how we learn and select options we know suit us best.

In my training I was told some children need comic sans font on buff paper. Clearly giving a few students a different worksheet has it’s problems but with technology the student can choose. Who’s to know if they decide to click on the open dyslexia extension to stop words jumping around their screen? So what if they zoom in beyond 100% in the browser?

Teachers don’t have to differentiate, the learners can do it for themselves… IF! If they have an understanding of the options technology gives. Do teachers know Google Docs has a voice typing option for children to express themselves even if they type slowly? Do they know it understands most languages for the children who express themselves best in another language?

Gilbert Daniels discovered that if you design a cockpit for the average pilot it fits NONE of them.

If you design learning for the average learner….

Worth pondering