We are teaching now. We have returned, rightly or wrongly. Some of us are teaching and learning face to face. Others of us are teaching and learning screen to screen. Still others — seemingly opting for the worst of both worlds — are trying to do a bit of both.

Our return has presented myriad new and as-yet-unexperienced teaching challenges. These challenges are political, interpersonal, technological, and emotional. In response to these challenges, we have designed (or redesigned) our teaching, and this has presented a new and related set of challenges all to itself.

I wish to offer an approach — design thinking — for addressing the challenges of designing and redesigning our teaching and learning in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic. What follows is a sort of primer in design thinking, as well as a consideration of how we might deploy design thinking in our efforts to address the challenges of designing or redesigning our approaches to teaching and learning. Accompanying this introduction to design thinking is a set of instructions for conducting an educator-focused design thinking workshop, replete with an agenda and documents that might help participants work through the stages of such a workshop.

My hope is that this approach and these workshop instructions might be of use to you and your colleagues; that you might conduct your own design thinking workshops or share them with others who might do so, or tweak them liberally and implement your own kind of workshop. Or maybe this short description and appended instructions merely provoke further consideration of how you are approaching teaching now that we have returned. My goal is the design of some kind of better teaching, and I know that will look and happen differently, depending on where you are and the circumstances in which you find yourself teaching and learning.

Design thinking is a reiterative and recursive process in which teams of folks collaborate to develop solutions to problems that have been redefined to focus on user experiences. In terms of pandemic pedagogy, design thinking is a reiterative and recursive process in which teams of educators — teachers and students — might collaborate to develop lessons, activities, assignments, etc. to address the myriad problems that will confront us all as we try to teach and learn during a global pandemic.

I offer the instructions for this educator-focused design thinking workshop as a more pedagogy-forward — rather than technology-forward — alternative to the many workshops I have Zoomed through in the weeks running up to the Fall semester. Nominally identified as “workshops,” these experiences were more accurately labeled infodump sessions, extolling the many bells and whistles of Canvas and Google Classroom and Zoom.

While I understand the need to reorient (or, in some cases orient) many faculty to technology-based teaching programs and platforms, I worry that the prepackaged teaching solutions available through these platforms and programs put the cart before the horse, so to speak. The incipient pedagogical message in these sessions seems to be that teachers ought to adapt their approach to fit the technologies, rather than adopt and adapt those technologies that supplement their approach. I am of a mind that when incorporating technologies into one's teaching, the teaching philosophy and practices should guide the manner in which technology is adopted and deployed, rather than the other way around.

The general goal of design thinking workshops is to create a user-focused solution to a design challenge. In this case, the "users" are both teachers and students, and the design challenge pertains to specific activities, lessons, and assignments we all could design and use in our classes this academy year. These tactics/strategies could be small activities, lesson plans, unit plans, assignments, and so on, all specifically designed by teachers and students for teachers and students.

The first day of the workshop should take about 4 hours. The second day of the workshop should take between 5 & 7 hours, depending on how much time folks would like to spend revising and redesigning their prototyped materials. They are designed to be handled entirely online. The workshop plan as outlined in these documents is designed for a group of 10 faculty members and one moderator, though the model can certainly expand or contract to accommodate whatever size group wishes to participate.

The Design-Thinking Workshop Model

The model of this workshop shares the principles undergirding Hybrid Pedagogy: collaborative and reflective tinkering between and among different folks with different experiences and approaches. To borrow language from the workshop: How might we elaborate and expand upon the goodness of our individual approaches by revising and reworking them with our peers?

Stage 1: Empathizing with Our Students

The first stage of the design thinking workshop seeks to develop insights into the specific learning challenges our students and teachers are currently experiencing. In important ways, this first stage seeks to, in the words of Paulo Freire, “begin with the solution to the teacher-student contradiction.” More specifically, in this stage participants will need to think deeply about why they teach what they teach and also what curricular and extracurricular challenges students will face as they try to engage with what course materials in the middle of a pandemic.

In this stage, colleagues pair up to interview each other. The focus of the interview is to drill down to some of the core pedagogical principles of why we teach what we will teach and why students will be challenged to engage with what we will teach when we are teaching it. The best way to do that is to continually interrogate our answers; imagine trying to explain your thoughts to a precocious child who asks “why” after every answer you provide. Answer this child as much as you can until you feel as if you’ve reached bedrock.

After drilling down, faculty participants should try to imagine themselves in their students’ positions; what would it be like to be a student in our own courses? (Better yet, what would it be like to have our our students participate in the workshop!) Students are confronting the reasons why to take the course just as they are confronting the curricular and extracurricular challenges of taking that course in the midst of a pandemic. What are students saying? Doing? Thinking? Feeling? When you compare your notes with your colleagues, what insights do you develop about what might challenge your students this fall?

Stage 2: Defining the Challenges

As Donald Schön articulates in Educating the Reflective Practitioner, “competent practitioners must not only solve technical problems by selecting the means appropriate to clear and self-consistent ends; they must also reconcile, integrate, or choose among conflicting appreciations of a situation so as to construct a coherent problem worth solving” (6). As participants consider the insights generated in the Empathy stage, they can work together to set some boundaries on the challenges teachers and students will face. Pragmatic humility is key now: We can neither list nor anticipate all the challenges we face while teaching in a global pandemic, nor can we solve all of those challenges we are able to anticipate.

A strategic approach, therefore, would be to define challenges in such a way that, if sufficiently attended to, the majority of the needs of the majority of our students might be met. One way to do this is through developing student personae, each with a statement written from the persona’s point of view related to what that student needs from us or our courses based on the stated insights.

For example, “Steve needs very clear assignment instructions because he feels very confused by the hybrid online/face-to-face model of the class.” Or, “Susan needs reminders of the importance of my course because she thinks she won’t ever need the skills she’ll learn from my course after she graduates.”

Depending on the makeup of the workshop group, participants might also further define their focus by combining and refining these personae into three to five student personae on which the whole group focuses in the subsequent Ideation and Prototyping phases.

Upon defining these student personae, participants can transition into reframing the needs of these student personae into specific curricular design challenges they anticipate facing. This can be done by reframing student personae’s point-of-view statements into faculty-focused “how might we design” questions, where the thing faculty are wondering about designing is a specific curricular component of their courses (a syllabus, an activity, a lesson, a unit, an assignment, etc.)

For example, “How might we design a syllabus for Steve that helps to clear up his confusion about the hybrid/online face-to-face model of the class?” Or, “How might we design an assignment for Susan that reminds her of the importance of the course material?”

Stage 3: Developing Design Solutions

Upon empathizing with students and defining some of the specific anticipated challenges students may confront this fall, participants should move into the ideation or design-solution development phase. They should draw on their expertise here, keeping in mind all the groundwork they’ve done when working with colleagues to empathize with their students and defining their students’ challenges. Participants can sketch out some rough ideas in response to the “how might we design” questions they came up with at the conclusion of the last stage.

Upon generating three to five workable design solutions as homework between day one and day two, participants should pick the best idea they’ve got to present to the workshop group. At the start of the second day, participants should pair up to deliver five-minute Speed Geek presentations about their ideas. (My favorite example of Speed Geeking takes place during the Teacher2Teacher sessions during the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication). After everyone has both presented your solutions for five minutes apiece, participants should rotate and share plans with a new colleague. After Speed Geeking, everyone might revise or redesign their solutions, switch up the pairings, and re-present to a new set of colleagues.

Stage 4: Prototyping Teaching Designs

Collaborating with a new faculty colleague, participants should develop two of their solutions. For example: plan out the timing and scripting of an in-class activity. Write the purpose, procedures, and assessment criteria for an assignment. Map out a unit plan.

Participants should keep in mind this is still a prototyping phase, so the product should look like its final version, but it might still need further revision and elaboration. Prototypes should be in the alpha test phase; ready to be reviewed and responded to by other curriculum designers (i.e. faculty colleagues), but not quite ready to be tested by live users in a beta test phase (i.e. by students in a classroom).

Stage 5: Testing Your Prototypes

After developing two prototypes with one other colleague, the whole group divides in half to share their prototypes. In this stage, each participant should be responsible for presenting a prototype on their own, and colleague auditors should be responsible for searching for the sticking points in the designs. As in the ideation phase, participants could cycle through the prototyping testing phase multiple times, further refining and revising prototypes.

Why Design Thinking?

After this review of the design-thinking process, it can be helpful to step back and reconsider the reasons we had for using it in the first place. Design thinking asks us to take a fresh look at our teaching practice. It might help us figure out how to teach better during a global pandemic.

And that’s true, or at least, I believe that it is true. And if you’d like to get some of your colleagues together to run a design thinking workshop focused on teaching, I think that’s the exigence you share with them. “Look, teaching now is weird. We’re all struggling to figure out how to teach right now, so let’s work together to figure it out.” Your colleagues will buy that, mostly because it’s true.

But really, there’s more to “why design thinking.”

What I’m proposing above is a process for trying to leverage the uncertainties of teaching in a pandemic into possibilities of, as Jessica Zeller writes, “reimagining the center” of what we teach, why we teach, but more importantly who we teach.

Because of its user-centric approach, when design thinking is applied to teaching, it insists on much more than a repackaging of content delivery. After all, as Chris Friend and Sherri Spelic discuss, one key challenge students will face this fall is a problem of connecting. How is more talking at them going to develop connections? How is more lecturing to them (no matter the form it takes) going to make them feel any more connected to us, the ideas we’re exploring, or each other? As Freire points out: treating students like empty vessels disconnects them from the world. He writes, “the more completely [students] accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”

Yet physically distanced classrooms, hyflex models, and online teaching packaged and presented by web-based learning management systems will insist upon content delivery as the easiest, most efficient “teaching” design. And even in bygone days when our teaching and learning wasn’t challenged and disrupted by a pandemic, social injustice, economic insecurity, and  feckless leadership all at the same time, content delivery still coursed through schools as the most deployed “teaching” design. We must work hard to slow the spread of this pedagogical contagion just as we find ourselves in physically distanced and online classrooms trying to slow the spread of a viral contagion.

We are teaching now. We have returned, rightly or wrongly. We must intentionally design our teaching so our return centers our students, reconnecting them with us, with the material we teach and learn with them, and with each other.