Designing for an Empathetic World

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In the STEAM Lab at Blue School, the Design Process we use is simple, and was engineered to be so.

It serves many needs in the Lab. From imagining a backpack out of a t-shirt, to developing models of future technologies out of recycled materials, to prototyping solutions that remediate climate change with the inspiration of a salamander.

No matter the challenge, its one size fits all. Five steps. Rinse. Repeat. Look at that shine!

Empathize → Research → Develop → Prototype → Improve

Technically, the last step isn’t really a step, and certainly doesn’t appear solely at the end. Improvement is a practice, one the designer sustains throughout the process:

Feel like someone must have done this before? Improve your Research!

Cardboard model leaking resin all over the floor? Improve your Prototype!

Not sure why you’re doing this at all? Improve your Empathy!

All design firms, creative houses, engineering operations, product innovators, restaurant moguls … really any business or industry at all, use a creative process, or design process. Graham Wallas recorded one of the first models of a creative process in the 1926 book, The Art of Thought, choosing the 4 terms: preparation (or saturation), incubation, illumination, and verification (or implementation.) Different industries have developed different terminologies, adding a variety of steps to extract more detail and accountability from their users. But they’re all fundamentally the same.

As we look at Blue School’s STEAM Design Process, it’s worth recognizing that you are engaged in a design process of your own right now, as you read this. If you’re a teaching professional, you are perhaps engaging the Research phase, and maybe the Improvement phase, as you find connections to your craft. If you’re a parent, you may be deep in the Empathy phase as you find connections to your child’s school. Or if you’re a student you may be Developing connections to your teachers, and to your potential.

Many of our personal and individual design processes are instinctual, and automatic. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, then you’re all about growing yourself, expanding your capacities, remaining relevant and resilient. In other words: building a better you. On a basic level, we are all designers of our own selves, and follow a similar process in doing so.

Our first step, our motivation, our Empathy, emerges as we strive to thrive and come alive every day, identifying our best selves in the face of life’s ceaseless challenges. Whether the future is irresistible or the present unbearable, we recognize the need for change, in its myriad manifestations, and we act upon it.

Arguably we get lost in bad Research when we fall into doom-scrolling or we binge hours of TikTok. In those moments we must demand Development! Get out of other people’s headspaces and claim your own. What are you hoping to do? Develop that!

Ultimately we are endlessly Prototyping who we are, and (ideally) Improving on how that’s going for us throughout the process. Mindfulness helps. And naps. And other things.

So let’s dive in, and create! Let’s focus here on the first step of our design process: Empathy.

The most important step in every design process, in any field, is Empathy. You have to know your audience. From corporations to classrooms, your audience is everything. If you are making a product, for instance, and you miss your audience, you’ve made landfill. If you’re making a groundbreaking film, and you miss your audience, you’ve made a home-movie. If you’re making a lesson in your classroom to inspire your students to recognize injustice and transform their futures, and you miss your audience … you better pivot quickly because there’s another 43 minutes left in the period!

In the STEAM classroom we begin by making room for Empathy. We take the first 60 seconds of every class to empty our minds of all the baggage carried in: from other classrooms, from conversations in the hallways, and from the mind’s own noise. We breathe for one minute, quietly, in stillness. It’s Zen. It’s the Power of Now. It’s making space. It’s easier to meet people where they are when you are calmly and clearly where you are. As I tell my students, “This could be the best 60 seconds of your day, otherwise you’ve just wasted another minute.”

Once we’re clear, we can reconnect.

Reconnect with the Why? with the What? and with the Who?

With the Empathy.

Our upper Middle School students began last year by taking on the Stanford d.School “5 Chair Challenge.” In it, students learn to prototype quickly, using a variety of materials, focusing on designing a chair for a specific end user with a specific set of needs. (Was Lisa Simpson one of the end users? Maybe. Hey, Stanford knows how to keep it fun. Plus she’s a busy kid, with particular needs!!) We then pitched our iterations to each other, sharing how our designs met, or missed, those needs, and discovered how important Empathy truly is to the project. Missing the mark with a prototype of recycled cardboard is one thing; tanking hours of work with expensive modeling foam at a prestigious design firm would be something else entirely. Fail fast, and fail cheap, as the saying goes.

The adolescent mind, in particular, has an unmatched ability to discern a lack of Empathy in any pre-packaged lesson. “When am I ever going to need this?” is the strand of yarn that tweens love to pull to discern what exactly lies beneath the sweater of compulsory education. Let them pull it! It’s a question that rarely gets asked in the boardrooms of mathematics textbook publishers, for instance, but very often asked in the bored rooms of tedious mathematics classes across the planet. It needs to be asked. Often. And it needs to be heard. Clearly. That’s Empathy.

As a mathematics teacher before coming to Blue School, I experienced how abstractly so much of the content is shared in a standardized ecosphere. Take “Measurement”, for instance. Many of my students in the standardized public sector had never used a proper ruler. Why would they need to? Or even want to? Looking at a textbook series of lines, and then measuring them to ⅛” accuracy with a photocopy of a ruler, is as exciting as plain pasta. The unit on Fractions was equally bereft of significance or interest.

So, we began a woodworking project during our math class. One that incorporated fractions and measurements. And saws! Each student designed, measured to ⅛” accuracy, and built a miniature doll house. Of wood. To keep. For themselves. Or to give as a gift. Enter the Empathy! And, enter the enthusiasm and enjoyment! Needless to say, saws appear as requisite tools in mathematics exploration in the STEAM Lab at Blue School. And drills. And screws of varying lengths. And actual, real rulers!!!

Sometimes curiosity, if not empathy, is stoked by novelty alone, but connection is critical, to the process and/or to the product. Just because I bring the requisite Empathy to a class or unit doesn’t mean the students will absorb and embody it without proper care. Last summer I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and determined to bring it to our STEAM Biomimicry study, re-igniting my commitment to conservation and firing up my social justice engines. I was lit and ready to rock! (It’s an incredible book!!)

Alas, there was at the time no Young Adult edition, and the challenge of distilling those rivers of inspiration into a few rivulets of insight to kick off three lessons in the unit left me gulping for air mid-ford, and mid lesson. I had spent weeks immersed in Wall Kimmerer’s Empathy and it was now mine. Fully. In my mind I could braid a basket of baskets out of nothing but sweetgrass!

That Empathy wasn’t yet in the students, however, and it needed to incubate, as it had for me. My three, 15 minute pep rallies to kick off a few lessons didn’t connect as earth-movingly as had Robin’s book, in which I had bathed for several weeks straight. I wanted my students to feel what I had felt. But they hadn’t actually done what I had done. Empathy thrives with experience, so day trips to Nature will facilitate our next endeavor, as well as more craftily curated class content and connections across curricula.

When Blue School teachers consider a topic to share with children, we Empathize with who they are, in this moment, with their individual knowledge and interests, their attention spans and learning profiles, and their social connections and anxieties.

Wallas’ 1926 alternative term for this step speaks to that so well: Saturation. Soaking oneself in the student experience is essential to understanding how they will interpret and implement the intended instruction and inspiration.

This is not the world we grew up in. Arguably it never was. Blue School teachers recognize that, and generate curricula to empower our students to “use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world” as our Vision holds, “reimagining education for a changing world” per our Purpose.

Ours is not only a changing world, it’s now a profoundly challenging one. Today more than ever, we need to prepare our youngest generation to rise to those challenges. If modern education doesn’t meet those challenges, or at least greet them honestly and courageously, we truly exacerbate them. From climates in crisis to cultures in chaos, there is no shortage of material from which we can draw urgency. From heroes in activism to innovations in technologies, there is no shortage of material from which we can draw inspiration.

It’s up to us. To connect with our children as we nourish their minds and spirits. To catch their enthusiasm and ride the waves of innovation with them. To play with the ideas that ignite their souls as we share and further discover our own.

To Empathize.

It’s part of our Process.

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