Addendum #10: Empathy via Thoughtful Maintenance versus Hyper Design and Innovation Trends

In light of hearing teacher concerns near and far about starting this school year, I’m thinking that the dynamics of credibility between teachers and administrators work much like they do between teachers and students. Might we be a bit more considerate of teacher concerns about focusing so much on design thinking and innovation?

Ken Sande’s three questions for “Building Passport” via his Relational Wisdom blog especially come to mind as teachers seek safety and support from their leaders: 

  • Can I trust you? 
  • Do you really care about me? 
  • Can you actually help me?

Ken has additional questions and discussions linked to each of these, and I encourage you to check out his faith-based analysis. I especially appreciate the analogy of developing the right to enter another person’s life, depending on how sincerely and truthfully we suggest answers to each of these questions. They are questions for all educators as we begin the school year, and they carry additional weight with all of the COVID-19 stressors. 

I couldn’t help but also connect the idea of leader credibility to Dave Stuart’s post on “The CCPR of Teacher Credibility.” Adjusted for formatting in the points below, you can see how Dave unpacks the acronym as Care, Competency, and Passion with the relevant questions for teacher-student relationships: 

  • Care: Do you care about me as a person and a learner? 
  • Competency: Do you know your stuff? Can you help me learn? Can you manage your classroom? 
  • Passion: Are you passionate about your content, your craft, and your students? 

It doesn’t take too much thinking to imagine how these heuristics for credibility could be adjusted for leader and teacher relationships. 

Additionally, we all have a lot of room for the “R” of the acronym, which is Repair. Leaders, like teachers, will often find themselves needing to repair relationships. I think there are some complex relationship repair issues related to current trends in education related to design thinking and innovation. 

Relationship Problems with Design Thinking and Innovation Trends in Educational Leadership 

I was grateful last week when local leaders in our district called off part of a training that was heavily-laden with design thinking and innovation themes. This fall (this week!), we are shifting to a concentrated block schedule (attempting to finish a semester’s worth of learning in a quarter), and we are facing the potential of having to shift to remote learning quickly if cases of COVID arise. Such daunting challenges help one understand the additional stressors that staff encountered in the past week as we participated in the first days of the training. 

Although I’m grateful for the reprieve from the training last week, I’m concerned that the increasingly common and pervasive focus on design thinking and innovation is misguided and not so helpful for educators.   

Jessica Lahey’s article on “How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School” provides a helpful and gentle entry point to empathizing with teachers who are concerned about problems with design thinking and innovation thinking. Interestingly, Lahey notes that design thinking is promoted as starting with empathy and not really being about any one thing, at least according to the guru of design thinking Neil Stevenson. 

Lahey explains how well-focused designed thinking can work well for helping students thoughtfully design products and develop character qualities such as empathy and growth mindsets. She explains that “design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure.”

I suspect that even as a “a process for problem-solving,” design thinking needs to be used with more discernment, caution, and reservation. Focusing on it when teachers are trying to adjust to an entirely new block schedule and trying to prepare for pivoting to remote learning if needed is not a good time. Other thoughtful sources of commentary are questioning its ubiquitous use in education and industry for solving problems, developing plans, making products, and providing services. 

One book in particular that I’m looking forward to reading on this topic is The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most once it is released on September 8th. A brief review in Publisher’s Weekly caught my attention as it described the authors’ frustration with the ethos of “move fast and break things” in many of the popular practices of innovation. That sounds strikingly similar to the narrator Nick Carraway’s commentary about the reckless wealthy folks of his time in The Great Gatsby. Such an ethos of “move fast and break things” doesn’t seem very empathetic.

Meanwhile, I’m appreciating David Sax’s opinion piece on “End the Innovation Obsession: Some of our best ideas are in the rearview mirror.” Basically, Sax joins the most thoughtful folks I know (including Neil Postman on technology and culture and Jim Collins on business and leadership) in asserting that institutions should also take the bulk of their time maintaining the ongoing quality of their work, services, and products, and they should gradually and carefully attend to ongoing proportionately smaller efforts of innovation. 

Sax puts it this way: “True innovation isn’t just some magic carnival of invention, like a Steve Jobs keynote with a pretty toy at the end. It is a continuing process of gradual improvement and assessment that every institution and business experiences in some way.”

Sax’s view of innovation seems quite compatible with those seasoned teachers who question the fast and furious foci on trends such as design thinking and innovation. Sadly, such teachers might even get typecasted as “laggards” according to the “Diffusion of Innovation Theory.” But is the given innovation worth adopting?

At the very least, I’d appreciate a bit more due diligence in the design and innovation thinking process in terms of considering how “some of our best ideas are in the rearview mirror,” as Sax asserts.

There is so much more on this topic and more to come from analysts who are way more knowledgeable than I am. I can’t help but think the focus on design thinking and innovation is much like the focus on learning styles, which has been shown to be ineffectual or even detrimental to student learning. 

The larger issue in all of this that I’m concerned about is good relationships between administrators and teachers–from the general humane level to practical considerations. I’m hearing many teachers leaving, or ready to leave, a profession that is suffering from a shortage of teachers. I’m hoping that more leaders, more often, can be more empathetic to the legitimate concerns that teachers might have about our latest trends. Really taking those concerns into account might actually lead to real innovations that will really help students, educators, and communities.

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