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[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 2: Using Empathy to Increase Academic Engagement

[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 2: Using Empathy to Increase Academic Engagement

On this month’s podcast, I sit down with Liz Gallo, the founder of WhyMaker. WhyMaker helps schools implement design thinking, a method that helps groups discover and develop potential solutions for complex problems. During our interview, Liz explained that she feels the greatest thing lacking in how we educate students is how often we give them opportunities to empathize. And, she may be right.

In 1996, Jeffrey Conklin published an article titled, “The Age of Design.” Jeffrey is the president and founder of the CogNexus Group, a firm that helps big business deal with highly complex problems. In the article, he makes a fascinating argument that the real barrier organizations are struggling to overcome in solving their problems is not the problems themselves, but rather an outdated set of attitudes, beliefs, and concepts from which they approach solving them. This outdated thought framework, he calls the “age of science.”

The age of science

The focus of this age was to describe phenomena through experimentation, then predict, and then control. A natural result of this focus was devoted to solving problems that Conklin defines as “tame.” A tame problem is a one that is well understood and has a final, discernable answer. Additionally, the answer typically can be determined through routine problem-solving, or as he calls it, the linear approach of “GAFI”: gather data, analyze it, form a solution, and implement. Because of this, individual contributors to problems and their solutions thrived. But today, Conklin argues, the nature of the way that people express themselves and interact has forced problems to increase in complexity, requiring a new thought framework for dealing with them.

The age of design thought framework

George Matus founded Teal Drones when he 18 years old by raising $2.8 million in seed funding. He now sells unmanned, camera-equipped, drones, he has raised over $20 million in venture financing. Today’s technology compels us to be creators and distributors by removing the barrier imposed by a lack of capital and location.

Welcome to the “age of design.”

In his article, Conklin outlines the primary characteristics of this new age. He explains how language and tools are now used to create and inspire communities of people to take action and share in causes through powerful stories, instead of to describe phenomena and make predictions. Due to this, solutions to problems, and problems themselves, have become increasingly complex. They now require that we seek shared ownership in tackling them and that we solve them socially. The more we try to use age of science, individualistic, linear thinking to solve today’s issues, the more struggle we experience because they’re simply the wrong tools. We need to shift our mindset to one of collaboration and of shared understanding. In other words, we need empathy.

Why CTE programs are so popular with students

Interwoven throughout the fabric of career and technical education (CTE) are opportunities for students to understand how what they are learning affects people and, in many cases, to use what they learn to cause real change. Looking at Edmentum’s own high school iOS Mobile App Development course, we see a clear dedication to building empathy. There are 12 lessons in the course, and 4 of them are devoted to helping students build a context for the role of software development in our lives. Those lesson titles are History and Trends, Careers and Skills, Training (outlining the type of training needed to learn to build apps), and Entrepreneurship. Students in this course also build a prototype app that can benefit others.

Before students dive into the details of coding, they will understand what and who came before them, how the field has contributed to our society and economy, how they can use it in service of others and themselves, and what sort of dedication it will require. Also common to CTE programs is the opportunity to work with industry partners on real problems they face in serving their customers. It is these age of design characteristics of CTE that make the programs so engaging. Barriers to interest and success in the courses are lower because CTE match our new natural way of thinking.

Core content courses in the age of design

CTE programs have an advantage over core courses—they are business related. Businesses that find success are naturally empathetic. If they don’t understand who their customers are and what they desire, companies won’t be in business long. So, it is no wonder that CTE programs naturally have empathy built in. But, how can we begin building more empathy into core instruction?

Real-life problems instead of real-world problems

Instead of having students simply solve a real-world problem, let them first discover that a problem exists and who the problem affects, and then let them determine what a solution would look like and who it would benefit and how. In math, students may be asked to determine the dimensions of a patio, but rarely, are they given the chance to understand why a patio is needed in the first place. Are the homeowners avid grillers who are tired of sweeping up dirt in their house after every time they walk outside to check on the food, especially during Friday night grill parties? It may sound silly, but these are real-life reasons people build patios—or lay concrete pavers, remodel a kitchen, buy a Roomba robot vacuum, or grill less—and it is the everyday details that give opportunities to empathize, discover new problems, and develop innovative solutions that help people achieve their goals.

Allowing students this sort of insight into real-world problems and requiring them to address not only the functional but also the social aspects of a problem, is a good first step to propel your instruction into the age of design and to motivate your students to passionately use what you’ve taught them.

Be sure to follow the Edmentum podcast on your favorite streaming service, and stay tuned for upcoming episodes!