Taming Tensions through Design


By Aaron Roberts, Eric Chagala, and Allison Zmuda

While the disruption to school has been difficult, disheartening, and exhausting, there also are flashes of possibility, imagination, and curiosity to design again rather than return to an old design that was built for a different time. Why are we feeling hopeful? Well, for starters, we have noticed the national trend toward empathy. Community members with kids at home are empathizing with the daily challenges of educators. And educators, though tired and overworked, are spending more time than ever thinking about the individual home situations of each and every child.

It’s hard for an individual local district to tackle the entire wicked problem laid bare in our current pandemic-driven crisis. There are policy issues, deeply rooted long standing equity issues, issues of social justice and more. What we can do, however, is begin to leverage the empathy we see from teachers, students, and communities alike to solve problems within their scope.

When designers lead with empathy, they are forced to deal with the natural tensions: diverse needs, wants, and lenses of each individual user.

When we consider “tension” in a design problem, we are simply highlighting the push and the pull between potentially competing demands.



One particular core tension remains on educator’s minds as they set their sights on the opening of school next year.

The Core Tension: Creating Experiences that are Doable and Meaningful

When we try to design deep and meaningful remote learning experiences, we are pulling at the strings of family capacity, teachers’ design skills, and resource availability. These are tensions that can lead to “Yes…but” thinking.

YES, we want to build meaningful remote learning experiences, BUT families have limited capacity. In fact, The New York Times did a great empathy piece that demonstrated how many parents are simply exhausted by trying to run a home education (not home school) effort. When schools were forced into a sudden redesign, the focus wasn’t really on big dreamy thinking. This is understandable. Most teachers created experiences for kids that were easiest to get online or into printed packets as fast as possible.

When brainstorming the tensions that you have to consider when designing, it’s more helpful to take the “YES… AND” approach. YES, you families have limited capacity to facilitate home learning AND we are going to build meaningful home learning experience. That means, we recognize that constraints exist AND they can be part of our solutions.

As we discussed, last time, it’s helpful to fully frame the problem your local district is trying to tackle by forming a “how might we statement.” If you think about it, the most How Might We statements really address quality learning experiences, not only quality REMOTE learning experiences:

  • HMW… get a sense of what kids are fascinated by?
  • HMW… focus on compelling questions and challenges that are often transdisciplinary?
  • HMW… better understand where students are getting stuck, lost and provide support in those moments?
  • HMW… focus on developing students as self-managers to take more ownership of the learning process?
  • HMW… have students run the Genius Bar to help others better understand learning explorations (including learning about oneself)?
  • HMW… make the strengths, interests, and values of each student central to their learning journey?

The fact that some learning may be “remote” in the fall simply adds a new, challenging constraint to our problem. It doesn’t change the core HMW statements.


Moving Your HMW to Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a funny thing. Many of us have been doing it in school since our K-12 days! This is a pitfall for many. Many adults assume they “know” what good brainstorming is, but research shows that improper brainstorming (especially in groups) actually results in fewer ideas, and lower quality ideas.

Part of the power of Design Thinking as a creative process is knowing and practicing the actual tips and tricks associated with each step of the process. Tom Kelley, co-founder of IDEO once stated, “The problem with brainstorming is that everyone thinks they are doing it…. While brainstorms themselves are often playful, brainstorming as a tool—as a skill—is taken quite seriously.”

The graphic shown here is frequently used in design work at the Vista Innovation & Design Academic (VIDA). It demonstrates the need for a large quantity of ideas—even ideas eventually deemed unworkable or too wild. Our favorite mindset from good brainstorming comes from the Improv world, and is know as “Yes, and….” It is the simple idea that instead of beating down a colleague’s idea, “No, that will never work,” we build on each other’s ideas in a positive way instead, “Yes, and … What if we …..”

While this isn’t meant to be a primer on all of the proper prerequisite steps of taking a design thinking approach, the general hope is that a team can create many potential ideas during a brainstorming or ideation session. There are many well-vetted activities for brainstorming that you can consider. For the sake of this piece, we’ve plucked a few of our own ideas for illustration purposes.

After brainstorming, designers begin to group similar thoughts and converge on the best ideas. Below is our quick brainstorm on improving the experience for all parties in the fall.

Not all ideas in a brainstorm will have the same traction. Perhaps some ideas from our quick brainstorm are interesting to you. Perhaps you have your own ideas to add. Asking the questions and creating divergent ideas to work from is the key. As you look through your own ideas, consider some questions:

  • Which brainstorms have similarities to other brainstorms?
  • Which brainstorms make your heart sing? Which make your heart sink?
  • Is your idea big enough to shake up the status quo? Or are you continuing the status quo with slightly newer ideas?
  • Does your idea balance the tensions that may exist in your problem?


Idea 1: Integrated Coursework

What content can be combined into a single assignment? Kindergarten teachers are masters of this. With as little as 90 minutes a day, every experience is cross-curricular magic. Where else can we find this magic? Combine ELA writing prompts with Social Studies content?

Idea 2: Chunking time for content acquisition and creating space for a more meaningful cross-curricular project or passion work.

What if teachers and students could co-create what their remote learning experience might look like? Students have a better feel for what exactly they can do at home, while teachers have experience in content and project design. Could remote learning time be reserved for cross-curricular projects designed with students? While content-acquisition may still be needed during remote learning time, it would be more limited with this idea. Doing something with the content would become the focus.

Idea 3: Reserve parts of work that are most frustrating to in-person times and move other experiences to remote learning times.

You know what many parents find frustrating? Math. They may have learned it differently, they may not remember the nuances. Even the most competent citizen may find fractions to be a complete mystery by the time they reach adulthood. If schools are working with a schedule that rotates in-person time and remote learning experiences, but the more challenging work stays at school.


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