Advice from Doris

After beginning our ascent out of the Pits of Despair, I began to wander back through the “Curiosity in Education” journey so far. These wanderings are where I made the horrible discovery that we had our first meeting and discussion with Doris Wells-Papanek of The Design Learning Network three months ago yesterday.


Over the summer, when Mr. Heidt sent our proposal for this project to various educators and designers with whom he has connected, one of the educators/designers he sent the proposal to was Doris Wells-Papanek. In her feedback on our proposal, Doris suggested that we dive into the history of education to better understand why American public education is the way it is. So we dove into education’s history and told its story through a mind map (which can be found in the previous post, History of American Public Education).

In October, we video called Doris when we were still trying to better identify the problem we were trying to solve and attempting to create more of a focus for our project. After following Doris’ advice of researching the history of American Public Education in order to better understand why it is the way it is and discussing our project with her, we made some realizations and posed several questions:

  • We discussed how our research led us to realize that really, the entire system of American public education is not flawed. It simply does not work for learners today. Horace Mann and other educators were not trying to create a system that was ineffective or unenjoyable. Their goals of bringing a more well rounded education to many were actually quite noble.
  • The system has been able to accomplish it’s goal of educating students (although perhaps not always effectively) and this is why it’s stuck around.
    • In conclusion: we won’t throw away the entire system. We need to find a balance between what works and what doesn’t work for learners today. Doris presented this idea through a metaphor: when one is using the design process to fix a problem, the problem one is trying to fix can either be a bicycle missing a link in it’s chain (making it completely ineffective and therefore broken, calling for design to be used to completely replace it), or a bicycle with a slowly deflating tire (meaning a system or product that still works, but due to some change in technology, culture, users, etc., the product or system does not effectively solve the same problem any more, calling for design to be used to to make the product or system more effective and relevant to the changing problem it once solved). We won’t throw away the entire system because our problem is the slowly deflating tire. As culture, work, government, technology, jobs, etc. have changed over time, American public education has not changed with them. However, we don’t want to use design to simply put a band aid on the hole that’s leaking air from the tire. We want to innovate to create a better system for today’s learners.
  • We discussed what education might look like today if Horace Mann had been more interested or had placed a greater emphasis on curiosity in his original American public education system. Would American public education have always been more effective in its goal of educating students to be good learners, workers, and people?

These realizations and questions did help us to better understand our project, what we are designing, how we need to go about designing a more effective system, and gave us some interesting questions to think about regarding how the system would have varied if it had originally been designed differently.

In her feedback, Doris also had given us the following advice:

This question (“How might we design an educational system that best meets the learner’s needs in the 21st century?”) is screaming for focus; a PhD dissertation would never finish. Pick a topic, an area of high interest, relevance, and value to the girls. Something that is doable in a term alongside everything else going on.

Furthermore, they need to sort out what level of impact they want to make. Who is their audience? How might they best connect/deliver their message?”

After realizing in the Pits of Despair that perhaps our original question/problem may not have been focused enough with its emphasis on curiosity, this advice became even more relevant. Looking into the future, we will need to reconsider the question to identify a system that we can design that will be more accomplishable, impactful, and effective in making a difference in American public education and the role curiosity plays within it.

Thanks for your guidance, Doris.



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