The Importance of Empathy in Learning Design

This week I had the pleasure of seeing my dear friends Dr. Fitri Mohamad and Dr. Jacey-Lynn Minoi who were visiting the lab as guest speakers at this year’s Remix Play 3 event and Creative Play workshops. As if no time had passed, Fitri continued a conversation we’d been having almost a year ago in Malaysia. 

After gifting Fitri and team with a copy of the Google Venture’s Design Sprint book last year, she promptly read it from front to back and started applying the techniques therein with huge success at the myCapsule lab on the UNIMAS campus.

In our previous conversations we’d been discussing the difficulties faced when trying to encourage staff to adopt new teaching methods. One of the challenges Fitri came up against time and time again was encouraging educators to place themselves in the shoes of their students. In other words, to empathise more.

A breakthrough came when applying the ‘How Might We’ activity found in the Sprint book. How Might We is an activity from the first day of the Sprint process, designed to tease out opportunities by identifying potential problems that a project might face. These problems are addressed through the process of asking questions, such as ‘how might we improve our student assessment?’, or ‘how might we incorporate design thinking into the module?’.

The question method is very effective for identifying problems as it frame issues in a more positive light, as opposed to participants simply listing all the possible negative aspects of a project, which can be a demoralising process, often resulting in lengthy discussions about everything that’s wrong with existing methods, instead of exploring possible solutions.

Fitri noticed that the How Might We activity was encouraging participants to empathise with their students, and subsequently leading to richer, more engaging learning designs. Educators were approaching the design process from the student’s perspective, rather than that of the teacher, which would normally be the case.

This focus on empathy had a profound effect on the attitudes of the educators involved, which in turn led to more effective design sprints due to increased engagement from the participants.

Our conversations were initially about a paper we’re writing on the sprint process, but through our discussions about Fitri’s recent experiences, it became clear to me that empathy would also play a key part in my framework for frugal education. The conversation quickly drifted onto the topic of my PhD. 🤓

Time and time again we see learning designs that tick all the required administrative boxes when it comes to lesson, module, or course content, and yet the results often fall short when it comes to delivering quality pedagogic practice. I believe that empathy is a vital factor, not just in the creation of quality learning design, but also in the delivery of exemplary teaching practice, space design, and experiences that will best serve the student in their future endeavours.

Educators must place themselves in the shoes of the student to ensure they’re delivering on the needs of the student, and to ensure that what their teaching is indeed fit for purpose with regards to equipping students with the skills they need to excel in their chosen professions.

Naturally it’s early days for the framework, and I’m sure the positioning of empathy within it will expand and evolve over time, but for now it’s an excellent starter for ten.

Thanks for the chinwag Fitri, our conversations are always a pleasure, and very informative! Hopefully out next chat will be in Malaysia again! 😁

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