In an effort to create a school that will not only be unique, but also useful and relevant for those experiencing it, I have embarked on a tour, a listening tour of school constituents (teachers, students, parents).
When I conceptualized the kind of school I wanted to create one day, it was born out of my own experiences in education, as a student, as a teacher and as an administrator. I knew I had experience and data on my side to support the ideas I had, but other than informal conversations, I didn't have any records of other people's experiences, hopes and vision for the future of schools. And, as is a common tendency for human beings, my selective memory was really only keeping track of those who agreed with me, were of like mind and could see my vision, or those that were on the exact opposite end of the spectrum and thereby "not my audience." I wasn't looking to find more support or ideas, as I had my own and I had heard enough cheering for it.
Then came an assignment for an upcoming workshop I will be attending for school founders and edtech. entrepreneurs. The organization, 4.0 Schools, asked us to conduct "empathy interviews" where you reach out to your "users" to ask them about their current experiences with the problem that you are trying to solve. They recommended recording the interviews, so that you are not scrambling to take notes, and can be fully present while your subject is speaking, responding to their statements as needed, and following up with questions as appropriate. These interviews are supposed to give you more insight into the thoughts, feelings, difficulties and perspectives of people beyond yourself, people in the trenches, for whom I am trying to fix education.
I like to think that I am a good listener in general. I let people talk, I don't interrupt, and I am often found in situations where I am somebody's confidant, simply because I can listen and not turn the conversation to focus on me. However, in conducting these empathy interviews (they recommended doing a handful if we could, I'm of course loosely interpreting this to mean 25-50), I am finding that I barely have to speak, beyond saying "tell me about your experience with schools." People (students, parents and teachers) all have something they love and something they want to see changed; they all have a memory that has been created through their experiences with education, and they are all very happy to have a platform from which to speak about it. I have a list of 15-20 questions, about schools, curriculum, teaching practices, technology, diversity, etc. so that I can get a wide view of each subject's experience and thoughts. I usually get to ask about 3-4 of my questions, and the 15 minute interview has lasted 28 minutes on average.
The empathy interviews have been fascinating. People have thoughts on schools, they have experiences to share, and there have been some surprising and some not-so-surprising common threads amongst all constituents. Right now, I am just letting myself listen to as many people as possible. I'm taking my own experiences, my own ideas and my own research, and setting them aside for right now. In time, I will go back through all of these recorded interviews, transcribing the big ideas and looking for commonalities across as many of them as possible. I will then merge these ideas and understandings with my own research and ideas, to have a fuller picture of what schools could be doing better, and should be doing to provide children with an education that sets them up for future success. For now, I am listening.
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