THE BLOG

The Result of Design Thinking Students Designing Their Own School: EmpathicEducation for a CompassionateNation

06/30/2015 05:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

This post is Part 2 of a 2 Part Series on Design Thinking Students Designing Their Own School.

As a clinical psychologist and forensic expert in special education and gifted, I've specialized in the ends of the bell curve for almost 20 years. Learning about people who are very advanced, and/or very behind in their studies and development led me to reconsider my whole career. In 2011, I founded The Connect Group, a non-profit organization connecting communities with innovative educational solutions. The very next year, I closed my thriving private practice, where I treated professional athletes as an extension of my work with gifted people, to devote myself full-time to transforming education. In my vast research spanning history, politics, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, mindful awareness, and pedagogy, I've found a dearth of empathy and compassion. Most alarming is the absence of empathy and compassion for students and educators who are oppressed by ineffective educational practices. I introduced the concept of Educational Trauma, to explain the inadvertent perpetration and perpetuation of victimization against producers and consumers of educational systems. And, this month, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect, a textbook for pre-service teachers went to press. It includes a chapter I wrote that explores our students' answer to this problem: EmpathicEducation for a CompassionateNation: A Pedagogy for Kindness and Respect for Healing Educational Trauma.

EmpathicEducation for a CompassionateNation isn't just a theoretical proposition, it is an educational model piloted by The Connect Group in Los Angeles. When we launched the pilot program in May 2014, I wrote about it for Ashoka's Start Empathy blog, and here's how the year went!

A Mobile Learning Community:
To mitigate costs, we used the Lean Start Up model, and relied on free resources in the community. Doing so also demonstrated how radical pop-up learning communities are not only possible, but effective and feasible approaches to education. Our co-founders (students and adults alike) met at libraries, museums, and parks. We went to special events, volunteered at Tree People and at Center for Pacific Asian Families. We took Mindful Nature classes at Insight LA with a mixed age group of students that included a very wide range of adult learners too! It was co-learning in nature, at its very best!

The Forgiving Tree:
Community service is a big component of EmpathicEducation for a CompassionateNation because it cultivates empathy skills while offering effective compassion. Our youngest co-founder, 6-year old Sandy (*name changed for privacy) initiated our biggest community service campaign: The Forgiving Tree. This campaign has 3 focal points of service: The elderly, nature, and recycling. Sandy's first activity for the Forgiving Tree campaign was to create Public Service Announcement posters to encourage recycling. Our students created posters, which were welcomed by our friends at Center for Pacific Asian Families. Could we please just notice that this originated with a 6-year old?!!

Fundraising:
In order to provide students with an authentic experience of starting a Learning Community, we supported their fundraising efforts in acquiring physical education equipment. The fundraising campaign was student led, and they succeeded in reaching their goals. We believe this experience goes beyond traditional school fundraisers because students were involved in the financial affairs, and needed to consider the costs associated with running the fundraiser, the cost of equipment, and how to balance these variables.

A Playful Democratic Learning Community:
Our Learning community is democratic so we followed the lead of students in an effort to nurture their passions, and inspire self-direction and self-responsibility. Our group happens to be quite talented artistically, and as such we provided them with numerous art classes all over Los Angeles. We went on field trips every week, and spent time in nature, hiking local canyons, and visiting the beach. Theatre and improv were a component of the program as well, in an attempt to foster "dramaturgical consciousness," as described by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization. http://empathiccivilization.com/ And, play was supported as the highest form of learning, as inspired by Jean Piaget, who said: "Play is the answer to how anything new comes about." The Connect Group School co-founders played "school design and start up" all year long to see what newness might emerge!

Design Thinking:
We used Mary Cantwell's DEEPdt Design Thinking methodology to create norms, language, and practices for brainstorming, empathizing with students and educators, prototyping, failing-up, and iterating. We used it to explore different school settings, and create the mission and vision statements for our learning community. We even empowered students with Design Thinking skills, which older students embraced on their own and created Design Thinking challenges for other students. One student created a challenge for drought awareness and facilitated it with 200 peers. One challenge resulted in the creation of Individual Learning Plans (ILPs.) The learning plans students prototyped were essentially self-directed courses that allowed them to pursue their interests and passions while documenting the progress. Each student created a separate ILP for each area of study. They also reported on their progress 4 times in the school year, by way of a self-reflective assessment called Quarterly Reports. To complete the Quarterly Reports, students reflected upon themselves, upon their work product, their study skills, needs, concerns, problems, and they also looked forward to the next quarter and established goals. This serves as a major shift from the empathic failure that is grading and report cards to empathy for students by putting the power of assessment in their hands. Doesn't it often feel better to simply notice something needs fixing yourself, than to be shamed for putting forth an effort that doesn't match someone else's expectations of you?

Kindness & Respect:
The values promoted at The Connect Group School are a main focus of dialogue with student co-founders. We believe kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion are essential qualities for all people, and foundational to happiness, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and any career one may choose. To promote it, we use Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication to train students and educators in how to communicate with respect for one another's feelings, needs, experiences, and observations. Former Major League Baseball player, Tony Scruggs serves as my personal role model for this form of communication. He inspires me to make this a critical part of our students' experience because it is how we share kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion with others.

Challenges:
Students suffering from Educational Trauma are attracted to this educational model, yet unable to build a learning community because of the trauma. This created a dilemma in how to serve needs of the community, while simultaneously creating the Learning Community. As such, we had to become very selective about which students and families would be a good fit for co-founding a Learning Community, while simultaneously educating students. This was particularly challenging, and sad, because it meant we had to turn students away that desperately needed EmpathicEducation. Additionally, the language for democratic, student-centered learning that follows pedagogies of kindness, respect, and vulnerability has not yet reached families educating students. As such, it can be difficult for parents to understand why and how this model is beneficial to students. We currently live in a state of historical amnesia, forgetting that research and history confirm that current educational practices are ineffective, even harmful. This purposeful forgetting serves to free individuals from accountability and responsibility, and perpetuates status quo. EmpathicEducation for a CompassionateNation aims to unpack and repair this failure of collective responsibility for one another, and particularly for our children.

Looking ahead:
We had no idea how this pilot program would go this past year, and we still don't know how it will look in the future, which is kind of what life is like for everyone right now! We are excited about the partnerships we've developed in our community, and the collaborations moving forward. What I can tell you is that our students are happier than they've ever been. They are invested in a cause bigger than themselves, for the greater good of all, which makes them feel worthy, important, honored, and respected. Don't we all want a little of that? It's working out pretty well; student co-founders spend some time in the summers at meetings moving EmpathicEdcuation for a CompassionateNation forward. We'll keep you posted.