How to Measure the Invisible Work

“Nobody will ever see the research or the deliberate decisions made around trade-offs. Nobody will see the entire system you design, laid out bare on your computer or in your notebook. Nobody will ever see your ideas for personas, or the results from the research you do, or the hours you’ve invested in iterating on a single attribute of your design. Nobody will go through past conversations you’ve had with peers, co-workers, and potential users about your design. But these things will absolutely be reflected in whatever it is you create.” – Your Best Work Will Be Invisible

As the innovators in iDiploma wrap up their first, or for some, second, design brief, this is a message I hope they all take to heart. So much of the successes so far in their work is not because of flashiness, it’s not because they’ve built a beautiful app or designed the perfect new space, it’s because they intentionally leaned into empathy.  As a whole, the students interviewed, surveyed and conducted focus groups with close to 250 people. They’ve taken the time to walk the trails and the spaces their users would walk, observed people and are creating journey maps, user insight walls and culling through survey answers to find the stories the data is trying to reveal. It’s not glamorous work. And to be honest, I sometimes worry they’re not working hard enough because their work is sometimes hard to see.

One group has been using Thursdays, the largest chunk of uninterrupted time, to relocate to the Frazer Center, who is their client, to conduct deeper interviews and to better understand the space they’re designing. Another group is constantly bringing in focus groups or so deep in their work it seems I’d be an interruption if I asked them to report out on their work. I spend most of what one might call “class time” sitting with groups, listening in, offering a suggestion or two or prompting with questions. Mostly, I observe and coach teams as best I can, but it’s the teams of students who are in the driver’s seat.

We have some policies about communication, like all emails must be looked over by one of the facilitators and then I should be CC’ed in the final send, Mondays are share-outs where teams can report out and offer feedback, and if teams decide to go off-campus, they should fill out the proper paperwork. Other than that, I am coaching from the sidelines. I have to admit it’s hard. But it’s the job of a coach. And it should be the job of a teacher. In the past, I have taken too much control. I’ve made decisions about what should be done when and I’ve even doled out responsibilities based on what I can see as individual strengths. But if I’m doing that work, than what work am I leaving to these young innovators? How are they better collaborators or communicators if I have eliminated the need to negotiate roles and deliverables?

In my core I believe that educators (facilitators/learning sherpas/lead learners…whatever you want to call them) should give more control to the learners. And yet, I struggle with it, too. It would be easier if I took control, set the deliverables and the timelines. It’d be easier if there was no external party expecting something great – because then if they failed, it would not be as public. But I’d be robbing them of some of the most authentic and rich learning experiences possible, and as hard as it is for me to relinquish that control, it’s an imperative.

Of course this work is hard to measure. Empathy is hard to measure. iDiploma is not a class, we’re a startup, and we operate as such. As much as possible, we mirror the real world, and assessment is no different. There is no clear rubric that would work for all four of the design briefs. The end products are not even defined by me. Timelines and final due dates are different. And as unfair as this sounds, the expectations are also different, depending on which client the team is working with for their brief. So how do you navigate a design brief or project for an external client?

  • Descriptive and Narrative Feedback – Descriptive feedback requires that facilitators provide specific information in the form of written comments or conversations that help individuals understand what she or he needs to do in order to improve.We attempt to describe what we are seeing and make suggestions on what to do next or how to improve.
  • Don’t Start with Content – Because of the nature of our work, we do not attempt to describe what content or knowledge learners need to have. We expect the teams to generate Need-to-Knows based on the project and the needs of their research.
  • Peer and Self Feedback Is Critical –  Peer and self feedback provide a starting point for conversations that help students find proof of their learning and take responsibility for it. When students are actively involved in the learning process, and identify what they know and don’t know, they assume the greatest responsibility in their learning journey.
  • Real-world Demands and High Expectations – Forget the one size fits all projects that are only relevant within the walls of school. Look for community partners who demand quality and precision. Hold learners to the highest (sometimes brutally high) expectations and don’t back down. You’ll be amazed at what they can do.
  • Embrace Constraints – Projects that have a greater purpose and timelines that don’t play nice with the school calendar make it tough to fit into the typical school day. But don’t let that get in the way. Doing this kind of work even for a fraction of the day is better than not doing it at all.
  • Acknowledge that Students Own Learning – Really it’s not about measurement at all. It’s not about having a neat grade book with the right number of assignments. We’ve trained students to care more about grades and pleasing the teacher than the real learning, yet we get mad when they ask questions like “does this assignment count toward my grade?” Let’s give the learning back to those who own it. And really, is it even possible to measure the real, rich, invisible work like empathy?

I don’t believe that every single high schooler should be engaging in this kind of work 100% of the time. I still believe there are places for content specific teaching and learning. But I do believe we need to expand the number of hours our students work on real-world, highly complex problems, and that we provide multiple opportunities for them to leave the world better than they found it. The way to do this is through empathy. Empathy has the potential to inspire deeper learning, drive clearer and more critical thinking, and ultimately inspire engagement with the greater world—why wouldn’t we want to make room for that as content?


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