Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Are you listening?

A lively game of duck-duck-goose at Wofford community partner site ARCH (Sept 2012)

When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we hosted friends for Thanksgiving. We chatted, their toddler played, and I staved off nausea. During that visit, our friends gave us some of the best parenting advice I ever received: Don’t buy a bunch of parenting books. Observe your child carefully, and their actions will tell you what they need. Nearly a decade later, I realize our friends gave us design thinking advice for parenting. Observe closely, perceive a need, keep your ultimate purpose in mind, and create solutions that meet the need in ways that make life better for the recipient, you, and others. (I only know that thanks to another friend who introduced me to the concept of design-thinking.)

So what does this have to do with my day job (my other day job)? Well, some come to effective actions by the book; others by observation and instinct. Because I fall into the we’ll-figure-it-out category, my challenge has always been to zoom out from what I come to by instinct, in order to explain to myself and others the function my “product” (or parenting choice) serves. That last step is important; it invites those who hear the explanation into dialogue, and it forces the author of the action to articulate what matters and why. (When my kids were three, I got lots of practice doing this. And being bad at it.)

OK, concrete, day-job connection: I joined the Wofford Spanish program eager to make a contribution and anxious to know the local community. Much of my teaching load was at the sophomore level, and our sophomore level is tough for students: not quite the moment to study internationally, and proficiency isn’t yet accomplished enough to make communication truly pleasurable. I sensed students needed to see the relevance of language work to the larger world, and I knew that if I didn’t think creatively, I’d never meet the community while teaching a 4-1-4 load. We all needed a solution. Careful observation (and lots of trial and error) pushed me to build on the strengths of our program (thanks, colleagues and students) and create a new version of our sophomore course. It became a community-based learning course that upped the pleasure of learning by connecting the theoretical and the practical (to borrow the phrase of another friend). Both students and I flourished, and our partner sites enjoyed success in educating the majority Latino population in their districts.

Still, I needed to close the loop on what we do and why it works. I was finally able to do so when the conversation serendipitously broadened. Again, trusted and brilliant friends moved my slow hunch along: designing spaces in which students connect their studies to the world and themselves helps students discover their purpose as learners. When I heard that observation (several times in different places), I suddenly had the framework to convey what my students and I have experienced. 

So, day-job and parenting take-away: How often do we observe closely, perceive a need, and design solutions with a purpose in mind? And what could we do if we seized the opportunity to learn more, to listen and share? Might we grow together that way, just like kids and parents often do?