On Wednesday morning, February 10, Derek and I had a quick phone interview with Katherine Schulten, editor of the Times Learning Network. Katherine has ten years experience teaching English in Brooklyn and even more experience as a writer. She had great insight to share about the prospect of educating kids in NYC schools.
A Community of Teachers
The Learning Network at the New York Times strives to facilitate a community of passionate teachers and students. Katherine pointed to it many times as an example of a level-agnostic forum for kids, parents, teachers and others to find educational information and to share their experiences. When the site was redesigned a few years ago, it transitioned from a static website to a blog format to allow two-way, active communication between the Times and its readers.
In discussing our project’s goals, we have extensively debated whether to focus on middle school students, who are typically pursuing more general studies, and high school students, who will be more focused on career choices. When we asked Katherine about the differences between the two groups, she implored us to consider a level-less program, keeping in mind that a good lesson will provide something of value to students of any age.
Katherine recommended that we sit in on a few classes to get a good idea of what classrooms are like today. It’s been quite awhile since any of us have been in a K–12 class, so doing a small ethnographic study is a great idea. We were told to observe teachers, who are trained not only to deliver an educational experience, but also to manage a classroom. The latter in particular was something Katherine identified as an important skill to learn before we enter the classroom.
Katherine had great advice to be transparent with kids. It’s okay to tell them we’re new at teaching and to solicit feedback after our lessons.
One of the easiest secrets to engaging kids in the content we are presenting is to make it hands-on. (This shouldn’t be too hard with interaction design and prototyping!) Katherine mentioned an education method, “activating schema,” that exploits the idea that no child comes to the classroom without any prior experience. Everyone has an existing framework in his or her head, and it’s okay to acknowledge that and even use it to frame the lesson we will teach. She suggested breaking the ice by having kids talk about their past experiences with the content we will present; a definite nod to the impact and power of storytelling.
She also mentioned that kids are pretty familiar with the idea of “mapping.” It’s something they’re taught to do in some of their other classes already. Derek and I are thinking this could be a natural jumping point for some of the more complex or abstract material.
The Big Challenge
One of the best pieces of experience Katherine shared with us is the idea that to be truly engaged, kids have to want to learn what you are teaching. If you ask adults to identify their most memorable learning experiences, you may find that they had some sort of emotional connection with the class material that was taught. If we can find a way to make interaction design relevant on this level, we’re positive we’ll be able to make an impact.