How Do We "Listen" to Families? Try a Human-Centered Design Approach

Posted on October 3, 2017
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Categories: Family News & Resources

The following article is taken from the Harvard Family Research Project.

Although years of research confirm the important role of families in student achievement, we continue to struggle with HOW to engage families in meaningful and effective ways. Human-centered design (also called design thinking) opens new possibilities for closing the gap between research and practice. Based on observation, optimism, collaboration, and experimentation, this approach can guide educators to explore new and better ways to motivate and sustain family engagement in children’s learning.

A “human-centered” approach focuses on developing empathy and putting oneself in another’s place, imagining what that person feels and experiences. For those seeking to engage families, this approach might prompt several questions: What do parents and family members see, hear, and feel when they enter an early childhood program, school, or afterschool program? How do teachers see parents? What do they hear from and feel about parents?

Ten years ago—before we had heard of human-centered design—Harvard Family Research Project wrote a case study about family engagement in an elementary school attended primarily by Latino children. Rereading the case now, we see that it is a good example of what this approach has to offer. Back then, in San Rafael, California, the nonprofit Parent Services Project connected with San Pedro Elementary School (see Footnote 1) to train a core group of parents to assume leadership roles in the school and in their children’s education. Through bagel breakfasts, Tuesday coffee breaks, and potluck dinners, the parents bonded and felt inspired to extend their sense of community and advocacy on school issues with a wider group of parents. The task was a huge challenge given transportation difficulties in getting to the school and parents’ work schedules.

Taking on the role of designers, the parents created a children’s weekend soccer tournament and spread the word informally in the community, meeting families at gathering places such as bus stops and laundromats. The result: 250 families turned up for the soccer tournament without a single flier (the common type of school communication) being printed. The event provided an opportunity for parents to have a conversation with the principal and teachers that eventually led the fathers to bulldoze a field on the school property for a vegetable garden. Using the garden, students participated in hands-on science and nutrition projects while also producing healthy meals. The soccer tournament has since become a parent-run afterschool program, family engagement is formalized through the parent associations, and the vegetable garden continues to be a source of experiential learning.

A human-centered approach pulls rather than pushes families to school. By observing and listening to families, understanding where they are ready to invest their time, and giving them the opportunity to lead, schools and other educational entities can, as our example shows, create the conditions that facilitate engagement. As these organizations seek to address equity issues, human-centered design has the potential to create opportunities that pull families that are traditionally left out.

A human-centered approach puts people ahead of programs. All too often schools and youth-serving organizations look for a magic wand or tap into well-established program models. While it is necessary for educators to think broadly and understand the research and evidence base for family engagement models, they also must immerse themselves in the lives of the families in their communities. Only after educators know families’ hopes for their children, their interests and needs, and the barriers to and opportunities for engagement will they be in a position to design meaningful family engagement practices.

1. In the 2009‒10 academic year, the school had a 96% Latino student population, and 55% of the students were eligible for the federal free-lunch program.

The next article is also taken from the Harvard Family Research Project. It is written by Allison Rowland, who was a doctoral resident in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

human in circleHow can human-centered design strengthen family engagement? As a doctoral resident in Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership program, I am exploring this question in my work with the San Diego Unified School District. The district, the second largest in California, invited me to guide its efforts in developing a systemic approach to family engagement. In collaboration with the district’s Parent Outreach and Engagement department and Crawford Community Connection, a local nonprofit, we organized and piloted a Design Thinking: Partnering with Families for Student Learning workshop. We wanted to call attention to the power of family engagement and facilitate a process whereby educators and community partners listen carefully to families and then take action with them to solve problems together.

Five Steps

Below is the process we used for our modified design thinking challenge.

Step 1: Make the Case and Build Relationships

Ground the workshop in supporting student success. Right away, build connections across roles and use the research to demonstrate the essential role that families play in student learning. Schools often think about family engagement as limited to volunteering and being involved in school governance. While some families can take leadership roles and many families participate in school activities, all families can support their student’s learning in the home and in the community.

Step 2: Create a Design Challenge

A design challenge points to a goal that keeps participants focused throughout the workshop. Families and educators form small teams to address this specific design challenge: “How might we design a better way for families, educators, and community partners to support student learning—together?”

Step 3: Build Empathy

Empathy is an understanding of people and what is important to them. Family members share what they feel, hear, and see about the school and their student’s education. Educators listen attentively without talking or interrupting. In this modified version of Design Thinking, the typical one-on-one interviews take place with the families in groups of 8–15 people.

Step 4: Develop a Prototype

A prototype is a representation of the ideas—often, solutions to a problem—that emerges from the design challenge. In teams of 6–10 people, including educators, families, community partners, and students, each team reframes the design challenge based on what they hear from families and then “ideates” or brainstorms solutions. They use materials such as poster paper, sticky notes, and markers to create a visible representation of their ideas.

Step 5: Choose a Prototype

Each team presents the problem they are trying to solve; a prototype as a solution; and the pros and cons of the prototype. Families and educators vote for the prototype they commit to testing and implementing together in future gatherings.


Challenges can be turned into opportunity.

Typically, in Design Thinking, listening and building empathy involve conducting one-on-one user interviews. Because of limited translation services, we decided to flip the way translation usually happens: The families conversed in their own languages, and the educators listened to the translated conversation in English on headsets. We listened to families speaking Karen, Kizigua, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The experience was profound— many educators had not heard families’ perspectives in such a direct way—families were empowered to speak to each other in their own languages. Educators and families reported the process built trust and often shifted their beliefs about each other.

Listening to families is a profound learning experience.
We found that the educators benefited tremendously from listening to the families speak during the empathy work. The educators’ role was solely to listen, and we instructed them not to interrupt or ask questions. It was an opportunity for the families to speak and share their stories. Following the event, the educators shared how deeply moved they were by the experience. Many of the educators noted that design thinking principles helped them to better understand their students and families.

The process works in many contexts.
Since the event, we have used design thinking techniques in multiple contexts yielding very similar results. We have been able to modify the experience to two to four hours rather than a full-day session, and we are currently building capacity for the process to become a cornerstone for a broader systemic approach in which each and every family is empowered to support their student’s learning.

Family engagement is about an “us with them” mindset.
The event instilled in participants a sense that families and educators are collectively responsible for this work. Tim Brown, CEO and president of the IDEO design firm, emphasizes that Design Thinking is based on an “us with them” mentality rather than an “us versus them” or an “us on behalf of them” mentality (Footnote 1). An area superintendent shared with us that she has seen a shift toward an “us with them” approach following the event, noting that families and educators are working together when a problem arises and asking how they can solve it together. It is no longer that one party is approaching the other with a problem and asking them to solve it.

Design Thinking builds a fertile ground for partnerships.
The event had a strong and lasting impact, and we found that many of the educators who participated agreed that this modified design thinking process had led to action to improve family engagement at their school sites. The event was effective in building trust and stronger relationships between the families and educators, which we see as a critical first step in empowering families and increasing opportunities to develop effective partnerships.

1 Brown, T. (2009). Change by design. New York, NY: HarperCollins, p. 58.