The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

Renee Albrecht-Mallinger 'Teaching as design for learning'

John Carter
January 14, 2022
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Renee Albrecht-Mallinger 'Teaching as design for learning'

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Episode shownotes

Doing Design Festival V3 'Better Together' - February 11 2022. Tickets:

Today on the show we have Renee Abrecht Mallinger - a Lead Design Researcher at one of my favourite design studios Global Good Studio of Chicago. We chat about the intersectionality of Renees’ previous career as a middle school and high school teacher and now as Design Researcher, primarily focussed on governmental and societal work. What pieces has Renee felt set them up for success whilst working in complexity on a day to day basis.

What came out in the conversation was the formal education that Renee received as a teacher, has better prepared her for handling potentially trauma inducing situations whilst researching - something many (if any) design educators cover - psychological safety.

It’s a good one - let’s jump into it!

Episode Transcript

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S1: Hello and welcome to another episode of Bringing Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion and I'm a service designer and the founder of This Hates It and the CEO of This is doing to. We provide live online design and innovation classes, providing training for people in the design and change making space. Today in the show, we have a Albayrak to Mullingar and lead design research at one of my favorite design studios Global Good Studio in Chicago. Now we chat about the intersectionality of Rene's previous career as a middle school and high school teacher and now as a design researcher primarily focused on the governmental and societal work that they do a greater good studio. Now what pieces? Rennie has felt this at symbol for success. He sort of pulls across into the design research role they have and set them up for success, working in complexity on a day to day basis. What comes out in the conversation was the formal education that Renee received as a teacher has better prepared her for handling potentially trauma inducing situations whilst researching something many, if any, design educators cover psychological safety. When researching folks, it's an important one. This is a great conversation. Let's jump straight into it. Rene Albrecht Malinger Am I saying that right?


S2: You, sir, I


S1: I got it right the second time. Listen, I'm delighted to welcome you to bring design closer. Maybe start off and tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.


S2: Absolutely. I am a lead design researcher at Greater Good Studio, which means that I help to manage teams and learn from people who are at the center of the problems that groups are trying to solve in a greater good. All of the problems that we are trying to solve are related to social impact,


S1: nice and for the eagle eared and eagle eyed, should I say, listeners of bringing design closer and this is how city you might connect. Greater good studio. We spoke recently to Georgie and Rene works alongside George Greater Good Studio, so I'm delighted to to sort of continue the the theme of Chicago Design Research. Create a good studio in Georgia into the podcast. So how long have you worked in a greater good studio?


S2: I started there last summer, so a little bit over a year ago


S1: and before that, and I guess the the topic that we're going to be speaking about today is intersectionality. On your previous career as a teacher and where you taught middle school and high school and how that kind of intersects with your role as a design researcher or design research lead as a greater good studio? So tell us, what was it about teaching that got you into teaching in the first place?


S2: So I and I absolutely never intended it to become a teacher. I went to college fully intending to become something like a lawyer, but collective


S1: comments from the audience. I know, I know.


S2: The issue is that I love reading, which made the law seem like a great career. Yeah, but at the end of my time in college, I got, I don't know, like drafted into teaching a music theory course and just loved it, like, really enjoyed it felt like I was really good at it. So at the very last minute, pivoted found an alternative certification program and went to teach middle school and high school math in Chicago.


S1: Right. Okay, so you're teaching math. So I know I added an ass at the end of the word maths, which is probably going to be contentious for some of the audience. How do we handle this on math and math? So I'll say that if you say math, so you did that for a number of years, you were talking there around middle school. So what's middle school to everyone else outside of America? What, what ages of those?


S2: So it's usually like 11 to 14. So that's in the US sixth through eighth grade and then high school is usually around 14 through 18. So okay, so 12th grade,


S1: a huge developmental leap from an 11 year old to an 18 year old, a probably probably as many shifts as you'd see in a child or a human's life for 11 to 18 year. They're going through so much and you have. How many years did you work as a teacher, as a sort of a middle school and high school teacher?


S2: So is an education for eight years? Wow. For the first five years was full time classroom teaching for the last. Three years, I had a couple of classes as a sort of a stay in clinical practice, but worked as an instructional coach so like helping other teachers to improve their practice.


S1: Oh okay, I'm starting to see a development here in terms of where you've where you're currently at now. Yeah. What do you think are the key attributes of a good teacher and how does that interrelate with a good design researcher?


S2: So I think there's a ton of overlap. And I always say that honestly, being in a classroom is the closest thing that I've ever come to doing, like the the way that human centred design is supposed to happen. It's iterative. You're getting constant feedback, you're creating sensory. Is everything right? Mm-Hmm. But I think a good teacher has got to be a good listener. They've got to be compassionate. They have to take a holistic approach to understanding the people that are in their care. And it involves a lot of creativity, which I think is something that we advance as as really, really important in design, thinking, creativity, innovation, being able to work within constraints and a good teacher can do that.


S1: I'm going to zoom in on one of those key words, as you just mentioned there, and it's care. And from speaking to a lot of teachers in my life, just from connectome, the all teachers that I had as well, the best teachers I had in my life were the ones I cared. And they they went and you felt supported and nurtured and relatively safe in their presence. I think care in terms of design, research and human centered design is something that comes from a place of compassion. And I'm really interested to see you use those two words interchangeably almost there and being an effective teacher and an effective researcher. What other things do you think? There's the teaching discipline or the design research discipline can pull from it to the teaching disciplines.


S2: I think there's so much I I think so when I was learning in my teacher training. We did a lot of work around qualitative research because that was the program that I was in. And I can absolutely cite tons of examples of like a direct application between the two. Mm-Hmm. But I actually don't think that that's the skill that I use most frequently from my education background into my design research background. I think as as a teacher, I was one of the things that you learn is sort of this constructivist mindset that like knowledge has to be made in the mind of the person who is learning, right? And you develop an appreciation of the amount of work that it takes to be a student and you learn to build environments and activities and rituals that support the amount of work that it takes for someone to engage in a vulnerable way with you. And as a researcher, you're frequently interfacing with people who are participating in research or, you know, informants, participants, whatever you want to call them, that you're asking to step into a pretty vulnerable space and construct knowledge with you. So you are you're both sharing a moment in which they have to expose themselves and you have to be open to taking in what you're creating and you are designing that experience.


S1: Absolutely. It's almost like you have to be able to tap into the different frequencies that these people are us to become a lot more effective as a as a listener and someone who's compassionate to be able to understand and just try and interpret at a very basic level what's going on? One thing that I'm interested to hear your thoughts on is when you're training to become a teacher, is there a sort of a duty of care or a process there that that sort of teachers, they're there to want to, or that the emerging teacher to handle complex situations? So working with children who are vulnerable and identifying these different things you need to be aware of as a teacher, is that something that is taught or is that something that's just inherently learned to the Sixth Sense to be able to come aware that something might be off?


S2: I think you start out with ideally you start out with some learned knowledge. You that you take and I assume this is required for everybody. But I had to take, you know, adolescent developmental psychology courses to understand how young people's minds were developing and working. And you do some study and work around, you know, the sorts of things that that kids are going through and how to recognize signs of distress and how to respond. Mm-Hmm. Sometimes that can be framed around things like behavior and sometimes that can be framed around things like academics. But I think a lot of it, you know, you learn these things in a classroom and then you go into your own classroom and you're confronted with the reality of the situation, and it never looks like it does in a textbook. Yeah, I think for me, I mean, I eight years is a lot longer than a lot of people stay in classrooms in the United States, and I barely scratched the surface of my own education. You know, like a good teacher. I learned so much from my students by being in those situations with them. And you know, there's they they were the ones who were instructing me really more than my professors were,


S1: which is a shift, I guess, you know, from what the way I was kind of educated. There was a lot of kind of king and serve and kind of models going on were like, I'm the knowledge maker you. Hopefully you can have the attention to listen and absorb this, this wonderful goal that's dripping from my tongue. And it definitely felt like that for for some teachers. But the ones that were really kind of on us and got us understood when some students were having an off day and you know, some days some kids were really receptive and ready to mix up their their style of play. And I know the more modern and the front forwards. I'm thinking teachers are the ones that when I see walking around, I'm like, Hey, how's it going? Like, you know, they're almost like long lost friends. And it's a different style. I think that's, you know, from being a practitioner, you're able to respond to the room and be able to adapt your your style to kind of meet people where they're at. That's one of the things that I'm hearing from you as well here. When you're when you're talking about those things in terms of the the skills of being able to adapt as a teacher. Okay. So when you're in an a classroom with kids who are 11, how have you carried those kind of learnings into the practice of running sessions and running workshops? Whatever it is, you might, might be doing on a day to day basis, a greater good studio planning?


S2: Honestly, I think you mentioned like 11 and I, so I taught every grade six. Yeah, so I taught. I taught 11 through 18, and sometimes I taught students who were 11 when they were 11, and then I taught them again when they were 18, and I had, at the same time their siblings when they were 15. So I was thinking particularly about that age group. And I think two things that come up first are the importance of clarity, high and and flexibility.


S1: Tell me what you mean by clarity.


S2: Yeah, so. Young young people in particular, especially when an adult is speaking to them, they're going to take what you say literally, you know, like coming in with like you have to say what you mean. You have to be gentle, you have to be kind and you have to say what you mean because they are going to take what you say at face verbatim. Yeah, exactly. And that can mean everything from giving students written instructions on a worksheet to asking them a question about something that they didn't understand or getting to the heart of a troubling interaction that you saw in the classroom. Like, you just have to be clear, straightforward and direct. And I find that that's very similar when you're planning a workshop or who you are interviewing somebody or you're participating in a co-design session. Just being clear is absolutely harder than it sounds. I know it's so critical,


S1: and it's also pretty good design principles. And I think there are some of the principles from content design and some of the stuff that Sarah Winters has created for them. I mean, that's really it's interesting to hear that the clarity as well. What was the second one you mentioned there a second ago? Flexibility, flexibility? Okay. So we were talking about, you know, adaptability and flexibility. Tell me what what you understand that to mean in the context of of teaching.


S2: I mean, it means everything like everything from, you know, I I I'm from Chicago. I taught in Chicago. Everything from there were there was a ton of snow. And in your first period class, you have two of your, you know, normally thirty five students, you had a plan, you got to take that plane out the window because that's not going to work. You're still responsible for creating a positive experience for those two people. Yeah, but your original 35 person plan, that's not going to work or there is a fire alarm or somebody threw a sandwich across the room, you know, like, so there's that kind of flexibility where it's like something unplanned that was outside of anyone's control happened and that can happen in a in a research session as well. Right, especially now in a pandemic world, right, someone's internet connection drops, someone's child starts throwing a fit, and now they have to go take care of their kid. We got to reschedule. All the technology fails. But then there's also, you know, I had this beautiful lesson plan worked out. I was so excited and proud of it and was going to really engage my students and they were going to just fall in love with math today. And they didn't. That happened more often than my intention, right? So being able to adapt as a researcher to the needs of the situation and not being attached to my plan, which is heart


S1: and the resilience to come back up and when you're knocked down and go go again and I can I can see a lot of similarities and a lot of crossover. But in terms of the work that you do, a greater good studio, the research, because you're primarily working in the social space and core mental space as well. Some of those attributes you talk about being flexible and being clear and direct. I can see straight away working with social issues and governmental clients. They would appreciate that stuff. But in terms of the actual going down into the craft of doing design research and conducting sort of say, evaluated over a generative type, you know, research that you're doing on a on an ongoing basis, what are the attributes and lesser in the skills, but more the attributes that you carry forward into those sessions? And the bit that I'm talking kind of hoping to get into a little bit more is the compassionate side of things. What are your thoughts?


S2: I mean, I think in in any space, whether it's social impact or not, the as a design research and this is my personal philosophy. Not everybody can subscribe to it. But as a design researcher and as somebody who's practicing Human-Centered design, I've signed up to be the advocate for the stakeholders who aren't in the room. That's that's what my job is. That's why I go out and conduct any kind of research is, is to bring people who are not in the room into the conversation and to elevate the voices. The folks that for one reason or another, the people who are making decisions aren't accessing. And that is something that I think as a teacher, it's like it is your job to support them. It isn't about her. It isn't about metrics. It isn't about profit. It isn't about, you know, all of the things that I think are easy to get caught up in when you are presented with a roomful of students. I, like all the other stuff, falls away, right? Yeah. And if it doesn't, the students will sure let you know that you have other priorities, right? And so is a researcher like you just. You're responsible for maintaining that sense of care and that. Hmm. I don't know first things first mindset, yeah, that I think just gotten drilled into me day after day by being your training.


S1: Yeah, some of my friends were teachers. I know they're incredibly patient people and they'll be able to just repeat themselves and trying to find that position. As the student can understand, what I'm trying to get in the next level of thinking of is just more like a job. And this is more of a you're bringing the person along in the journey and you want to create a space that is safe for them to grow and nurture. I don't know how to articulate it into a question right at the moment. So I was speaking yesterday with Rachel Viscose, who I know has done some work with Greater Good Studio, and we spoke about the level of care that should, in theory, be carried into every research session, especially when you look through a trauma informed lens. OK. What I'm kind of interested to get your thoughts on is I could I can tell already from speaking with you that you're you're probably a very talented teacher. OK, you you speak about things that you know, I would have liked to have been taught maths from from you, for instance, because I know that you probably break things down into into easier ways to understand some complex situations. But going back to the care piece, I'm really interested to see what level of care you feel like good design researcher should possess and what are those things if you've got any sort of anecdotal stories, I'd love to hear them.


S2: Absolutely. I feel like every research session that I have been in is an anecdote about care, and it's, you know, even even outside of social sector like really and truly what I what I'm doing, what I've created the environment to do. I, when I'm facilitating sessions is I've created an environment where people can tell me about the best and worst things related to the topic we're talking about. And you know, in my in my past research life that might have been related to finance, you know, and in my current life, that might be related to health or education, but they're still talking about the best and worst. And that means a few things, right? That means that, like you said, I'm I'm creating safety so that people can share the things that represent those highs and lows and so that they can communicate with me about these. I don't know what they are like. That's why I showed up. And I'm frequently putting people in a position where they have to speak with confidence and the knowledge that they are expert in something that I am showing up naive about. If I already knew, I wouldn't be asking you, right? So they have to be teaching me. And that's an enormous amount of responsibility to put somebody in a project that I was working on fairly recently. Was this actually a really hard project? And we were working to develop communication tools for cancer diagnosis and the cancers that we were working on specifically were typically found late stage. And as a design researcher, you do primary research, you talk to people who are in those situations. So we conducted research sessions and asked people to talk to us about being diagnosed with late stage cancer. Mm-Hmm. And we talked to their caregivers and family members, and they told us about what that was like. And those conversations were absolutely incredible and challenging, and it required us as researchers to to have a sense of, I feel like our duty of care. There was was not simply to care about the person or to care about the data or to care about the project. A lot of times when we're writing these discussion guides, protocols, facilitation guides, whatever you want to call them, it's like me and I want to. I want this person to leave this session feeling really good and excited about the project. Well, that's not an appropriate role. There's not there's absolutely not an appropriate role for the conversation that I just had where somebody talk me through. Yeah, potentially one of the worst experiences that. Many of us will ever face. Right. What I have to do is I have to set a different goal. I have to look at what my commitment is to this person and to the story that they told me. And I have to communicate that commitment to them so that this engagement was meaningful to that person that I'm talking to and so that they feel that their action that they've shared with me that what they've taught me is meaningful and will make a difference. And I actually have to deliver on it because that's the other part of the duty of care, right? Hmm. It's not just about creating somebody's perception. That's important, right? I can't just go and make a difference and leave everybody that I talk to or work with, like feeling crummy in the wake of our conversation, feeling hurt, feeling wounded, feeling used. Because that's not it either. Like both sides of that matter, how they feel throughout the process, their understanding of what it is we're doing, they're there the way that we're connecting throughout it. All of that matters. And then I have to go and take that and deliver and be that person in the room who's communicating and creating and.


S1: And. Absolutely.


S2: Yeah.


S1: And those kind of conversations that you're having there, which are requiring people to be vulnerable and open. They they take they can take their toll on the design researcher as well or the researcher or whoever you want to call them. You know, the skills that you learned was training to be a teacher. It sounds like there's some foundational things that exist within that world that don't exist in design education world. So I'm seeing a crossover here in terms of like you would be better supported from your grounding in teaching than you would if you'd have been elevated through design research where you might've learned how to more focus on prototyping radiation, whatever it is that happens in design school these days. But they don't have the psychological or the, you know, the foundations that you had was training to become a teacher. Am I right in saying that? Is that something that you you lean on a little bit more? You know, being aware of those situations when you're teaching and then that cross over when you're more aware as a design researcher, does that set you up for success?


S2: I absolutely think so. I mean, I so I got to see both sides of the coin like I did go to design school and I got all the cases in prototyping and all of that, but we didn't spend a ton of time talking about, I know the sort of capacities that you have to build in yourself as a design researcher. It's really scary. Has it? Is it is. Yeah. And you don't know what type of conversations you're getting into. I brought up, like I've done work in finance before, right? You expect those conversations to be very dry. Sometimes they're not. I know I was. I remember specifically a conversation with someone where we were talking about like benefits selection, voluntary benefit selection for independent contractors, very narrow focus. And it was generally those conversations where what you would expect and one conversation that I got into with somebody ended just those very like deep interrogation of I'm worried about my financial health and I'm dependent upon my partner. And it makes me feel like I'm not living in line with my values. Mm hmm. And so you can't just say, Well, this is this is something that only social sector designers have to worry. Yeah. Oh, design researchers have to worry about that.


S1: Absolutely. For the finance sector, a lot of the research that I've done in that space money is about control and power and structures like that. So I've had people become quite obsessed in research sessions while conducting research in that space. So you're right, but I guess looking at you as a whole and you as as you've got two or three different degrees or experience in those in those spaces, if you were to redesign or design a course that was fundamental to design research. OK, so it was focus on design research. What would the what would you take from both worlds? And I build a super course. What would that look like?


S2: I think pedagogy is critical. And so pedagogy being the the, you know, art or science of how you teach people and how they learn. Yeah, I would let designers. Yeah, for designers, because you are I mean, communicating with participants, communicate with your team, communicate clients, it's absolutely critical. Huge. I also think that an understanding of psychology is I draw on that a lot. Yeah, and I have throughout my practice, I you also referenced this idea of the effect of research on the researcher and the way that, yeah, the impact I, you know, I feel like researchers ought to be in therapy like this. There's there's there's if you're not aware of those impacts and if if you're not prepared to be aware of those impacts, which is something I think our educations can help us to do. Mm-Hmm. Then you are likely to walk into a research session and you're more likely to do harm. Absolutely. Because you're not you're not aware of everything that's going on inside you. You can't be fully present for the person that you've asked to show up for you. Yeah. So I feel like all of those things, there are a lot of things that the practice of teaching will do for you, like if anything's going to teach you to not be attached to your work, it is the critique. You have 30 35 hungry 14 year olds. Yeah, they will. They will short attention spans. You go, Oh my god, yeah, they do not care. You know where they're like, Oh, this critique isn't personal. It's about your work. 14 year olds. That critique, it's personal.


S1: Yeah, they go for you.


S2: Yeah. But that I feel like maybe slightly lower in priority than those things. Yeah.


S1: Well, look, there's lots we can speak about and continue to speak about, but we're coming towards the end of the episode. Renee, it's been it's been fantastic speaking with you and learning more around, as you said, the intersectionality between teaching and design research. I've really enjoyed speaking you. But if people want to reach out and connect with you and what's the best way for people to do that?


S2: Yeah, best way to do that is I probably Twitter or email her email. I'm Renee or are at Greater Good Studio dot com


S1: and you're on LinkedIn as well.


S2: I'm on LinkedIn. Renee Albrecht Boulanger. I'm the only one


S1: I sold that when I googled you earlier on.


S2: Yes. My name is SEO prove you will find like the other four members of my immediate family, that that's all very well.


S1: Look, I'll throw a link to those in the show notes. Renee, thank you so much for your time. It's great speaking with you.


S2: Wonderful to speak to you. Thank you so much, Gerri.


S1: So there you have it. That's all for this episode of Bringing Design Closer. If you like this episode, feel free to visit. This is telecom where you can access our back catalog of over 100 episodes, with episodes related to service design, product management, design, research, and much, much more. If you're interested in design and innovation training, feel free to check out our business. This is doing dotcom, where you can join online classrooms and learn from the world's best design and innovation leaders. Join that! This is eight city newsletter where you receive updates from the network. And also, if you're interested, apply to join the Slack community. And this is Stay safe and until next time, take care.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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