We were recently invited to give the keynote at the Macquarie Primary School Teacher Inquiry Program (TIP) Nano Conference. TIP is a professional learning initiative designed to promote research-engaged approaches to school and system improvement. Professional passions are linked with areas of interest and need in the education community. A distinct focus of the program is praxis: the conscious connection of theory and practice for critical social action.

The Nano Conference is their annual sharing of each teachers investigation and the topic was ‘Intersections: Exploring Teacher Identity in the 21st Century’. Here’s what we said.


Hi everyone and thanks for having us here at our favourite primary school!

It’s a bit of a daunting challenge to stand up and reflect on teaching and teachers as ‘outsiders’ but we’ll give it a go. But bear in mind, we see this as a reflection – not as advice!

We came to our first Macquarie Nano Conference two years ago and were blown away by the topics and application of teachers to their research question so we are honoured to play a small part in it this year.

But firstly, for those who don’t know us – who we are and why we think we’re here!

DMA is a service design agency entering its 15th year of operation next year. Mel and I are the principles of the agency and its most senior service designers (we are its only service designers as we are a deliberately small agency).

As service designers our focus is the design of public services – at all three levels of government and with and for the community sector.

We have a 2+ year relationship with Macquarie, which kicked off when the school allowed us to undertake research about active travel. That work resulted in a whole range of changes that were implemented by the Health directorate and TAMS, including the part way is ok signs that are close to the school here.

As many of you know, that short research piece turned into a super successful and now internationally recognised project we undertook with the school, students and teachers called Design In Schools. We are just back from Madrid where the project won the prestigious Global Service Design award for Systemic Change in Education!

Along that journey, and through ongoing collaboration with Macquarie beyond Design In Schools, we’ve come to love the education domain and the role of teachers and schools within it.

And, as we start to reflect with you what a Teacher Identity for the 21st Century might look like, because this is Macquarie, we have to start by acknowledging what has and is being done.

As we look at topics we already see 21st century identities of teachers. We see a teaching group stretching the very premise of what education delivery looks like and how it is approached. We see topics like:

    • Do teachers waste too much time just chatting? The value of informal conversations.
    • Connecting to people and community through language exposure.
    • Maths and anarchy.
    • The critical emancipatory inquiry into language that reflects how to honour PLaY.

and we know you’re already into and leading the 21st century model of teaching.

So what we’re talking about is our reflections as designers, and how we think that might map to your world. What we aren’t talking about is pedagogy and methodology of teaching – because that’s your expertise.

We’ll reflect on the 21st century teacher identity in three ways:

    • Firstly – what are some of the attributes of a teacher in 21st Century that jump out at us
    • Secondly – looking at what we do as designers and the tools we use, what might some Design insights be that align with the teaching profession
    • And finally – What might these reflections mean – what are the opportunities


What is identity?

As service designers we think about systems, not just single products or services. So the definition of identity we are reflecting on has many layers.

    • We think identity is related to who you are as a professional (individual)
    • We think it is related to where you deliver (community)
    • We also think identity is related to the system you work in (industry)
    • And identity relates what you represent – humanist agenda, citizens as successful and critical learners, confident creative individuals, active and informed citizens, life-long love of learning (outcomes)

The reason that we think of these four layers is that identity is contextual. The identity you take to a network meeting of your peers from across Canberra might not be the same public identity that you carry in the classroom (though it would be driven by the same values).

This adaptive identity is critical because you are educators, but you are educators in a community, you are educators in a publicly funded system, are educators in a bureaucracy, and you are educators in the world. And none of those layers are better than the other, they are all part of the composite identity a teacher must define.

So what are some of the attributes that jump out at us from our experience and exposure in the education space that are important for a 21st century teacher?

    • We think a teacher is an organiser. We are constantly amazed at the moving parts that make up classroom, school and professional life. Without organisation, that means anarchy (though that may be a good thing in some cases). But as designers we work creatively and imaginatively within a strict process – organisation is key. And with the increased complexity of the world of the kids and families you work with, we think organising is a key attribute.
    • We think a teacher is a manager, and mean this in the most bureaucratic sense. It’s mundane, but certainty and trust is built by the smallest things – the notes going out, the notes being collected, the reports being written. Management of the ‘HR’ of education is a key attribute to building a consistency of relationship with families and peers.
    • We think a teacher is a facilitator and collaborator. Once the boring but necessary stuff above is taken care of, the seas open and facilitating activity, conversation, inquiry, foundational learning is key. This facilitation can be of people, resources or even more and more the social capital of the community.
    • We think a teacher is a nourisher. Our professional world is driven by empathy (not sympathy). We can work with complex social systems and undertake research and design with multiple communities and people because our starting point is understanding people, empathy with the service users. And we think that translates to teaching and, because of the sheer time spent with the class and the deep relationships formed, evolves to an attribute of nourisher. The boundaries of that nourishment (intellectual, emotional) must be clear – that’s why you are also a manager for the structure – but nourisher is essential.
    • And the final attribute (and we don’t really need to tell this audience this because it’s why you are here tonight) is to be an inquirer and learning activator. Teachers need to have a strong identity as inquirers themselves to bring that out in the children they work with. Bu inquiry is a position, learning activation is the doing. And this attribute (providing physical and mental spaces to activate learning opportunities) seems key, in our view, to 21st century teaching identity.

There’s probably no surprises in the list of words, and each of you probably have many more, but on top of these we would add, as the driving attribute and key to a teacher’s identity, education expert.

In a world where generalist is superseding specialist in many cases, we would urge that the driving identity of the teacher is to be expert at teaching and to be proud of it. And expert at connecting formal curriculum with student activity. But also, your own leadership, development and growth.

And we get that’s hard at times when you are being asked to ‘justify’ or define your approach on things as diverse as:

    • Inquiry-based learning
    • Lesson planning and individual learning
    • Flexible learning

Every day as designers we fight to have our expertise respected and we are lucky it is, we expect teachers to do the same. But expert doesn’t mean hiding behind methodology – it means being what we call process masters. being so good at what you do that the process disappears and the outcomes define the conversation.


What we’ve just talked about is our reflection on what we’ve seen in education, and we acknowledge that unlike most of you, we’ve only been dipping our toe in the water of education for a couple of years.

So we thought it might be interesting to reflect on something we do have deep knowledge of, our design tools, to see if they somehow map back to the teaching experience and identity.

When we take on a design question we think about the service to be designed, the system in operation, the users and the intent behind the service. To deconstruct these systems and allow space for our collaborators to undertake design thinking and service solution work we develop some key artefacts. These artefacts got us thinking about how they might relate to teacher identity.

    • One of our key design tools is to develop user typologies. these typologies, after undertaking deep research in the field to understand and document them, allow us make sense of large populations by segmenting them in relation to a service. So for example, in some recent work we’ve done on the home renewable energy space, we’ve been able to break down the types there into groups such as Controllers, Comforters, Valuers and Connectors. Each display their own beahviours and motivations in relation to how they use or want to use renewable energy in their home.

When we look at typologies and think about teachers, our reflection is clear. There is no one type of teacher and there is no one correct way to deliver a service (in this case the service of education). As much as we can define some attributes as we did earlier, it should be celebrated that there are multiple types of teachers. We’ve been to a couple of education conferences now and there are no shortage of competency and capability maps and models that teachers are exposed to or have expectation to align with. We would say understand that there are a range of types, but know and acknowledge what type you are so that the experience you generate is the best it can be.

    • Which brings us to our next key design tool, the Experience map. Experience maps allow us to visualise complex service systems in terms of current and preferred states. We use them to understand and define the touchpoints that make up a total service experience. We identify pain points in the current state and define potential opportunities and solutions in the preferred state. The map allows everyone in a team or organisation, including those receiving the service to understand the experience visually, with a shared language.

When we look at experience maps and reflect on the teacher identity we see the teacher as navigator, as creator of the preferred experience called ‘education’ – with teaching as one of many disciplines that may add to that experience or journey. The ability of a teacher to define current and future states of their teaching delivery and to be able to define the experience (for us that is what people think, do and use) may be a key attribute in the 21st century.

    • Another key design tool is the solutioning process – the creation of design solutions that answer the design question. This when we move from analysis of our research data to develop key design principles that underpin the user need (user meaning service recipient AND service deliverer) to synthesis and the use of prototyping and iteration to develop, refine and deliver potential solutions. The solutions must be based on the evidence created and it is often (in prototyping) the features and benefits the solutions represent that is more important than the solution itself – prototyping is about testing hypothesis, not crafting a perfect object.

For teachers, we see the tools of solution development as both actual techniques they can use and metaphors for their identity. Evidence based principles underpinning decision making and teaching approaches ensure the teacher identity moves beyond motherhood statements to practical implementation of outcome and the principles again touch on the teacher as expert teacher. But the prototyping emphasises that being an expert teacher does not imply that you have all of the answers. Iteration through discussion, openness to answers and thinking from others and having the ability to change quickly and at minimal cost because things haven’t been over-engineered too soon is a 21st century attribute we think fits.


So, we’ve talked about some attributes that jump out at us. Told you about some of our design techniques and how we see their use applying in developing the identity of a 21st century teacher, but what might this mean – what are the ‘identity opportunities’ from a designer’s perspective?
If teacher identity means:

    • Who you are as a professional.
    • Who you are as an industry, in a community.
    • What you represent

then the opportunities created by bringing these attributes to life might be (and let’s have four, because that’s how many we could think of). We present them in the first person as attributes of the 21st Century teacher typology:

    • My teaching identity is focused on leading student agency
      And I might do this by having a ‘teaching-led’ class that also uses co-design and collaboration as a way of organising itself and taking our class dynamic beyond message delivery to context-real learning and decision making.
    • My teaching identity recognises purposeful play as critical
      I deliberately set prototyping as one of the hallmarks of play in my class. Because my classes learn by doing. We try to uncover things that don’t exist and in play you don’t have to ‘succeed’ you have to participate. But it is purposeful, context rich and structured so that I can lead buy they can teach themselves how to learn by doing.
    • My teaching identity reflects a system understanding
      I strive to take my class, my peers and my education bureaucracy beyond linear learning to teaching based on the true nature of complex systems. I admit and reflect that no single issue sits on its own, whether it is a topic I am teaching or an interpersonal interaction I might have during my work, and I build my capacity beyond singular problem solving, into system understanding because systems are the way the world interacts.
    • My teaching identity utilises iteration as I deal with ambiguity
      I am an expert at teaching but I am not (and should not be expected to be) an expert on every topic. I deal with the ambiguity of breadth of knowledge by knowing who and what to bring in to supplement my teacing expertise and when I do I get quicker results because I inquire – analyse – prototype – repeat. I don’t script too much and encourage my students to “just say anything” because who know what that might trigger.

In conclusion, we’d say that we’ve spoken a lot about teacher identity. We hope it’s made sense! But at the heart of teaching is the student. And a quote – Notes on an Unhurried Journey by T Rapaldi – that came to us from Wendy and was part of our presentation at the ACEL conference earlier this year seems a pretty good place for us to finish up. Because in a primary school context, without the child, there is no need for teachers:

How much heartache we would save ourselves if we would recognize the child as a partner with adults in the process of living, rather than always viewing him as an apprentice. How much we would teach each other… adults with the experience and children with the freshness. How full both our lives could be….A little child may not lead us, but at least we ought to discuss the trip with him; for, after all, life is his and her journey too.


16 November 2017