I was fortunate over the summer to do some contract work for a social entrepreneurship in New York City. The Future Project is a company that is attempting to change the lives of young people in a variety of ways, but most specifically, by inserting outside actors, called Dream Directors, into schools to maximize student abilities. At the time I joined the company, they had just revolutionized their Research and Development Department, and were beginning to train staff on these changes. I was lucky enough to be a part of this transition, and also used their process to develop some ideas for future projects within the organization. The lead designer, Anjali Balakrishna, was tasked with taking my teacher-brain, and retraining it to think using the Design Process. This wasn’t necessarily easy for me. I’m typically a person who jumps to solutions first, and has a difficult time removing my instincts and personal bias from my solutions. This new way of thinking, however, demanded a more careful and intentful approach at the outset, and Anjali guided me through the somewhat bumpy process, allowing me to create work that was much stronger than it could have been had I used my previous way of doing things.
I think one of the biggest difficulties I faced was due to the amount of time I have spent within the educational system, both as a student and teacher. For the most part, my experiences in education have been intensely personal, and it is rare that true collaboration or agency are offered. This unfortunately leads to some myopic approaches to my own learning and, I fear, the learning of my students.
After getting back into the classroom in September, I resolved to create a new version of my classroom, one that incorporated the ideals of Design Thinking, and made them available to my students. I began looking into ways to foster this in my classroom, and came across the Stanford Design School, or d.school. The website is replete with resources and walkthroughs, and I decided to take my students through the Gift Giving Challenge, as a way of introducing them to this new way of approaching tasks. Before I could show them this new way however, I had to break them out of their previous ways of thinking.
Students came into a classroom that was a virtual blank slate. I removed all posters, graphics, and color from the classroom environment. The only thing that stayed in the room were the desks. I informed the students that they would be populating the walls with a variety of infographics and tools, and that the classroom was not mine to decorate. Each class was given a task, some were asked to create physical and digital tools for the room, like a variety of seating charts to fit the needs of each day, or an abilities tracker for students to collaborate throughout the year. I gave a brief overview of what the requirements were, and then told them to get to work. I sat in the back of the room, taking notes, as abject chaos ensued.
Students attempted to take the lead, others fled into themselves, consensus could not be found, and students began protecting their first ideas with borderline obsessive zeal. Frustration mounted, and by the end of class, almost nothing had been accomplished.
After allowing the confusion to reach a peak, we discussed the things that had gone wrong. Students in general were fairly accurate in their descriptions of their failings, and I promised them that we would be learning a better way to approach the difficult problems I had presented them.
Before they could get settled the next class, I had printed out worksheets, and queued up the d.school Gift Giving Challenge video on the projector. I randomly placed the students in pairs, and began the session. The video runs itself, and I merely had to clarify directions and remind them of times as the students moved through the activity.
The video runs about 80 minutes, and goes through each step of the design process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Watching the video prior to implementing it was very helpful, and allowed me to better direct the students. It is designed to be fast-paced, and make the students uncomfortable, and it accomplished this.
When we were done, I had the students write reflections about what they learned, and we held a large in-class discussion around what we could take away from the experience.
For the next class, we went back over the original project that they were assigned, and we began using the language and techniques of the Design Process to accomplish the goals. Each class still struggled with the process, but there was a noticeable difference in the quality and depth of their ideas.
The application of this way of thinking may seem like a stretch in a Language Arts class. There are a couple of reasons that I would argue that it is actually vital.
My students are 9th graders, they have just entered a school environment that, for better or worse, will shape their lives tremendously over the coming four years. By giving them a better way to approach and solve problems, they stand a much better chance of finding success in the ever-changing economy that awaits them. From a content standpoint, my students will be asked to complete a variety of papers and projects over the course of the year. The approach we must take in writing especially, relies on the same approach utilized in Design Thinking. We gather evidence, develop a plan, execute the plan, and then present it to an audience. The process also lends itself to the reading of Literature. The role of the hero, and the hero’s journey, is very similar to the design process, and plots in general.
Design Thinking has changed the way I approach tasks, and made my creativity and work stronger. Instituting these ideas in your classroom is a great step in increasing both the quality of student work, as well as the collaborative and creative skills of you students. I’ll check back in soon with the results!