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One School’s Leap Into Design Thinking, Part III

In the two previous posts, I have outlined the process one school underwent to apply design thinking strategies to the improvement of the daily schedule.  Part I focused on the Discovery phase and our methods of collecting data from the teacher user group.  Still in the Discovery phase, Part II covered the collection of data from our student user group.  In this post, I will move into the Interpretation and Ideation phases of our DT journey.

Once data was collected from the two user groups of the daily schedule, it was brought to our Academic Council, a team composed of administrators and department chairs.  It fell to this group to interpret the data in order to determine the needs of the users.  To achieve this, we employed an Empathy Map.   This tool is effective in helping designers get from data to a more distilled design opportunity that can truly make a difference to users.  By exploring both the specific words students and teachers used to describe their thoughts on the schedule, and by making inferences or observations of their actions and feelings about the schedule, we were able to crystallize our work into a set of specific “How might we…?” questions that addressed the needs of the users.  The following are some of those questions.empathy map
How might we find more time for students to meet with teachers for help?
How might we incorporate academic club meetings (i.e. Science Olympiad, Math Team, Robotics) into the regular school day?
How might we allow more flexibility for students in lunch/recess?
How might we help students not feel rushed at certain points of the day?
How might we add more homeroom/advisory time?

empathy map

In the past, administrators would have analyzed the schedule themselves with the input of a handful of teachers.  The design thinking process helped to target the needs of the teachers and students specifically, thereby allowing the focus to remain on issues important to the learners and their learning.  If we had stopped the process here, I would have considered it a success for that reason.  However, the goals of this process included the incorporation of a larger group of problem solvers and designers.  Therefore, the HMW questions were taken back to the faculty for discussion and ideation.

The faculty brainstorming session was held with a group of approximately 40 teachers of all different subjects and ages within our division.  The group included those that were treated as users earlier in the process and Academic Council members that generated the questions.  We employed a Wagon Wheel protocol from the National School Reform Faculty to ensure the best possible mixing of ideas across the group.  Considering the numbers and the physical space and furniture our wagon wheel ended up being more of a conveyor belt, but the concept worked the same; short solution brainstorming sessions on one question with one colleague before shifting to another colleague to do the same with the next question.  The concept is akin to speed dating.  Once each question was tackled in this way, teachers were given the choice of which question they would like to work on further and grouped themselves into design teams.  Their goal was to come up with a prototype for a solution to the scheduling question they chose.  Prototypes and ideas were shared out with the full group and recorded by administrators.

It is important to note that throughout this process teachers understood that their solutions may not be used.  This can be a tricky part of designing in groups and a lesson that teachers would be wise to pass on to their students.  At the end of the day, the administrators will make the final schedule and the final product will have had a number of limitations applied to it, i.e. staffing, facilities, and finances.  Excellent ideas may have to be shelved because of these limitations.  Despite those possible disappointments, the inclusion of users in the process helps to create a culture of initiative, creativity, and self-advocacy that would surely benefit any organization.

– Time is an issue in a process such as this.  I felt that the process was stretched out over too many months, but design sessions themselves were too short.   It was difficult to incorporate student input due to time constraints, and I would like to see greater student involvement in general.
– Attitudes towards a process such as this also varied among all constituencies.  The first attempt at design thinking can seem forced or can fall flat because some may insist they do not have anything to contribute or perhaps think it is not their responsibility to solve such problems.  This can be exacerbated if the limitations set by administration, to which I alluded earlier, are too constrictive.  If there is a sense of pointlessness to the project, very little can be accomplished.  It is important, therefore, to begin to create a culture in which all problems are tackled this way.  Once participants see that their ideas are valued and employed, creativity and initiative will grow.


Schools Don’t Need to Be Creativity Killers

Though genetic attributes contribute to differences in intellectual capacity among individuals, all humans are born with the ability to engage in creative thought and action.  Whether or not individuals use and develop that ability, how they use it, and how well they use it all depend on what they have learned from their environment, parents, teachers, peers, and culture.  Through the observation of young children, it is plain to see that humans possess a natural curiosity and tendency towards creative problem-solving.  With or without encouragement from parents, children exhibit vivid imaginations and are frequently making connections between concepts in novel ways.  As children get older, they become more exposed to the attitudes and dispositions of their caregivers.  Adults who seek to foster creativity can positively influence a child’s exercise of creative capabilities.  Those whose attitudes tend to discourage creativity, because of individual prejudices, cultural traits, or institutional constraints, can stifle those same capabilities.  Most often, it seems to be the school setting which plays a significant role in developing or impeding creativity.  So, how can we make sure that we, as educators, are not contributing to the killing of our children’s creativity?

creativity, kids

set us free!

creativity, kids

set us free!

creativity, kids

set us free!


Creativity expert Robert Harris tells us that the successful use of creative abilities relies on the development of certain creative dispositions and attitudes.  These include:

  • Openness to change
  • Willingness to play with possibilities
  • Unwillingness to blindly accept the status quo
  • Relentless curiosity
  • Desire and motivation to work hard to improve the ways thing are

We need to examine our school learning environments to determine whether we are unknowingly erecting obstacles to the development of these attitudes.  If schools or educators demand conformity, sap confidence by creating a culture of fear of low test scores, or restrict student curiosity and experimentation with confining schedules and physical space, then they are taking from our children a key element of what it means to be human and slowly starving it death.  However, if teachers make a concerted effort to begin feeding their own creative selves, they can begin to create a school atmosphere that satiates the voracious creative appetite our students naturally bring to the table.  If teachers believe in their students’ capacity to create, they will.  If they are willing to make and admit to mistakes, their students will too.  If they tolerate and encourage different perspectives, answers, and questions, their students will take discussions places they have never been.  If they say “What if?” or “Why not?” instead of “That won’t work” or “Stop being silly”; if they reward great questions as much or more than right answers; if they ask open-ended questions rather than ‘googleable’ ones…if they do all of these things, their students will be free to exercise the creative talents they possess in ways that will amaze us all.

Wonderfully innovative ideas do not come as a bolt from out of the blue as popular culture would sometimes have us believe.  They require hard work, persistence, a willingness to take risks, and, perhaps most of all, an environment in which the creative attitude can survive and thrive.  Why would we intentionally create a learning institution without such an environment?  If we are truly concerned with preparing students for a life beyond school that demands creative thinkers, we had better begin to recognize the changes required in our schools and our teaching.

What if we weren’t the creativity killing school most of us went to as students?   Just imagine.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of our most influential thought leaders on education and creativity, on this very subject circa 2007.

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