Design. Think. Play. Experience. Understand

This is probably September 1997. It is my sister's first day of kindergarten and my first day of second grade.

This is probably September 1997. It is my sister’s first day of kindergarten and my first day of second grade.

Today we learned about design thinking at KSI from Suzette Duncan. I was unsure what “design thinking” was, and even after being inspired by the readings and videos, I still had questions. The most obvious applicability seemed to be when addressing bigger institutional or community issues, what role could it have in my history class? We were asked to think about the first day of school, and a challenge posed by this awkward and exciting day.

First, we conducted informal ethnographic research asking people around the Lawrenceville campus about their first day of school memories and stories. I was humbled and surprised by how people opened up when you asked them about their stories, and the quick establishment of trust. The development of empathy and the “human factor” was critical to give a sense of purpose to our work.

We then went into defining a point of view of someone we wished to serve. This was creating a user of whatever problematic resource we were addressing. In this case someone who has a direct relationship with the first day of school, a student, a teacher, a staff-member, or a parent. Then we discussed their potential point of view regarding the first day of school, and what they would need based on our insights from the interviews.

We focused on the fictitious “Charlotte”, a student returning to her school to enter the 7th grade. Charlotte recreated herself over the summer, both on purpose and as she physically matured. She was excited to reconnect with her friends from last year and recreate her image.

We then came up with a “how might we….” statement as a group. The end result was “How might we help Charlotte feel at home on the first day and reintroduce herself to her community. We talked a lot about the idea of reinvention and rebirth on the first day of school, the feeling of being lost (whether in reality, or psychologically) and overwhelmed by not having a “place”. Also, about how easy it is to notice physical changes, more than identity changes and how we wanted to help Charlotte recognize her intrinsic worth more than her physical adjustments  All of these “big ideas” came directly from the 6 interviews we did around campus.

Then we entered the “Ideate” phase, where we began to pose solutions for Charlotte’s need to reintroduce herself in a safe place to talk about herself. We were putting sticky notes on a tarp where we had written our “How might we…” statement. It was easy to first critique or be pessimistic about why a suggestion might not work when someone would suggest an idea, then we employed the directive “don’t yuck on my yum”, and realized the purpose of this was to truly, freely brainstorm in a non-judgmental place. This allowed for creativity and collaboration I have never had before.

We centered on the image of a refrigerator door being a place where a family’s identity is represented. We then decided to design a classroom space for students to build together on the first day of school. A giant poster of a refrigerator would become a mosaic of images of students from when they were younger, more recent images, mantras of the class etc. We also utilized the Harkness style table in our imagined classroom to recreate the idea of a kitchen table. We put a table cloth on it and talked about how stressful the normal lunchroom experience could be on the first day of school when everyone decides where to sit. Complete with a tablecloth image, or classroom table became a place for discussion and laughter in our imaginations. We also discussed the idea of having two bowls on the table where students could anonymously write down what they were anxious about for the year and what they were excited for in the year. The teacher could read these notes and lead a discussion after a communal lunch.

Next, came the physical play time. We had been doing a mental playtime with our imaginations, and now it was time to build a prototype. I have to admit, I did not think the prototype would be a useful component of the process, we were building an idea/experience, not an actual functioning object (as Liz Perry helpfully articulated in the reflection session). However, it was FUN! it was JOYFUL! It was COLLABORATIVE! Isn’t that the experience we want to design for our students?

Our Class Refridgerator

Nervous/Excitement Fishbowls

photo 3

Bird’s-eye View (Charlotte has the excellent rope hair)

Our Classroom

Then, we paired up with another group to “test” our prototype and get feedback. They noticed the homelike atmosphere and thought we were in a kitchen. We took that as a success, as that is the feeling we were shooting for in this classroom. The feeed back session brought new questions to my mind: to what extent would every student have a “mirror” of themselves in this “home”? Hopefully everyone on the refrigerator. I also wondered about the use of the fridge, could everyone relate to it? I think so? Either way the conversation about our solution was interesting and driven by the prototype.

How could I use this in my history classroom? How could I bring genuine joy and curiosity to my assignments? The most natural fit for a bigger project of this nature might be my Research Methods class. It is a semester long course where students are taught basic research skills, complete a National History Day project of their choice (see my student’s website who earned first place for the state of NH here). We also try to get “out of the Western World” with a study of Belgian’s conquest of the Congo, Apartheid South Africa and a unit called “Modern Africa” where we look at the typical perceptions westerners have of Africa, why these perceptions developed and why enormous amounts of aid have seemed to be ineffective.  Through these three content-driven units, students practice the skills of finding sources, analyzing sources, annotating sources and writing with sources.

What would I take away from my current curriculum? How could I shape the current curriculum to drive this type of “action research”? I heard from a friend who works at the Miss Porter’s School on the way down here about their Research Method’s class (led by the statistics teacher) doing research on a school issue, proposing a solution and presenting to their school’s adult leadership. My friend spoke of how the girls were empowered, and learned how to be leaders in their junior year before they took on leadership positions where they would “enact” their plan. I looked it up, and the teacher, Jessica Watkin presented at the National Coalition for Girls Schools check out her presentation here.  I wonder if I could do something like that?

I also thought about doing something with the local community. I have long wanted to integrate local history into my curriculum, but have struggled to make room for it. (How cool would it be to study why people moved and settled near the river in our town (which also runs parallel to the highway) and investigate this abandoned mill and village that is now a swimming hole five minutes from our school? and have them find the place this photo was taken? I digress- but this is an awesome grad school experience I had that I want to replicate). I also wonder how “interesting” a local historical study would be to boarding school students who largely do not come from the area? I think it could provide some nice connections between our school and the community, but how do I frame a “challenge” like the first day of school that they could all relate to? MPS has answered that question by having students research their own school. Another challenge is a core component of the course has been trying to get them out of their largely Western mindset. Something I could change, but I think is important, could I do both? Do I just do a mini-unit on a local topic to teach the skill? I love the idea of an action plan that they implement…but how do I do that efficiently and effectively? Would this have been less fun if I didn’t have engaged, curious peers? Would it be less fun if it was spread over a longer period of time?

I have lots of challenges to think about….but my goals remain to get them to a point of understanding through design, experience, thinking and of course, joyful play. 

I would so appreciate ideas/comments for how I could implement this design thinking into my class.




8 thoughts on “Design. Think. Play. Experience. Understand

  1. Kelsey, Glad you are using all the hours of your day. This blog looks really cool and is an inspiration to me as I think about my work and play for next year. I’m bookmarking this and will do my best to keep up with your thoughts this summer.

  2. Pingback: Design the Revolution! Step 1: Who is the User? Reflections on NAIS Conference | Teach Awake.

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