Backwards Design for Post Secondary Experiences

There is definitely tension between teachers who lean more toward the “habits of mind” side of the spectrum, those on the discrete learning outcome side of the spectrum, and those who are somewhere in between. I struggle with the balance as well. I feel pretty confident that the mindsets are what students most need to know (embody?), but I feel pressure to not pass on science students to another teacher who might expect certain discipline specific prerequisites.


In the end, the pressure to add learning outcomes stems from what feels like an academic arms race. At some point, which I think is soon, the addition of more standards/APs/tests becomes unsustainable. Innovation is part analytical thinking and part intuition. The analytics may say APs and test scores make for a collegiate “minimum viable product”, but intuition and experience tell me that these figure little into the overall success and happiness of a person.


I wonder what it would look like if our focus was not only to prepare students for post secondary acceptance, but really pushed to guide students toward the best possible post secondary experience. In UbD fashion, if we want the best and most personalized post secondary experience for students, than we should start with an imagined student future beyond college. I guess my point is – there is a broader definition for “college ready” than just checking boxes next to learning outcomes and test scores.


My hypothesis is that the university does not make a person. Rather, those who have the foresight, and sometimes bravery, to seek out the absolute best fit post secondary experience will be more successful (how ever they define it), and more importantly happier and self fulfilled.


So, here are some hopefully disruptive HM-dubs.

How Might We….
  • weave career exploration into core classes?
  • prep students for alternative post secondary experiences like tech schools, trade schools, culinary schools, 30 weeks, or Singularity University?
  • repurpose books like “what color is your parachute”  for academic way-finding in addition to career considerations?
  • get students involved in career and technical student organizations (CTSOs)?
  • loop parents into the conversation of a more personalized education and career path for their child?
  • make an optional track – outside of “school” – for consultation, networking, and building of entrepreneurial spirit)

A Disruptive Mission Statement

Nearly all schools in the U.S. seek to prepare students for college and many included this idea into their mission statement.  It is no secret, however, that the education system in the U.S. is not keeping up with many other parts of the world, so could it be that we are mission aligned to the wrong thing?  As an example, many European school systems “track” students in a career pathway in high school years.  Many states in the U.S. have followed suit with career and technical education programs.  Yet, somehow the attainment of a university diploma seems to be the driving force in education in the U.S.

I’m not proposing that college (and I’m talking 4 yr university here) is bad, but I wonder if the focus on college prep is too short sighted.  I REALLY want to read a school mission statement that might be: We seek to prepare students for life, where they can balance their work with their passions and be constantly in search of new learning and opportunities.  Ok – that might be a bit of a hyperbole, but I would love to see a real disrupter in this realm.

Following my own line of thinking, what would it mean if teachers sought to prepare students for the life that will be outside of academics?  I know that it was not until later in my life (in my 30’s) before I found my passion for teaching.  This was only because I discovered the field of Technology Education; a field that overlaps with my personal interest in engineering, design, “making”, etc.  What if I was made aware of this path earlier?  Would it have made me a better teacher?  It is hard to say because my previous careers as well as my university experience have certainly shaped who I am today and that comes through in the classroom.  Still, I think there is some substance behind preparing students for a fulfilling life outside of school.  Design Thinking and Technology Education are not a panacea, but they do offer interesting approaches to teaching skills that, in my opinion, are areas of need like altruism, technical literacy, pseudo-science identification, creativity, adaptability, and passion finding.  My hypothesis is that if we could foster these skills to students early on, then they would also translate to a successful college experience.

What would be your disruptive mission statement?


It’s a fixin to come one

Translation: things are changing or there is a storm headed this way.  I love this phrase! I learned from some relatives, but I’m still unsure if I am using it right.

It is fixin to come one on this blog.  I’ve been ridiculously absent for quite some time.  Let’s just say that teaching, coaching, renovating a new house, and other school related passion projects have taken priority over my blog this year.  With summer approaching I’m trying to get myself back on the horse.  I will be posting more often, however you may notice a different feel to the posts.  I will still use this as a sounding board for design thinking and technology education in K-12, but you may notice a tone that is more akin to a journal than a clearinghouse of information.  

This largely reflects my current state of mind in regards to my teaching career.  I’m finishing up my 3rd year of teaching after a career change.  I was previously a process engineer and then small business owner/operator.  At this point I feel like I’ve graduated from the “Discovery” mode of my teaching career where I took heavy doses of empathy along the way.  So, following my schools DEEP design thinking methodology – Discover, Empathize, Experiment, and Produce – I seem to have found myself in the experiment phase.  I’m pondering questions like: How might we formalize design thinking into school curriculum?  How might we assess the “soft skills” associated with design thinking?  What are the similarities and differences between design thinking and engineering design which is often associated with Technology Education?  and lots more to come.

So here we go….my own experimental thought journal on issues surrounding design thinking and technology education.  I expect there will be lots of questions and few answers.  Yes, this is totally self serving exercise, but perhaps you share some of my same questions.  My hope is this new change in format will prompt some discussion and feedback.  I’m looking forward to the ride!

Interesting overview on design thinking. Also some valid critique in that design thinking is “undertheorised and understudied”. – via Mike Press. Mike’s post includes a fantastic list of related articles and links that can help understand the current landscape of design thinking.

A major hurdle for design thinking, particularly in education, is the question of how to assess these types of activities. Mike’s blog post popped up on my search for the work of Kay Stables & Richard Kimbell who indroduced some creative research and assessment ideas in their paper that can be found here: . (No…not THAT Richard Kimbell from the movie The Fugitive)

Mike’s post and the linked paper are worth a read, particularly if you are curious about the assessment research being done in the design thinking space.

Mike Press

My Masterclass on Design Thinking for EURIB in Rotterdam in November 2012 is an opportunity to pull together some recent literature on this issue and provide a perspective on a concept that has sparked some spirited debate. A fresh new variable? A useful myth? Or opportunistic hype? My conclusion is that it’s a sign of the times, and has been useful as a focus for some new practices and methods. But for it to work we still need designers. They are experts in the aesthetics and craft of design, but define the value of these in new ways. Socially critical, reflexive makers of change reconnect design with its soul.

Design Thinking is a fashionable term in both design and management circles, reflecting the rise of interest in methods and strategies that embed creativity and innovation within management across public and private sectors. However, it is a concept that must…

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Making Design Thinking Actionable (Part 1)

Design Thinking is necessarily vague…..applicable to products and procedures alike…vegetable peelers to your experience at the book store (Barnes and Noble was among the first to redesign store layout to the index of topics that we are used to today).  I get it.  But teachers tend to not like vague.  I need to have some way of anticipating where my students’ work is going to lead.  It’s the same frustrated feeling many of us have experienced after leaving a training seminar of one kind or another.  We tend to cheer enthusiastically “YES!”  then dejectedly wonder “but how?”.

Fortunately, I just finished Tim Hurson’s book “Think Better”.  It’s awesome. It lays out specific, actionable, exercises for design thinking which Hurson calls “productive thinking” (told you designers can’t agree on a definition).   Just to be different, I want to consider using Hurson’s methods in my classroom, but call it “Innovative Thought (I.T.)”.  Productive thinking sounds pretty corporate to me.  Understandably so since Hurson’s book is aimed at businesses and found in the afore-mentioned business section at Barnes and Noble.  Innovative Thought ties nicely with my school’s mission to incorporate innovation into 21st century teaching and learning as well.  So I want to get my thoughts on this book down, completely selfishly, to try to frame how Hurson’s process might look in a classroom.

Lets’ first agree that thinking is hard.  My students remind me of this every day.  Getting the answer (presumably from me, but also from and the like) is far easier than generating an original response.  I can’t say I blame them.  The outcomes look the same…the answer.  But design thinking is different because there is no answer….yet.  Design thinking is for the world’s wickedest problems.  If that’s a little dramatic for you, consider the hurdles/challenges you face every day at work.  Is there an answer that your boss checks you against, or are you expected to generate something plausible/workable/logical on your own accord?  Exactly.

As Hurson proposes, innovative thought is a series of iterations of divergent (creative) and convergent (analytical) thinking.  I like it; and consider it validated by Roger Martin’s work in general and this graph in particular.


Roger Martin – via Mutually Human blog


Design Thinking is hard work because of what it’s not…Reproductive thinking.  Six Sigma and TQM are business world examples of fine tuning or micro managing the details of a process to improve quality.  Is this a good thing for business?  Sure.  Is it an example of innovation?  No.  As Hurson says, this is an “illusion of innovation.”  The product or process improves, but nothing is done to ask the question “can we do this in an entirely new way?

Example:  DVD/VCR combo


Designed so that you can purchase and use any type video media available.


Netflix stream video so that you don’t need to buy physical media in the first place or go to brick and mortar store to rent one.

To start an innovative process you first need a problem…an issue…or as Hurson says an “itch” to tackle.  To do this with students, I imagine having them tap into their everyday experiences.  What annoys them?  List it…as many as possible.  This is divergent thinking and we should consciously try to free ourselves from any inhibitions and us our imaginations.  It can be hard to resist our analytical mind’s urge to mark an idea as “dumb” or “…will never work”.  Ignore it.  We will use convergent thinking to refine the list later.  I asked some seniors at our school what annoyed them and got these responses:

“I wish I had better access to a printer, like in the hallway on the way to class”

“I wish we had a better place to put our back backs during lunch”  (these pile up everywhere!)

“I wish freshmen would get out of the hallways”  (I presume this means the halls are too crowded?  Lockers should not be centralized?)

With a list generated, it’s time pick one that feels right.  Which “itches” are the team drawn too?  I like the third one about crowded hallways.  I want to know more about what is the root of this….the real problem.  This intuition is critical to the creative process (as suggested by Martin).  With an issue identified that pulls you toward it….piques your interest…you’re in business.  The ball is rolling.

DT Approach to an Inspiring Syllabus Challenge

I’m coming off a great first day of planning feeling inspired to innovate and push the envelope of what are best practices (or as I learned from my head of school today – successful practices.  After all, best practice implies there is no room to improve).  So I thought I’d go through a design thinking exercise that I’ve been meaning to try out.  About a month ago I came across a post by John Burke regarding his “Inspiring Syllabus Challenge”.  John presents a compelling reason we should reexamine syllabi in order to better “sell” our objectives to students.  Since this is planning week for me; seems an apt time to give this a shot.

In keeping with the spirit of my own blog I thought I’d add a design thinking element to syllabus challenge to see if I could validate it some how.  So, I set out to ask stupid questions and apply the 5 Whys technique to see if I could uncover some truth about about the information I’d like to convey in a syllabus.  At the same time I can put these techniques to the test.  Here we go:

Initial Design Question:  How might I redesign my syllabus in order to better “sell” students on the subject?

Why do I need to sell it?

Because it outlines what would be covered in the class.

Why do students need to know beforehand what will be covered in class?

So students know what to expect and whats expected of them.

Why do students need to know what is expected of them?

Because it sets expectations for behavior and helps teachers manage them.

Why do we require certain expectations for behavior?

So That we create an environment that maximizes learning.

Why does the syllabus help create an environment that maximizes student learning?

Mine doesn’t.

I’m not sure this worked perfectly – I probably could have stopped at the fourth question.  Also, I think for this technique to really work the questions need to be asked by an outsider.  Since I’m a teacher questioning my own policies, I may have some how channeled “what I want to hear” into the responses.  Ultimately, though, I’m pleased with the results.  I’m now looking at my syllabus as the first touch point for creating a learning environment that I think maximizes student learning.  So, what does that environment look like?  For my style its: active, inquiry based, participatory, organized, effective, fun.

Therefore, the new design question might be:  How might I recreate my syllabus into something active, inquiry based, participatory, organized, effective, and fun?

That’s a tall order, but one that could be fun to pursue. At least now I have a clearer picture of what I’m trying to achieve.

Now –  if only I had the guts to give it a try….

(Attempting to) Define Design Thinking

So here is the elephant in the room.  What is Design Thinking?  You might intuitively know that it’s not a thing but a process.  That’s a start.  Since Design Thinking is indeed a process – let’s attempt to define it in a systematic way.  So, the first question is:

What is Design?

::humphhhh::  I’m only just starting this post and already realize I bit off a big one here.  Design is everywhere.  LITERALLY, EVERYWHERE!  Some soul out there determined that the very keyboard I’m using at this moment should have the keys arranged as Q,W,E,R,T,Y, etc, etc.  (I bet that’s your password for something.  I jest.  Not really).  The epitome of innovative design – the iPod – plays next to me.  The armoire, sharpie pen, TV, colorful book jacket, lamp in my immediate vicinity were all thoughtfully designed by someone to serve a function, elicit an emotion, or just look pretty.  In short –STUFF is design.  In fact this is the predominately accepted definition.  Designers create things. Objects.  If you were to browse through the design section of Barnes and Noble – itself a product of design thinking (stay tuned) – you’ll find volumes of illustrations and photographs of objects that transcend function.  It’s the chairs and toasters that reside at the MET or MOMA not in your home.  Somewhere along the way designers seemed to feel dissatisfied with function alone.  Take the  Laz-e-Boy for example- great for napping, watching the game, rocking the baby, and anchoring grandpa –  is somehow not thought of in the same way as the crisp lines of a clear, acrylic, chair that is sure to leave your ass sore.

But design comes in a much more conceptual flavor as well.  Designers are influential in both the look and function of libraries, banks, museums, and a host of other services.  And, how do we classify the world’s oldest and most experienced designer – Mother Nature?  Humming birds’ hover and geckos’ sticky feet are amazing examples of function, but they are hardly stuff.  Interestingly, the highly useful adaptations in nature have given rise to another subject for another day – biomimicry.  The point is that design so consumes our world that it’s difficult to ascertain where it stops.  It’s easier to define what is designed than what isn’t.

What is thinking?

Well that’s a good one for Socrates or someone a whole lot smarter than me.  BUT, since I’m here I’ll just call it:  the way we organize and make sense of our experiences.  I’d guess that means I lean more toward the Piaget social constructivist approach to cognition.  :: I digress::   If I go with that definition, though, and we agree that we each have unique experiences unto ourselves, then perhaps we can conclude that thinking is more about perception than processing.  The way you think about Italy (art! Romance! Gladiators!) may be wholly different than the way I do (mmmmmmmm……Gelato).  But if I, as a designer, actively work to see the world through your perspective, then that is acting with empathy.  Empathy is a key theme that I’ve seen recur in various articles, books, blogs, etc. about design thinking.

Put it together and what d’ya got?

To conclude this exercise I’d be happy with a definition of Design Thinking as: A process of looking at the world from different perspectives in order to affect positive change.  I’m happy with that, but it’s a bit clinical.  I recently read a book by Warren Berger called Glimmer (released under other titles as well).  It is absolutely a must read if interested on this topic.  In the book, Berger dedicates a section to the defining of Design and the difficulty therein.  Lots of designers contributed their personal working definitions – many of which I like – but don’t necessarily translate to design thinking in a K12 classroom.  Regardless, design firm IA Collaborative produced a brilliant illustration that summarizes the varying degrees of design definition (say that 5 times fast):

(picture from IA Collaborative – downloaded from Glimmersite Blog)

Note the credit to  This is the companion site for the afore mentioned book full of LOTS of good stuff.  Check it out, think about it, and please comment on what your own working definition of design thinking would be.