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….

3 Pillars of Design Thinking (and a Motown Song)

You guys remember the Tams, right?  You know…THE Tams…the matching suit-wearing, beach music sounding, motown group.  They are also from the the greatest city in America – Atlanta, GA (coincidentally my hometown).  You might remember this song as one of their biggest hits:

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy  –  How in the world does this relate to design thinking?  Well, in my feeble mind those three phrases are a very concise and easy way to remember (or explain) a few of the major themes of design thinking.

Be Young :: Think like a child

Think creatively – The “kids say the craziest things” kind of creative.  Design Thinking usually promotes attacking a problem by first discovering the real roots of the problem.  To do this, design guru Bruce Mau suggests asking “stupid questions.”  This goes back to comments in my first post about the disadvantage that experts have when it comes to being innovative.  Experts tend to work within a set of assumptions that result from their years of experience.  I’m not discounting the value of experience or expertise, but innovation requires taking certain leaps of faith.  Outsiders (non-experts) tend to ask “stupid questions” that can challenge assumptions in a way that can glean new truths.  I found one article that called this “creating a disruptive hypothesis.”  In short, designers approach problems like children – by asking “WHY?”  Anyone with young children knows that kids tend to ask “why” A LOT…in succession….to exhaustion.  This is exactly the process that design firm IDEO goes through.  The 5 Whys Technique is a process of proposing a problem and asking 5 successive why questions that challenges assumptions and hopefully redefines and focuses the original proposition.  So, be young, think like a child, and uncover the root of the issue.

Be Foolish ::  Stupid, Crazy, Wild Ideas

Similar to Being Young, Being Foolish has to do with taking a chance – putting yourself out there – not being afraid to ask “stupid questions.”  Have you ever been in a meeting or classroom and withheld an idea because you were scared others wouldn’t get it?  I’ve been there lots of times.  Well, being foolish is the exact opposite.  Most Design Thinking models include some sort of brainstorming or ideating phase.  In this scenario, any off the wall idea is fair game and is in fact encouraged.  This is not unlike the guy at the bar who asks out every girl he sees under the assumption that eventually one will say yes.  Eventually one idea will be the one that sparks a truly innovative project.  I must stop at this point because I’m reminded of one of my favorite TED talks from TEDxAtlanta.  Armin Vit makes the case for being foolish and thinking stupid far better than I can.  He says: “One is considered stupid until proven creative.”  Watch this one – it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Be Happy :: Empathize to find purpose

If you read my previous post (Attempting to) Define Design Thinking, you might remember that I settled on a definition that had to do with looking at problems from different perspectives in order to affect positive change.  What I was getting at, specifically, was to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.  Preferably through the eyes of the person(s) whom you are attempting to positively effect.  In a word – Empathize.  Admittedly, empathy in and of itself can be depressing.  But designers use empathy as the primary source of inspiration, and solving a problem for a group you empathize with can be immensely rewarding.  The end result can be far reaching like the work that Architecture for Humanity does.  In short someone brave enough to ask the question: “Why does temporary housing for people displaced by natural disaster (like Katrina) have to be tin can trailers?  These people deserve to live in a proper house with dignity.”  So, Architecture for Humanity designed and built small cottages that looked like proper, cozy homes and cost even less than the infamous FEMA trailer.  Brilliant.   Empathy can also uncover solutions to problems that the majority of people didn’t even know they had.  The founder of OXO kitchen utensils began his company after observing his arthritic wife having difficulty using a skinny, all metal vegetable peeler.  He designed a utensil with a large soft handle with “fins” integrated for better grip.  The result was a product that nearly everyone appreciated – not just arthritic grandmothers.  Until OXO came along no one even considered that a lowly kitchen utensil could or even should be improved.  The point is: finding solutions for someone other than oneself can be extremely rewarding whether it impacts one person or a million.

Be Young :: Be Foolish :: Be Happy is an easy way I’ve found to be mindful of some of the major tenants of the Design Thinking process.  Design Thinking is a process, however, and more steps are needed than these three.  I’ll perhaps devote a future post to the similarities and differences between some of the Design Thinking for Education models I’ve come across.  If you can’t stand to wait, check out these great resources:

d. School Bootcamp Bootleg

Design Thinking in the Middle School Classroom

IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit