Thirty days of making: conference, sash

I’m in Day 24 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor. (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).

Update: somehow I posted this as a draft, and then the day kinda ran away from me, and I didn’t get to post it in a timely way yesterday. So, with some further revisions and updates, here’s YESTERDAY’s 30 Days of Making post.

Reason for the Project

Design Thinking is a big part of my job. Today I ran a conference on Design Thinking for 34 people. In two weeks I’ll present to 20 so so, and the week after that to thirty or so senior school administrators. I’m a busy guy, I guess. So I ran a conference on it, to help let other teachers know what I know.  To my surprise, we had thirty-two people signed up, and we turned away another five or six for lack of space.  This is a good turnout for us for this sort of conference.

This is also the third time I’ve run this conference, so I think that one of the big takeaways for me is that I know how to run this conference and I know how to teach it. But let me back up, and explain a little bit about the process of Making a conference or workshop for adults.

process and result

Thirty days of making: a conference, a sash

I came in early to finish setting up the room.  My colleague D.B. from the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools joined me a little later in the morning; she was in charge of breakfast, lunch and intermediate refreshments. As usual, she did an awesome job, and gave me the opportunity to do mine more effectively.

As you can possibly see from the photo, there are large tables that only have four people at them; four seems to be about the right number for a Design Thinking conference for teachers.  There’s a pile of what are called “low-resolution prototyping materials” — in this case, construction paper, glue-sticks, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, colored pencils and other things — on every table. Every table is covered with a large swath of butcher paper to write on, and there’s a stack of Post-It Notes® and pencils and scissors on every table, too.

Guests started arriving around 8:30 for coffee and chat time, and we began on time at 9:00am.  I wanted to start at 8:50 — it often seems to me that in Design Thinking, early is on time, and on time is late.  But my boss and D.B. persuaded me to start at 9:00 on the dot, and so we did.  A few of our attendees were late getting there, but they caught up and caught on pretty quickly.

I began by saying that I didn’t think it was possible to explain what Design Thinking is.  I said thought that one of the great living experts on it in K-8 education was Kim Saxe, out at Nueva School — we don’t communicate much, or at all, but she’s my inspiration and guide, as much as can be expected… but that the nature of Design Thinking was, in my experience, a process of knowing How rather than knowing About.  Much of modern schooling is about learning about things and processes and methods. But Design Thinking is about how to do things rather than about anything in particular. And that makes it very difficult to talk about: because it’s about absorbing a combination of skills, methods, and techniques; along with developing creative confidence in your own abilities to produce quality work.

And then I said, “let’s start with a Pre-Mortem. This is a game that designers play. Physicians play it to understand why a patient has died; we’re going to look at what goes wrong when our students leave school without being able to think about design.”  I then told the story about how Knight Capital Wealth Management redesigned their software stock trading software, and put it out live to their customers without testing that it worked properly… and wound up losing $177,000 a second, for forty-five minutes.  I told the story of the designer of the steel containment sphere for the Fukushima nuclear power plant, who waited nearly twelve years to go public with his story that the construction process was compromised… by which time the plant was up and running, and — as the Iliad would have it, because this is a tragedy — “the will of Zeus was moving to its end.”

People got it.  And I think we got a much more serious design thinking conversation than last year because people understood that design is not about handing out grades or making fun things out of cardboard and glue and pony beads.  It’s about learning how the world works, partly by designing for success (as in, say, fashion or graphic design) and partly by designing for failure (as in, say, bridge-building or nuclear power plant design).

I think the workshop was a great success. I’ll leave it at that.

reflection on my learning

Thirty days of making: a conference, a sashSuccessful conferences look like the picture at the left.  Yeah!  People moving around, gesturing, talking with one another.  The clocks show the correct time, people are engaged with one another and caring about what the people around them are saying. Empathy and the ability to understand one another are on display.  This is what I wanted to have happen.

But darn it!  I don’t want to run another one of these conferences.  I want to attend one, while my colleagues and my students run the conference.  I want my students and my colleagues to be the facilitators, the organizers, the table-to-table guides and the intermediate presenters.  I want them to have the plaudits and the accolades next time, because they’re the ones who have to be able to explain to others what it is that they’re doing.  And this is why that’s so important to me:  I won’t actually know if I’ve really successfully planted this in the culture of my school until they own the responsibility of teaching it to our colleagues and to the community of learners in this part of the world.

But more than that, I need them.  My boss sat down with me about a week ago, to go over my plan for this conference. She made three critical changes to my plan for the day, and she did nothing other than shuffle the order of my events.  I had the plan, she set the order of operations (PEMDAS!) and everyone had a MUCH better day as a result.   I need my colleagues and my students to be able to question my designs, to push me to get better, to reflect my excellence back at me, and to point out the flaws in my thinking and my work.  And I have to be proud enough in my good stuff to keep that part, while being humble enough to own my bad stuff.

Plus, when I’m at a conference like this as the teacher, I’m teaching.  I’m not learning as much as I could.  I felt like I had to set an example for my teacher-students, by shutting up when they were working on projects, and not interfering in their design process.

Reflection on others’ learning

Amazing to watch wonderful colleagues build and think and talk and train and imagine and create.  I think some awesome stuff is going to come out of this.  Sometimes the third time is the charm.


Five of five stars. Bed now. Sleep.  (this made more sense when I genuinely DID go to sleep after I wrote it.  Oh, well.)

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  1. This is an interesting post. I would like to see this kind of a conference not just for teachers, but for everyone! As you point out, design thinking has not been properly taught for, I would argue, many decades. The entire population needs remedial work, and besides it’s interesting and beneficial for everyone, or at least should be.

    • Dear Christina,

      An excellent idea! I have found that about 35 people is my limit. I am running a parallel conference, or workshop, for the heads of schools in the state of Connecticut early in November. It is possible that I could have 70 people attended my workshop, although it’s more likely that I will have only 20 or so. It’s quite a gap to have to consider, and plan for!

      But really, I think that the only way to drastically improve the quality of people’s design thinking skills, is to teach them in small groups. I do better teaching design to vice dude, what I have five or six of them for an hour and a half a week, for several weeks at a time. You learn design thinking much more successfully, from 12 successfully completed projects and 12 failing projects, then you ever do from one or two big successful projects.

      In other words, it’s vitally important to stop learning about design thinking, and learning how to design-think.


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