Design Thinking Workshop, level 102

Design thinking workshop
Sorting and Categorizing With An Eye on the World

Today was my school’s fourth annual Design Thinking workshop. My boss called it Design Thinking 102 for Educators. In the past, we’ve concentrated on what Design Thinking is, at least at our school. This year, I changed up the design of the workshop itself, and we called it “Four Skills for the Designer”, and the four 45-minute experiences revolved around 4 skills:

  • Drawing
  • 3D Modeling
  • Systems Thinking
  • Divergent/Convergent Thinking

It’s hard to know before the results come back from the post-workshop surveys, but I think this was the best workshop we’ve ever run.  I taught the basics of Mike Rohde’s system of sketch noting, and Dave Gray’s Semigram in the first quadrant of the day.  There was some resistance, some push-back, to the idea that drawing was important.  And yet I think a lot of people picked up on the value of quick sketches as a tool for thinking. Maybe 50% of the room will put it into practice.

The real beauty of the day came during the 3D modeling phase.  In the past, I’ve had students and teachers model the cell of biology, and then I’ve modified the requirements for the design of that cell throughout the workshop.  As the model has to be assembled and disassembled, of course, participants begin to understand the nature of evolution — that organisms change in response to outside stimulus as a result of the changes occurring in its predators and prey relationships to other species.

Design thinking workshop
prototyping the loom

But that exercise has always felt borrowed.  We’ve done it several times, and I think that it gets across the key points of the work, but it’s not entirely my exercise. This time, we did a similar exercise, but instead of it being biological organisms, it was machinery from the Industrial Revolution.  We wound up building models (in one case a working model!) of five of seven machines: a clothes cryer, a lathe, a milling machine, a band saw, and a power loom.  Each team got an envelope with three copies of the same diagrams of their machine, so that they didn’t have to hog one piece of paper.

In the past, I’ve also put out materials for these construction exercises. This time I didn’t.  I had hidden (or genuinely didn’t have) some key supplies (like duct tape — which I didn’t have, really) that tend to be people’s go-to materials. Instead, I helped them find and make do.

I learned something really interesting here.  In some teams, people who don’t know anything about assembly or construction or the machine under consideration, will nonetheless become the searchers.  They go out into the Design Lab in search of “a can”, and they return, not with a can but with a variety of sizes of plastic cup or tub or bin.  They’re asked to find a screw driver and they return with a drill — because they’ve intuited that the team’s goal is to drill holes and not to put screws in place.   One woman said in the reflections time, “I loved how things were generally in the right place, but sometimes there’d be other stuff there — I’d find treasures that my team needed, but I needed to encounter them.”

In forty-five minutes, thirty adults learned to use the design lab. By the end of the session, they knew where the tools were that they wanted to use; they’d learned how to use the materials library to search for the things they wanted and needed, and they’d learned to work compromises between the materials they wanted and what they actually had.

Design thinking workshop
Divergent/Convergent Thinking

Along the way, they built some awesome sculptures of some incredible machinery. The loom, basically, worked.  The pulley system on the band saw was wonky, but if you pulled some cables with a bit of patience, the band saw’s major wheels turned.  All the teams pulled off miracles in the hour of time they had to work.

If I had to identify a weakness in these Design Thinking workshops, it lies in the reflection time. I don’t think I’m very good at designing the reflection process that follows one of these design exercises.  That may come with practice, but I also don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done well.  There were several misfires in communication — someone asked a perfectly-normal question, like “How do I do this in English class?” and I responded with a long-winded answer about how a lot of this stuff is about student attention and interest, and sometimes it’s just cool to let them build stuff without it having to be about anything specific to our curriculums.

Deaf ears? Maybe. We had lunch.

After lunch, we rambled through systems thinking. I did the same exercise twice — once with examples drawn from the New England woods around our school, and the human effects on those woods, and then a second time with the ways that adding a design program, or a design lab, changes a school.  I think that people got it.  Frankly, it’s hard not to.

I don’t have any pictures of this part of the exercise, but it involves passing a ball of twine around the room, person to person. As each person takes the line the first time, a web begins to form if the rule is that you have to pass the string to someone not standing or sitting next to you.  By the time everyone has one hand on the thread, there’s a loose web that stretches all over the room — robin to bear to oak to maple to squirrel to red-tailed hawk to fern and so on. When people take hold with a second hand, though, the tension starts to be absorbed into the web, and lines become rigid as they bend over each person’s finger on their way to the next.  It’s quite beautiful at first, and then the web becomes mildly terrifying, because one can see that decisions to build golf courses have effects on ecosystems and individual species. As the web stretched, someone let go the web and said out loud, “We just lost the robins.”  It was said in humor, and yet I think there was a moment of silence as people understood the implications of that.

We held the threads much more loosely during a repeat of that exercise, as we played out the implications of my school having a design lab — some of those implications being positive, some negative.  Issues of social and emotional learning came up a lot. The question of what materials to have took a back seat to how interpersonal dynamics shift — how long-standing traditions in a school’s culture can be shaken by the mere existence of such a space as this. The teachers in the lab really got the message here, I think, that design thinking can be done with cardboard and duct tape and recycled junk, but that it’s the quality of mental ideas and personal interrelationships that genuinely make the difference, and how ego and hurt feelings can be even more challenging in this sort of environment without grades or the ‘normal’ rules of school interactions. The trip to Staples or Home Depot or the craft store at 9:30 at night is just an added bonus, or an exhausting side-joke during an extended slapstick comedy routine.

Design thinking workshop
The drawing preceding the chaos.

And yet, here we all are.

Our last exercise of the day was what I call Divergent/Convergent Thinking. There are lots of ways to do this exercise, and lots of ways to vary it, and lots of things to call it. Basically, it involves laying out a lot of Post-It® Notes, and then sorting and reorganizing them to look for patterns of behavior and knowledge and insight.  You can see some of those patterns being considered in the photographs.

Each participant was asked to throw up somewhere between three and six Post-It® Notes, in two categories: physical materials with which to build on the smaller white board; possible projects or curriculum goals in their current school calendar, either their own or a colleague’s. Then, each participant wrote between three and six MORE Notes, based on the other notes they saw on the boards.  There were 26 participants — I think we generated somewhere around 800 ideas in under 15 minutes.

We then divided the group in half.  Each whiteboard’s Post-It® Notes got sorted into two categories: high impact on learning or from learning with this material, or low impact; and cheap or expensive.  As a final step, every teacher took home three Post-It® Notes: a project they want to try, and two materials to use in conjunction with that project.  I wished them luck, and we said our good-byes.

Under the Hood

I have so many other projects going on these days, that I must admit this workshop’s plan didn’t get settled until last Sunday. The basic organization of the course has been centered around the four skills for months, for the advertising from the umbrella organization for these educational experiences.  But the specifics of the work wasn’t settled until fairly recently.

It would be fair to say that a lot of prayer and meditation was required to get to this point. But also a LOT of running around and a LOT of hustle.  Workshops like this — this many participants, this many enthusiasts, this many people leaving with kind words and happy faces — are hard to organize, lead, direct, and keep going. This is our fourth year for this particular workshop, and every time I go through stress-bunny phases before it.  Call it impostor syndrome in action: do I really have any right to be teaching colleagues how to do this stuff?

But there’s an old adage that is relevant, which is that we become what we practice.  I’ve thought of myself as a designer for four years, as an artist for six, and as other things — a teacher, a trainer, a coach, a practitioner — for far longer.  And I’ve hit on some methods that have worked for me, thanks to folks at Constructing Modern Knowledge, at Nueva School, and elsewhere.

So when I agreed to run another Design Thinking event this year, I thought… What do they really need?  What would I have preferred to have at the beginning of my own explorations, which would have given me a leg up when I really needed one?  The answer was surprising, but also invaluable: I wish I had known more about drawing, to unlock the powers of my creative brain earlier; that I’d had more practice at building sculptural/models of the things and processes I wanted to learn; that I had better awareness of how one act would lead to countless consequences; and to be better at finding a host of new ideas while also recognizing that you can’t do them all.

And those became the basis of the four units we covered today.

The Studio

I think one of my big takeaways was my inordinate pride and pleasure in seeing adults use the Design Lab.  Several people commented on its orderly chaos, or chaotic orderliness. The general division into “tools” in one pocket of the shelves, while “materials” on the other wall, gave them places to go in search of materials. Yet several people commented on how much fun it was to go looking for one thing, and find exactly the right thing at the right time.  People spoke about compromising their vision for the sake of available materials; the lack of fasteners (or at least, fasteners of desired types) resulted in unusual design choices that nonetheless made entirely functional and successful models and designs.

People demonstrated resilience and grit in the lab, too.  In the past I’ve put out materials for classes to use; but I think that the notion of just leaving stuff in the shelves actually encouraged people to put stuff back at the end of the day.  Stuff got used, and then it got put away. There was a fluidity of action at work, as people managed that business very nicely.  Chefs talk about mise en place, and I have too, a couple of times.  The Lab, the studio, has very good mise, and I need to be aware of how much I can rely upon that in any workshop experience. The kids, my own school’s immediate faculty, and visitors, can all learn to use the Lab in two hours of work.  And the results can be amazing.

Working the Magic

In a very real sense, I’ve been working toward today for four years.  I feel like a lot of hard work paid off in quite a bit of validation of the method, of affirmation from colleagues and newcomers, and of the emergence of new colleagues like Josh at GFA and elsewhere (gotta go visit him soon).   A couple of other possible colleagues in this business are emerging too — and I’m excited, because it means that there’s a professional cadre of design thinkers and STEM teachers and engineering imagineers that are getting ready to help a whole generation of tinkerers emerge.

And it means that shop classes — carpentry, metalworking, electronics and more — are going to make a comeback.    Maybe not right away, and not in every school.  But if you want to transform schools, you have to provide teachers with tools that work.  Hands-on building, thinking and seeing solutions in three dimensions, drawing, thinking about whole systems… teachers tend to live very much in their heads, but design process pulls them out of those spaces, too.

And I think we want that as a society and culture right now.  And sometimes that means building a model lathe or a drill press or a power loom or a band saw. Out of twenty-six people today, maybe 20, I think, are going home with the basis for seeing the world in a completely different way than they did when they got out of bed. The change in mindset is real.  At least some folks from today see the world in a new light, and there’s a newfound power in them.  All I did is open a door or two — they’re walking through it.


  1. Sounds like a fun day, especially the 800 ideas in fifteen minutes. I’m a big fan of quantity when it comes to ideas. Curious what will result. I’m also looking forward to getting together.

  2. Love this post and the one that follows it regarding the “100 Cards” game. I might be looking to borrow some of it for a workshop I’m building for a client…

    In return — you mentioned difficulty with the reflection period with the teachers afterward? I do that kinda thing regularly in my corporate training classes. If you are going to do more teacher trainings, I could help you develop some exercises or ideas around it. Be a good excuse to have coffee…

    • It would be a good excuse to get together. I also still owe you a proofreading job, which has… stalled, because of how a certain Apple software product packages resources copy-pasted in from elsewhere. I’m working on it… in my //copious// free time.

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