George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

A Crash Course in Innovation

Design thinking projects and resources

August 17, 2011

Helping today's students become more innovative thinkers is a serious goal endorsed by President Obama, corporate CEOs, and a host of others. But here's an inside secret: Learning how to innovate is downright fun -- for students and teachers alike.

I recently spent three days with about 25 educators gathered for a Foundations of Innovation workshop in Detroit. The professional development experience was facilitated by experts from the Henry Ford Learning Institute, which is developing a network of innovation-minded public schools, and the K12 Laboratory at Stanford University's, a hotbed for bringing innovation strategies to classrooms and communities around the globe.

HFLI and the have teamed up to develop the Foundations of Innovation curriculum, which introduces students to the design thinking process. It's the same process professional designers use to develop products and solutions for everything from reducing poverty to improving airport security. When students learn to think like designers, they gain confidence and competence as creative problem-solvers.

A Space for Good Thinking

The setting for this workshop offered the first clue that we were in for a special experience. Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies is the newest in the HFLI network of public charter schools. HFLI is expanding through partnerships to meet the needs of students in economically distressed urban areas. The School for Creative Studies shares a beautifully renovated historic building in the city's museum district with its partner, the College for Creative Studies.

At capacity, SCS will serve 900 students in grades 6-12. Teens learn alongside college role models who are preparing for careers in creative professions. The colorful, well-lighted learning space is custom-made for collaborative project work and learning by doing. Furnishings are flexible so that workspaces can be reconfigured in a minute to suit instructional needs. Students might start class in a learning studio then shift to a nearby alcove for smaller group work. Walls are made to display works-in-progress and make student thinking visible. After a few brainstorming sessions in this space, you're literally surrounded by ideas documented on sticky notes and butcher paper.

The HFLI model emphasizes readiness for college and careers, "but we also want students to become active agents in community redevelopment," explains Deborah Parizek. She was a founding teacher at the first Henry Ford Academy in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, before becoming executive director of the HFLI network. Students don't necessarily show up at these forward-looking schools equipped to fix the world's problems. "A lot of them arrive passive," Parizek admits, "so we have to change that."

Empowered by Design

Design thinking is a key strategy for unlocking students' capacity to be change agents and innovators. For example, ninth-graders might be asked to design a carry-all that meets the needs of a specific user, such as a homeless person. To connect that project to learning standards, students might read The Things They Carried and use math to compare area and volume of various carry-all designs. (Read about a winning carry-all design from students at Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School of Art + Design in San Antonio, Texas, featured in the Smithsonian blog.)

To get teachers comfortable with design thinking, the workshop took a full-immersion approach. That meant we dove right into the same kinds of collaborative design experiences that get students ready to think in new ways. We also got the chance to experience the fast past of design challenges and see the creative results that emerge from the process. By turns exhilarating and exhausting, this was serious fun.

For starters, we designed a name badge for a partner. That meant getting acquainted fast. It made for an ideal icebreaker. More importantly, the activity introduced key ideas such as empathy, prototyping, storytelling, and user feedback. (For a facilitator's guide to a similar design challenge, see the Wallet Project overview on the K12 wiki.)

Later, we had a chance to tackle a more in-depth design challenge and suggest ways to improve the user experience at a local museum. That involved field observations, interviews, rapid brainstorming sessions, and building a prototype of a museum exhibit. Working with a deadline that seemed ridiculously short, my teammate and I mocked up an exhibit that involved holograms and (imaginary) time travel. Our users had to suspend their disbelief, but they got right into the spirit of things. Before long, they were sharing their own wild ideas to improve our rough-draft concept.

Having a tight time constraint didn't leave us time to second-guess our ideas. We had to dive right in, and also had to figure out how to communicate our thinking visually. A prototype doesn't have to be a 3-D model. It might be a storyboard, skit, or guided experience for the user.

There's not room here to unpack all the great teaching ideas that emerged in three days, but here are just a few insights that might help your students unleash their creativity.

Get Stoked

The up-tempo music that greeted us as we walked into the workshop conveyed a welcome-to-Motown message. I noticed more music playing at key times during sessions (and heard participants mentioning how much they liked it). This was one of several deliberate strategies to stoke energy in the room. A variety of quick, physical activities kept us moving and, often, laughing. Before taking part in brainstorming, we did warm-ups to get the creative juices flowing. Then, during brainstorming, everybody was standing. Being on your feet changes the vibe. A playful, nonjudgmental atmosphere gets ideas flowing faster.

Step into Another's Shoes

Empathy is a key component of the design process, but it doesn't happen automatically. By conducting user interviews, making field observations, and using other strategies that help students "step into another's shoes," they develop an awareness of perspectives different from their own. Many of the same approaches could be useful for helping students understand point of view in literature or appreciate different viewpoints from key eras in history.

Make First Attempts Fast

Designers embrace a fail-fast philosophy. They test ideas early, before they have a chance to get overly invested in possible solutions. Improvement happens through iterative cycles of gathering feedback and making refinements. For those used to a school culture that has no tolerance for failure, this is a whole new way of thinking. Developing a nonjudgmental classroom atmosphere makes it safer for students to suggest and try out new ideas.

Build Your Toolkit

There's no question that design thinking requires a shift from traditional instruction. For this approach to take hold, teachers -- and students -- need time and support to get comfortable in new roles as risk-takers and problem solvers, open to multiple solutions and perspectives. But when they do, there's no telling where their ideas might lead.

Can you imagine bringing design thinking into your classroom? How might you get started? Please share your ideas -- the wilder the better!

Design Thinking Resources

Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators is available as a free download from IDEO, the global design firm. A wide range of free resources are also available from the K12 Laboratory, including sample challenges and design thinking mindsets to introduce to your school community.

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  • Professional Learning
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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