“Jump in and throw something wild out there; no suggestion too extreme!” I was told. My group was apparently being far too logical, rational, and moderate in our solutions. Once we heard prompts like “Every program must cost at least a million dollars…. Or take place in outer space…. Or involve celebrities…” we loosened up a little and the ideas started flowing.
I had the great privilege of participating in a design challenge last Saturday morning. Yes, Saturday morning. An organization called Summer Search was looking for some new ways to organize the second summer of their highly successful program for low income youth. An “innovation team” on their board pulled together 35 people — board members, staff members, current and former Summer Search students, and educators like myself — who agreed to spend four hours engaged in a design process to help them enhance their vision and think about potential new programming.
We spent our time going through a mini version of a typical design process, led by a skilled facilitator who kept us focused and on task, gave us just enough information at each stage to make decisions, and encouraged us to be creative and think big. We started with exercises designed to help us understand the student experience and develop empathy. Current and former students demonstrated their challenges and successes while we asked questions and prompted them to add detail. Each team of three had the chance to learn from three different students before we gathered all the information we had and attempted to define the issues facing Summer Search in this process.
The next step set teams of four to brainstorm solutions and this is where we were encouraged to think big. Once we had all of our crazy and not so crazy ideas (“Sail around the world!” “Make a movie!” “Build a house!” “Intern at a business”) in sticky notes on the wall, we each chose the one we liked the best and developed it further so we could present it to the Summer Search innovation team for further review. They plan on taking the design challenge to the next levels of iteration, prototyping and testing; our work was done after the brainstorm and initial idea creation.
It was so much fun! I’m not sure when four hours have flown by so fast. I love the way the time was scripted and yet allowed for a lot of fertile creative thought. A small group of people working very hard on something they care about, contributing real ideas to an organization they care about, was incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. Design thinking is a tool I have heard so much about and even participated in a couple of times, but this took it to a new level for me. I am reminded of how much fun it is to learn something new with other people, and even better when what I learned for me actually will be useful to someone else. As educators, we often espouse lifelong learning as a goal; rarely have I experienced it in such a profound and enjoyable way.