When Design Thinking ‘Fails’: Sometimes Life Gives You Lemons…

For many months now, I’ve been wanting to start blogging. I’ve really enjoyed reading posts from so many incredible educators… Australian educators like @7MrsJames, @BiancaH80, @abiwoldhuis, @whatedsaid, @malynmawby, @adlacoure, @simoncrook, @cpaterso, @gregwhitby, @heyjudeonline and further afield, @engaginged and almost everyone through @edutopia. The volume of thoughts, opinions, reflection, the honesty and the challenges, the real conversations… I’m loving it, but sometimes I can’t even sleep! Like an over-tired infant given too much stimulation.

Why start blogging now? I’ve been toying with two things… One, finding my ‘voice’. Who am I and what have I got that’s worth saying? And secondly, what am I passionate enough about to actually take the time to reflect on and write about? (See my “About” page for more, if interested…)

Well, at the moment, my students, or more specifically, our future leaders and their voices.

Back in March, teams of middle leaders from schools participating in the Smarter Schools National Partnership project had the opportunity to work with @ewanmcintosh and @tombarrett, exploring the potential of ‘Design Thinking’ in schools. Not having a classroom of my own this year, my project focus developed as a Year 11 investigation into Student Leadership. I was hoping to work with the boys, but they actually sought me out first with the desire to explore how they could be more effective leaders in 2013. This made it even easier to begin a design thinking project with a real world context.

Any Year 11 student interested was welcome to join the conversation, and after a few meetings brainstorming issues, concerns and ideas, we had developed three key questions, with teams attached to each question. Each team had one or more teacher mentors as well, to act as facilitators. We set up a wiki as a base for sharing ideas, collecting tools, documenting progress and reflections. The kids were excited, the teachers were excited and there was a real energy around seeing this group of boys drive a school initiative that they were so passionate about.

Early on, I did caution the boys that change is slow, and that perhaps any changes they initiated for their Year 12 mightn’t be fully realised for several years. We talked through the design process, the need for empathy, questions, ideas, iteration, prototyping and reflection. I was overwhelmed by how thoughtful the boys were, their main concern being a desire to leave a legacy for the younger boys, to find ways to develop leadership skills in the juniors. (Mind you, it’s not that we don’t have a leadership structure here, it’s just that the boys wanted to make it more effective).

One group in particular had really taken the process on… They developed a survey to send to students at a few other high schools to see what those students liked about their own leadership structures. The hope was then to glean some good ideas from other schools and propose some meaningful changes here. To ensure the survey was okay, they sent it to our teachers to have a look, before going ‘live’.

Just before the holidays, I had to present in front of Tom and Ewan from NoTosh and my colleagues about our project to date. What was the project? What had students learned? (patience, communication, collaboration) What would the next step be? (surveys, proposals for changes) Did I foresee any challenges? (status quo). And at the end, playing devil’s advocate, Ewan asked if I thought this would just be a paper exercise. I replied that if it was, I’d be gutted as I would hate to think I was bringing these students along on a journey to nowhere.

Now the lemon bit… I had leave for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends in hometown LA. Whilst away, the boys were told they didn’t need to do a design thinking process. No survey. As the general structure for leadership was already set, they could propose portfolios, but there was no time for anything else.

The rebel in me wanted to cry out on behalf of these great kids, “How could you NOT give them the chance to carry out this brilliant process? How could you NOT give them a voice in their own leadership?” Everything I know, have read, have researched, that I feel intuitively says that listening to kids and giving them a say makes a WORLD of difference in their engagement and their learning. So how could anyone NOT want them to have this opportunity? I didn’t like the status quo. They felt defeated, and so did I (but I couldn’t let them see that, could I?)

And the lemonade bit? With a few days to think and reflect, I think I know how… we all have our own back-stories, our own experiences, our own mind-sets. And just because I feel something to be right and worthy does not make it so in someone else’s reality. If that was the case, great research and great educators would change schools in no time at all. Change is hard precisely BECAUSE we are individuals, and each of us needs time, and motivation, and purpose to work towards what is different, and new, and perhaps scary because it is not what we have always known…

And there are great lessons for the boys to learn, too, in terms of their own development as leaders… and as human beings. Patience. Listening. Knowing that someone else’s reality may not match their own, and reflecting on how to still get on within those constraints. So the boys and I have had a quick chat, with a strategy session soon to follow. They can still talk to mates from other schools, still bring ideas to the table in terms of portfolios or other structures… and as for all the other things they want to introduce? Slowly, slowly, through conversation, inclusion, patience, ideation, prototyping, reflection. And hopefully, their legacy will not only be some great new ideas for leadership in the school, but some lessons learned that they can pass on to future leaders here about how to be a real leader, how to bounce back, how to work with others, how to keep going when the going gets tough. And on reflection, perhaps for me that is the real value of design thinking or other real-world learning experiences… it’s not that every learning experience will change the world, but that every learning experience can potentially change the individual and how they see the world.

Would love to have your thoughts, comments, feedback and similar experiences…!