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…!


20 thoughts on “When Design Thinking ‘Fails’: Sometimes Life Gives You Lemons…

  1. Design thinking process has great potential. Maybe the lesson is that your opinion of what makes a good leader is shaped by experiences of examples of good and bad forms of leadership. An important lesson for the boys to learn. A real character building experience. A great blog post. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. Dear Denise,
    How very exciting! I really enjoyed reading your very first blog post and am honoured by the mention 🙂 I believe your experience with design thinking has not “failed” as the students (and yourself) were able to start wonderful conversations using Leadership as a design focus. Skills have been learnt and exposure to the process has been achieved! The first step. I am curious to see how the Year 11 might use these experiences again in the future. What were the 3 Questions the students devised? How great to hear the students sought you out first to become effective leaders! #motivation and #drive in full force
    Cheers. I will be popping back in 🙂 @7mrsjames

    • Thanks, Jeanette. The boys will press on, but process will look slightly different and timeline altered. Their questions were as follows: “How can the leadership structure at our school be developed so that it is more effective and meaningful?” “How can students’ needs be met through changes to the school environment?” and “How can we encourage student involvement through student voice.” All of these are big questions, and ones that would never have had a quick fix. Whoever the leaders will be, they are a great group and will continue to explore their questions and refine their processes… So not a ‘fail’ for sure, but an opportunity!

  3. Hey, nice start Denise! In terms of finding your voice and what’s worth saying, I have found that I blog more to write reflectively for myself than for others. It forces me to get my ideas in order.

  4. Hi Denise, I am waiting to hear more about the boys’ (and your) learning through this process. The blog is a great way to reflect on what you have been doing and to share it with us!
    I wondered how the boys reacted to the change in structure when you were away. In my experience students often find it easier to have an adult ‘who knows’ run things for them. But that does not always equate to the best learning. We realize that good learning is difficult and challenging and risky. I wonder if your colleagues realized that what you were doing was challenging the boys rather than ‘helping’ them? I am positive that it was very well meaning, but the end result of too much teacher directed learning is clearly passive kids.
    Keep going, and please keep blogging too.

    • Thanks for commenting, Louise. I am sure that part of how things transpired was due to my absence, but the boys kept in touch via email. I was, however, conscious of the process as a whole and tried to to be too much of a mother hen. Has been good learning for all of us!

  5. When I joined a Teacher blogging challenge last year, one of the activities was to reflect on why we blog. Essentially, I thought then (and still do) that if I had enough reasons to write for me (like Cameron above) then I would.

    Over time, I’ve been lucky to have readers who engaged with me in conversation and thus helped shape my blog, e.g. thru crowd-sourcing, extending my thinking, prompting new inspirations to blog about. anyway, you can read more about it here. In fact, you can filter via the tag #ksyb and check out the blogging challenge. It was soooo worth doing!

    Design is iterative and I think that though you’ve had a big obstacle, you’ve designed a way to move forward. So you haven’t really dropped the process, you’ve just altered the design (read: see what you can pick up again from the process by re-designing).

    good luck to you and your year 11s. Here’s to more sharing of your stories! 🙂

      • Sorry to not give you a more detailed reply the other night, Malyn! It’s not just your links I appreciate, but your honesty, your willingness to question, to dialogue, to reflect. That sort of authenticity is sorely needed in our profession – thanks for the detail in your comment!

  6. While I know that our experiences make us, I am saddened that more school experiences favour the conservative status quo than seem to lead to the songs we can hear being sung by the choirs of our time! Change is difficult when one doesn’t hold the conch (real change is difficult even when one does!). To hear my thirty-something children express a certain fear at the sheer loss of time their own young children will experience as part of our conventional schooling system makes me wonder what the alternative really is! One should say “Hang in there!” but perhaps we all should accept the challenge to seek elsewhere!!!

    • Mick, thanks so much for your thoughts – I value your perspective immensely. It is hard, indeed, to discern how much effort should be put into being patient with agitating for change, and when to tackle it head on! Sometimes softly softly doesn’t sit well with my soul! But that’s where my learning is…being patient long enough to discern the right way forward.:-).

  7. I loved “, 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.”
    How aptly put. Encouraging deep learning, deep thinking and opportunities to refine their own ideas is so vital. I look forward to your insights into education and participating in reading your journey as you strive to create environments for students which provide more than a mark at the end of their school days. Love your blog and feel deeply honoured and humbled to be mentioned in it.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to reply, Abi – you and others mentioned here have given advice or inspiration about finding my voice. Also appreciate that you have read into what was my best learning from this experience – that as much as we want things to go as planned, they often don’t and that is where the learning occurs. Thanks!

  8. I am in week one of the design thinking online workshops, I see so many parallels between it and the content I teach in design tech — DUH! . . . My mantra for year 12 DT- process always more important than outcome 🙂

    Research, ideation, prototype, analysis -then? Whatever comes next is of the greatest importance! Great design is never without mistakes, the journeys are never in vain even if in the wrong direction, your boys clearly acquired so much along the way! 

    What’s next on their journey? How will they next employ their sense of empowerment and discovery that you sparked? 

    . . . Make sure you tell us all in another post! 🙂

    • Met with the boys today and they are incredible – will reflect on where they go next after proposing what they see as a “win-win”. We talked about iteration, the need to work within parameters, etc. and they just get it – that it’s the process and the learning that are important. Stay tuned, same bat channel..!

  9. Thanks for sharing this, and I’m so glad that the process has been grasped by these young lads and, as you point out, will make a positive dent in the legacy of how they see the world, how they learn. The more we’ve been working with people in the fashion and media industries, as well as in insurance, law and banks, the more we’ve heard employers lament the lack of any process in the way new employees think through the world around them. It’s a valuable skill. Keep spreading it!

    • Thanks, Ewan. It has been a valuable experience all around, and the boys have really taken to the design thinking process as a problem solving tool. And their self-knowledge and resilience are amazing. It’s fantastic to see them blossom, even in adversity!

  10. Pingback: Two Weeks with the Team | Becoming "Real"…

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