Beginnings of LDT

This week was my orientation at Stanford’s School of Education. On Monday and Tuesday there was a workshop for my program (LDT) that introduced us to the “design thinking” process. Essentially it is a wildly collaborative and creative approach to problem-solving. I thought our facilitator gave a really nice graphical sketch of what design thinking is like compared to the “conventional approach.”

In a conventional approach, generally speaking, you identify a question or problem. From the question/problem, you try to find an immediate answer or solution that will work. Graphically, it might look something as simple as this:

The conventional approach to problem solving.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it works fine. Design thinking is in a sense a less direct approach to problem solving, with the hope that the solution is highly innovative and well-informed. Graphically it might look something like this:

The design thinking approach.

Instead of going from the problem directly to an answer, design thinking explores a variety of possibilities. Possibilities don’t have to be feasible or practical – they are like “what-if” or “I wonder if this would work” kind of solutions. This allows for copious amounts of creativity to come into the process, even if most of the ideas are lucrative. But the idea behind exploring potentially lucrative solutions is that an extraordinary solution can be found by “backing off” a little bit. With this approach, the solution is most likely pushing the boundary of what’s possible and is a product that most wouldn’t have expected, yet works really well. Neat concept, huh?

Broadly, there are 4 phases:

  1. Research
  2. Design
  3. Prototype
  4. Scale and Spread

The first two days of orientation was an exercise in the design thinking process, sprinkled with icebreakers and short improv games. We broke up into groups of maybe about 15-20 people, and each group practiced applying design thinking to solve the following question: How can we increase low-performing middle school students’ engagement in learning?

For the research phase, each group interviewed 2 people in the education/teaching industry, asking questions we thought would be helpful in designing a solution. We took notes on post-it notes and later posted all of our findings on a wall and clustered them into categories.

From there, we started the design phase by throwing out ideas on what the solution might look like or might involve. Because of the collaborative nature, there were a ton of ideas ranging from curriculum development, use of media/technology, classroom space, techniques, policy changes, community outreach/involvement, etc. These were also written on post-it notes and clustered into categories. At this point we tried to refine our findings by focusing on one or two clusters for prototyping. One of the funnier ideas was “Get Justin Bieber to teach math.” There were a number of interesting ideas, but I can’t recall them right now.

Prototyping was an interesting phase because it was still very much like a design/conceptual stage, at least for the purposes of our exercise. We were given pipe-cleaners and styrofoam and other random crafts materials to help us form our ideas in some abstract way, but a lot of us ended up just playing with them while talking/fleshing out details of a potential solution. My mini-group decided to tackle the issue of curriculum material not being relevant to students’ interests or not having a connection to what the student perceives as the real world.

Scale and spread then looks at how our solution can “get legs” to become real. We investigate what needs to happen to make the solution realized, e.g. from who do we need buy-in, where could funding come from, how the solution will be deployed, what the business model might look like, etc.

Finally, at the end each group of 15-20 had to pick one idea and prepare a presentation for it. Our group ended up picking the idea that my mini-group thought of (woot!) and our presentation revolved around a skit of our solution in action. Our solution turned out to be a really ambitious digital content platform that connects topics at school (“What did you learn today?” prompt) with an individual students’ interests, which could also serve as data collection for teachers and schools to further inform their lessons and policies. Our skit demonstrated a disengaged student in class where the teacher was talking about Mayan culture, but the student doesn’t really care about anything except basketball, jazz, video games, and erm…women. When the student opens the mobile app and enters “Mayan culture”, the app would fetch rich content that relates Mayan culture to his particular interests. For example, it might tell him about Mayan sports and how the losers of said sport competitions were subsequently sacrificed. The app also feeds into a type of social network that suggests local experts that students can communicate with on said topic. All of this data (student’s interests, what topics the students looked up, and what content they viewed) can be fed into a “teacher dashboard view” which would compile and distill all of it to gauge the interests and activity of say, one’s class. This information would be valuable in making lessons more relevant to students’, and for inviting guest speakers to come to the school, based on what a large number of students might be commonly interested in.

Anyways, I am really excited about this program and working with the people in my “cohort.” There are 27 people in our program and they are all so intelligent, fun, passionate, and purpose-driven. I’ve never felt this eager about school before, so hopefully that means I made the right choice.

Thank God for this wonderful opportunity, and I hope I can take advantage of it to its fullest so that ultimately, the things I learn can also be applied to church work, especially RE.

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