Design Thinking at the Nursing Home: (or “how to end the year with a ‘WOW!’)

wowDesign thinking: empathy for the context of a problem + creativity in the generation of insights and solutions + and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context. (Wikipedia: Design Thinking)

The last 3 months of class combined Design Thinking with Compassionate Listening — see the story, in comic form, below.

comeek1page1comeek2page2kids and seniors

Real students’ quotes:

Q: What was the goal of visiting the Rhoda Goldman Plaza?

  • “It let us fully explain our project and the reasons why we chose to create something the way we did.”
  • “To get advice from elders and see what they have to say on a topic they might know a lot about.”
  • “to make these people happy by showing them that someone does care about them and what they have to share”
  • “to be able to put our reflect and re reflecting skills to work”

Q: What are some of the things you TOOK AWAY from the experience? How was it valuable to you as a person?

  • “The connection I had with them and now, it opened my eyes to real life and the history of the people and our country “
  • “I was great to be able to make a connection with a person who is so different from me”
  • “i met a wonderful lady who was very kind and interesting… From the experience i took away practice in presenting and ways to interact with another person i just met before presenting a personal project to them.”
  • “I learned that life is very precious and to not waste it but live it everyday”

No, there are definitely stupid questions.

space cadetWe all know the cliche…”there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Nice try, whoever wrote that.

That guy clearly never spent more than three days in a classroom, during which time he would have heard a wide array of totally stupid questions.

For the rest of us, here’s how to handle 3 common, annoying, innocent stupid questions.

Stupid Question 1.

The student’s question suggests that he/she didn’t do the homework.

Don’t: assume, and don’t shame a student. A student who didn’t complete his homework might have spent the night playing watching asdf movies on YouTube. Grrr!

BUT: he might have had a sister chasing him around the house with a croquet mallet. Who can do homework under such conditions?!

Do: Say, “It sounds like you could use a refresher on the text. It’s okay, we haven’t had class in two days. Take the next three minutes, look it over, and see if that answers your question.”

[At the end of class, you can ask the student if s/he meant to get a homework pass].

Stupid Question 2:

The student asks the same question that you just answered…like, 2 minutes ago!

Don’t: Say, “I just answered that!”

Again, shaming is linked to lowered self esteem and that is linked to decreased performance.

And probably more stupid questions.

Do: Be understanding. After all, you space out in faculty meetings, right?

Say, “I know, it’s been a long day. I’ll swing around to you during independent work time and clarify for you.”


Do: “I know we’ve been covering a lot of material. Can I ask a student to summarize that last point again, for me?”

Notice: Summarize for me. 

Not: for “Summarize for Johnny who is a Space Cadet. And who can’t read.”

Stupid Question 3:

The student asks a question that you cannot follow.

Don’t: Squint and make a “wha?! face.”

interested monkey

DO look interested, focused, and patient.

confsued monkey

DON’T let on that you cannot follow the freakin’ question.

Do: Maintain a patient and focused demeanor. Ask for clarification, one or two times. After each try, say, “It’s a bit hard for me to follow the question, can you try again for me?”

Do: After three times, say, “It’s still a bit hard for me to follow. Is that okay with you if we move on and maybe, during independent work time, we can see if we can unpack the question?”


Unconditional Positive Regard

Let’s be clear. There are stupid questions. But students are not stupid, even if they act like it, sometimes. Often.

It’s your job to buffer your students from shame, and to communicate the basic idea that age-appropriate “Space Cadetery” is okay and normal and can be fixed. If you can master this, then you have made your classroom a safe place for learning. This echoes the the Unconditional Positive Regard that Psychologist Carl Rogers said was essential to therapy. A client, like a student, only has the courage to grow and change if they feel like their teacher or therapist likes them. It’s as simple as that.

And as challenging as that.

Students might be told a dozen times a day, in various ways, that they are not good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough.

You’re here to make them feel valued. Even if you’re annoyed.

They’ll love you for it.

They may even ask you a smart question.

What about you? What are your favorite Smart Answers to Stupid Questions?

Curation is the New Discussion: Part 1

curatePicture it:

You ask a question; on a good day, hands raise. Three or four students speak in turn. You rephrase or echo the students’ ideas. If the class is enthusiastic, there is jockeying for attention, hands waving wildly. If the class is lethargic, you cajole for more hands. You get an answer or two and move on. Was the discussion successful? How do you know? What was the goal, anyhow?

The Limits of Discussion

Humans in general, and young people in particular, have difficulty in attending to more than one thing at a time. (Currently, I am having trouble both focusing on writing this and trying not to get angry at the passenger in 23D who keeps moving his seat back, banging me in the knees). Students, similarly, may have difficulty in flailing their hand in the air and attending to the “point” of a discussion. They don’t know (and it’s not their job to know) what the point is. As time is ticking away, eating dangerously into the time you’ve allotted for the next activity, the only person in the room who is concerned that the point of the discussion might be lost forever is you. On the flip side, after the class has already shifted its attention numerous times and lost the point, it’s on the teacher to re-explain and reinforce the point of the discussion. If she or he doesn’t, students will file the whole discussion into their “nice-to-know” mental-folders…otherwise known as the “forget immediately” folder. Catch 22: the teacher doesn’t interject and summarize. The point is lost. The teacher does interject and summarize.  Students tune out.

Q: What can be done to keep the discussion on track, on time, and in students’ minds?

A: Don’t discuss. Curate.

The root of the word “discussion” is “cuss” – as in percussion or concussion – meaning “strike.” (It is not, as my friend recently suggested, related to the word “cussin’.”) Discussion: Imagine a group of people in a classroom, striking a topic until it splits apart. And that is, exactly, my critique of discussion. Its generative, but what it generates is easily lost. I have experimented for years with an alternative strategy to generate student ideas, one which puts students’ voices front-and center, which allows the teacher to fade to the back, and which demands of the teacher a more precise, composed prompt, and provides for the class a pool of ideas that the teacher can leverage for effective transition into text study, activities, or assessments. I call it “curation.” The word “curate” is related to the word care, and even has spiritual connotations. Historically, people called “curates” were charged with the care of peoples souls. Curators, today, lovingly care for a collection of art, assembling it in a way where the sum of the parts will allow each piece to shine brightest. The curator does not overindulge unnecessary attention on a single piece of art; she is not a tour-guide. But she sees each piece for what it contributes to the collection, and arranges them for the most powerful, effective collective impact.

How does this work in the classroom?

1. Backwards Design – what is the take-home message (the enduring understanding)? Articulate this idea to yourself as you lesson plan. 2. Design a prompt that will point towards this take-home message. You only get to ask/offer one question / prompt – so make it good. 3. Assign a speaker’s list: Rather than call on students and reflect/comment in between, use a speakers’ list. Use a script like this: “I’d love 5 people to respond to this prompt. When you’re done speaking, say ‘pass.’ [Or give students a koosh-ball to hold while speaking and to toss to the next speaker when finished.] Allow hands to raise, and call on each in fast succession, giving a number to each. 4. Don’t panic if only one or two hands raise. Call on on those, then ask for more. 5. Listen deeply while the students speak. Look for patterns emerging.

6. Curate: point out the patterns you saw, ask if anyone would like to comment on the pattern, and explain what that pattern has to do with your take-home message.

Examples of patterns: a. The Minority Report: All the responses fell in one area… but a lone voice expressed a different opinion. b. Poles Apart: Half the class responded one way, the other half responded the other way. c. Camps: The classes responses divide into 3 or 4 “camps.” d. Unanimous / Universal: Everyone who responded had something in common on their answers. e. The forgotten: The group responded Unanimously or Poles Apart but surprisingly, a certain answer was never offered. f. the brainstorm / list: a list of 5-7 responses that explore the range of a subject

After curation, tie to the day’s reading or activity. Here are some examples: 1. (Poles apart): It sounds like half of this class feels strongly that parents should allow their children to make mistakes, and half feels that parents should intervene. In today’s text, you will read a story about a parent with this dilemma. Let’s see which approach she uses. 2. (Brainstorm): It sounds like the class has thought a lot about how to make change in life: you listed visualizing, asking for help, journaling, experimenting with new approaches. In today’s text, we will see a character who has trouble making change, and we will consider why it’s so difficult for him. 3. (The Forgotten): The class sounds certain that it’s better to “look before you leap,” but I’m surprised that no one said, “It’s best to go with your gut.” Why is that? [Allow a few responses.] In today’s reading, Hamlet needs to make a decision. Let’s see which approaches he uses, and the pros and cons of each.

become a staple of my classroom experience, and a powerful tool for generating student-driven material. I’d love to hear some of your challenges or questions you have about curation.

The Outdoor Bazaar: The Best Outdoor Activity of All Time


The Outdoor Bazaar: The Best Outdoor Activity of All Time

Well, maybe not the best of all time. Maybe simply the best I’ve ever designed (in this case, co-designed with a talented outdoor educator, an alumna – a former student, in fact — Maria Lipkina).

Below, you’ll find

1. The story of the creation of said Best Outdoor Activity of All Time

2. The deets

3. Maria’s own take on the experience

The Story of the Creation of the Outdoor Bazaar:

We were staffing a grade trip with Sophomores, hiking Zion National Park. The theme: leaving home and spending time in nature can help us loosen, even remove some of the masks we wear during our normal lives.

It was the last evening of the trip and we were in a quandary.  The plan had been, on the final day of the hike, to take the kids to a quiet spot, send them off to find a place to be alone. The kids would reflect, experience the quiet, write in their journals. We’d regroup and share, head to the buses, the staff would high five, and we’d be on our way to the airport.

That had been the plan.

One problem: that very afternoon, our hired naturalists concluded a day’s hiking with taking the kids to a quiet spot, sending them off to be alone, giving them time to reflect…you get the idea.

It takes a bit of wind out of the sails of a climactic last program to do the same activity, the day before.

Our choices now were limited; we’d sent the Naturalists home already. Maria and I had planned to run this reflective activity on our own. That meant we were stuck with a group of 45 students. Too big to do anything intimate. Too big to take on any other trail in Zion Park – we’d already walked the paths designated for large groups.

Maria and I sat on the floor in the hotel hallway, blurting out and shooting down ideas, not getting anywhere.

It was getting late; we were bleary eyed.

What happened next was one of the most amazing moments of synergy, of collaborative design I’ve ever known. The “Yes, ands” were flying.

It began was a kakamie idea: what if we found a trail – a loop – and we stationed 4 educators at various places.

“Yes, and…!”

Each educator had a prompt.

“Yes, and…!”

The students would go in small groups around the huge loop.

Yes, and…!”

They’d write or talk about the prompt at that staff-station!

Maria raised a point: it would be a logistical nightmare to cycle 45 students through a half hour loop.

Then, as if a rock had gotten dislodged from a fresh-water wellspring,  the program came to us.

The Outdoor Bazaar

One beautiful location.

Four educators.

45 kids.

We start in a circle. Maria reads a Mary Oliver Poem.

We challenge the students to use 45 minutes of silence to find something within to bring home with them. Each educator has 2 prompts, each on an index card.

The group counts down from 10.

The educators scamper away from the circle – finding spots a few minutes’ walk apart.

Each has their two prompts ready.

Silently, students drift to a teacher. Silently, the teacher shows the prompt to a student who has approached.

The student nods. He or she sits on the soft sand to write. Or think. Or look. Or build.

Whenever the student’s heart is ready, off he or she goes to another teacher, another prompt.

45 minutes later, I’ve had about 6 students visit my station. The remainder, I’ve watched walk or sit or write or contemplate.

We reform the circle. We share powerful moments.

Another Mary Oliver Poem. “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We stand in silence, together.

We head to the bus.

The response from students was tremendous.

  • One student who is prone to exaggeration said it was one of the most powerful experiences of his life.

  • One student expressed surprise: how awesome, she had wondered, could could an “outdoor activity” be? And yet, she had to admit, it was awesome: she felt a connection to the natural landscape she hadn’t even felt while hiking it.

  • One student read from a letter, addressed to a simple rock, extolling the virtue of its silence – written by a girl who struggles with a self-diagnosed propensity to talk too much.

  • One student talked about how amazing the chance was just to lay and watch the clouds drift by.

  • One student built an Andy Goldsworthy-style sculpture on the banks of a river where, by nightfall, the current would wash it away.

The Actual Prompts:

Feel free to borrow or change any of these, and I invite you to comment and add creative prompts of your own! I will feature a list of excellent discussion and activity prompts in the week ahead. I’d love to include YOURS!

  • Make a list of 20 (awesome) things about yourself
  • Draw a “constellation” of your life – with 40 stars, labelled with the most important people, places, activities, and things
  • Write: “If you really knew me…you’d know…and you’d see…”
  • List as many smells / sights / and sounds as you can
  • Draw a picture or cartoon about your ideal future
  • What advice do you wish you could give your freshman self and send it back in time?
  • Create an Andy Goldsworthy-style sculpture out of the rocks, plants, and terrain around you
  • Lay down, close your eyes, and count down slowly from 100. (If you fall asleep, we’ll wake you up at the end :O)
  • Pick one object in your view and try to convince it that it’s really important
  • Gather 5 beautiful things and hide them

Conclusion : On the bus home, I was full of excitement and pride. Maria and I had used the limitations of the final program to create something new, an Outdoor Bazaar, where students could browse, graze, or indulge in the experience that most spoke to them.

Now, we can use that activity again. Change the activities. Change the location. Keep the framework.

Now, I can share it with other outdoor educators.

But the best part? I co-designed it with a brilliant and creative colleague, one with an amazing head on her shoulders, and a great heart. One whose judgment and creativity I respect and admire.

One who I’d caught and scolded for sneaking out of her hotel room, long after curfew, on her own class trip.

Eight years ago.

 * * *

Maria’s Story in her own words: Imagine a group of 45 teenagers. What comes to mind? In your vision, they might be texting, laughing, talking loudly on the bus. Maybe you see them in a classroom, or at a sports game, or at the ever-stereotypical mall.  I’m willing to bet, however, that you did not initially imagine them sitting peacefully on the bank of the Virgin River, writing studiously in their journals and building sculptures reminiscent of Zen gardens.  That rare scene is the exact sight I was treated to on the 10th grade JCHS trip to Zion National Park.

To be honest, I did not have huge expectations for the success of our closing program.  On the contrary, I was full of doubt. “The kids are going to be bored, or distracted, or tired, or cold,” I thought. “After 4 days of activities, hiking, group reflection time, games, and programs, what on earth could we create that would capture their attention and imagination?” Enter Evan Wolkenstein, Experiential Education Extraordinaire, and, of late, my mentor, colleague, and cheerleader. “Let’s design the program together,” he said. “Let’s keep the ideas rolling, the creativity flowing, and yes, let’s stay up till 1 in the morning, scribbling on scratch paper in the hallway, if that’s what it takes.”

Beyond the program itself and the reactions of the students, what amazed me about this process was the true experience of co-designing and co-creating with a colleague/teacher. I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a synergy quite like it before.

One of the main factors which I believe made our process flow so well is our mutual respect for one another.  I see Evan as a sort of “educational magician” who knows how to be honest with his students, how to be fully present and earnest, how to listen in the way all teachers wish their students would, and how to orchestrate journeys and lessons which push the boundaries of “standard” education.  Evan sees me (and I only know this because he insists on telling me, often) as an “outdoor education wizard” of sorts, and I can tell by the way he says “Hmmm” after I’ve presented an idea that he takes said ideas very seriously.  Thus, when we set about designing a program together, I quickly learned that this mutual respect allowed the good ideas to flourish and the bad ones to be shut down.  If Evan wasn’t thrilled with my suggestion, he immediately vetoed it, and I was thankful for the constructive feedback.  If I thought a prompt he presented wasn’t awesome, I felt free to be honest rather than polite, and we nixed that too.  Thus, when we heard “Yes, and…!” we knew we had struck a truly good idea (or at least one which both of us believed to be truly good).

The immense success of the program literally brought me to tears.  As students shared their impressions and feedback in our closing circle, I was floored by the depth of their thought and their willingness to share vulnerability with one another.  As someone who fully believes in the power that the natural world can have on the human soul and psyche, I still tend to be amazed when I witness the effects of “Nature Time” on others. In the end, our success as educators was simply in setting the tone for students to take some “Nature Time,” and do with it what they would. They had been given an activity with the freedom to choose their own level of engagement with the content.

Overwhelmingly, they chose to dive in fully. What a sweet sight, indeed.