Thursday, September 19, 2013

Helping Teachers Ask Open-ended Questions

All teachers feel anxious about this time of year: a new start; a fresh beginning. The school year looms close. I am excited about this coming school year. My innovation education exploration has led me to this place. This summer, I, along with several colleagues, had the chance to be part of a "ride-along" professional development at Project Breaker, Juliette LaMontagne's TED senior fellowship project. We watched 18-23 year olds engage in a two week design thinking challenge. As part of the professional development we were asked to interact at times and other times observe silently. This proved to be a challenge for some teachers who are used to helping students. I found this fascinating. It was difficult for teachers to watch students struggle in defining the problem. It was difficult for them to not control the outcome. I learned that this is the sticky moment for teachers: it is hard for teachers to not know what the outcome of an assignment will be. They are uncomfortable with the open-ended-ness of this.

After speaking to others involved in Design Thinking, it seems that this is the tough spot. How do you teach teachers to be comfortable with this lack of control? It is not just about being a facilitator rather than an expert. It is really about the not-knowing. As an artist, I am pretty comfortable with not knowing what the outcome of something will be. When I sit down to make a piece of art, I have no idea what it will ultimately look like. I simply begin with something I am interested in, or with manipulating materials in a way that seems intriguing. This summer, I started a big piece. It makes me uncomfortable to work large, so I made myself do it. I knew I wanted to begin by sewing the paper with a sewing machine. I had done that before and I wanted to explore it further. I knew I wanted to use language as I am fascinated with language. But then, I saw another artist's work and liked the way they used watercolor and wanted to incorporate that. And so it goes. When I get stuck, I talk to my husband and listen to what he says and my reaction to it. Or I start another piece. At one point, I wanted to try something different, but it didn't feel right as part of this piece, so I began another. The outcome is not predictable and really not controllable.

But how do you teach this to others? It really comes down to process. If there is a process embedded in a class that a teacher trusts, then they will feel more comfortable with open-ended questions and outcomes. As I begin a new piece of art, I know my process of making and I trust it. Speaking with a colleague who is a poet this summer, I compared this to his writing a poem. He doesn't know what the final poem will look like, but he knows his process and trusts it. He completely understood.

Design thinking is Stanford Design School's codification of the artistic process and it can be embedded in any curriculum. Teachers need to use this process themselves in order to trust it, whether in their own practice as artists, writers, gardeners, or makers of things. It can be used in whatever creative process students are engaged in: writing a paper, solving a problem, creating a piece of artwork....

Design Thinking in Action-Teaching Creative Process

When I first began teaching at Scarsdale High School six years ago, I was amazed at how grade oriented the students were. I would demonstrate a technique and describe their assignment and all too quickly I would hear, "I'm done. What grade do I get?" I had been teaching previously at a similar school: high stakes and high socio-economic level. So what was different? The previous school had been all girls for one and private as well. I have no idea if either of those things were significant, all I knew was the techniques I had previously used weren't enough to get kids to engage at Scarsdale.

In architecture classes, in curriculum I designed, I embedded a process. I did this by instinct or feel. As an artist myself, I know the importance of process. Often unsure of the end result, I lean on my own process. In Architecture, my students always had to brainstorm, come up with at least three solutions before they explored only one and were allowed to fail, start over or redesign anywhere along the way. After the first few projects in a class, students got used to my insistence that they follow the "rules". 

My other classes, where I was following a jointly designed curriculum, did not go so well. I struggled to get kids to slow down, brainstorm many ideas and then finally develop one. Kids' attention spans are getting shorter and shorter-actually that's probably true for all of us. Multi-tasking, their days programmed to the second, students can only give a few minutes to any task. Tutors are hired so that students will block out time to work on a subject, not because they need help with the work or material. And we are all used to "sound-bites" of information. We no longer read long articles in the newspaper, but expect the information to be summarized in a short paragraph or video clip. 

This year, I began the year using a road map for design thinking with all my classes and the difference is palpable. I love it! By slowing them down at the beginning of the year, I think I've set the ground work for a full year of focus on process. And this is a great thing! If students learn to follow a process and trust it, it is easier for them to take risks or pursue an idea without knowing its outcome. They will take more chances and be more creative as they will not be limited by knowing how the idea will turn out in the end. 

I asked one of my classes if anyone had ever gotten three-quarters of the way through a project and decided they didn't like the topic or wanted to change it, but didn't because they and already spent so much time on it. Almost every student raised their hand. I asked if they had any ideas about how to rectify that and one young man said, "I think it would be really helpful to follow this road map with anything we do particularly the brainstorming part, before we pick the direction we want to go in and invest so much time." Exactly. 

I am excited to see what happens for my students as this process becomes integral in their practice. Having a road map, a process, will, I think, free them up to try ideas and fail, try again, learn to be resilient and ultimately more creative, thoughtful, adaptable, imaginative and just plain better thinkers and makers.