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....