Extraordinary Design Thinking: The Extraordinaires Strike Again!

On Monday, July 18, I had the opportunity to get back into the Professional Development sphere.  Working with PlusUs , I was able to do a 1/2 day of professional development for teachers in Philadelphia’s University of the Arts “Professional Institute for Educators.”  The class is being taught by Phil Holcombe, founder of PlusUs and an instructor for the PIE program.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve done any kind of teaching at the continuing ed level outside my own district, but stepping back in was easy.  I pulled out a couple of improv games to set the culture (thanks @wickeddecent and @lndeutsch), organized my deck of Prof. Development activities, bought about $25 worth of toothbrushes (my “go to” object when asking people to look for innovative designs and to read intention out of those objects–post a comment if you want to know more about toothbrushes and how my concern for dental health lead me to design), grabbed my Extraordinaires Design Studio and a few bags stuffed with materials to run the Cooper Hewitt’s “Ready Set Design” activity with the Extraordinaires as the client.

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I’ve said this before, but there’s no better way to help someone understand what design and design thinking are than to actually engage them in a short project that’s deep in empathy for the user and allows them to work quickly and collaboratively.  Reflecting afterward sets the learning and allows it to serve as a touchstone for all the other activities and learning to come this week.  (It’s a week-long class.)

Again, if you’re trying to help people understand the “what” of design and design thinking, I can’t recommend the Extraordinaires enough.  In 30 minutes learners can run through empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and feedback.  Running that order the first time through, for first time design thinkers helps develop a familiarity with DT as a heuristic.  Second and third iterations are possible, and a more organic approach to DT starts to take over.



Extraordinaires Design Club: Designerly Minded Teachers

As followers of this blog may know, I have been working with and observing a group of Middle School learners since late November as they meet weekly to play and learn with the Extraordinaires Design Studio.  We started in November and December by getting to know one another,  learning about user-centered design and empathy’s central place in that endeavor, and exploring the Design Studio kits.

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In the intervening months, we have learned more about visualizing ideas, practiced the ancient Greek technique of “ekphrasis” with a high-school student and a Hollywood writer/producer/director, built 20-minute prototypes from Dollar Store parts; we even skyped with Rory O’Connor, one of the designers responsible for the Extraordinaires and generally had a lot of fun imagining how the world might be a better place, not only for the extraordinary characters who are the Extraordinaires, but also for us.

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However, the most interesting and rewarding event of the year and the one that holds the most promise for moving design-based learning into more of the classes in my own district was the Extraordinaires Design Sprint we held for teachers at Perkiomen Valley Middle School East on Wednesday, May 17th.

Over the course of four club meetings, the students in the Extraordinaires Design Club and I organized an experience for teachers that combined the Extraordinaires Design Studio, design activity sheets from the teacher’s resources page of the Extraordinaires website, and the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Ready, Set, Design” activity.  Teamed in pairs, six teachers from different disciplines received an Extraordinaire, a Project Card, and a Think Card.  They also received a brown paper bag containing equal parts of “structures, fasteners, and surfaces.”  Pairs squared off against pairs to compete for awards. Two teams designed cooking utensils for The Giant, two teams designed an object to clean yourself with for The Robot, and two teams (had we had more in attendance) would have designed a music player for The Superhero.

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I’ll not detail the full lesson here.  If you would like to run the lesson with your students, use it in professional development sessions, or just play around with it on your own, you can find a link to it here.  (If you do use the lesson, drop a comment back to me letting me know how it went, what modifications you made, etc.)

The club has one more meeting, next Wednesday, May 24.  We’ll be sharing ideas and stories from the year, reflecting on what worked and what we could have done better, and developing positive, critical feedback on the Extraordinaires product itself.

When Designers meet designers

Last Wednesday, January 18th, my high school “Design Lab” class and the Extraordinaires Design Thinking Club I’ve organized at our campus’ middle school were lucky to host designers Phil Holcombe and Gayle Ulrich of PlusUs, a Philadelphia-based, educational design consultancy working with clients to help them reimagine the educational experience for all people involved, learners, teachers, staff, and families.

I’d met Phil and Gayle back in September whenimg_3209
they hosted one of their first League of Extraordinary Educators meetings in Philadelphia.  These gatherings, comprised of local teachers and educators empowering their students through design-based learning, have helped initiate some intriguing conversations and provided a venue for teachers to share some of the amazing work they’ve been doing.

Phil and Gayle got a chance to critique some of my Design-Lab students’ presentations of open-sourced learning projects and they also listened to middle school students tell the stories of their Extraordinaires and the what they designed to meet their Extraordinaire’s need.

img_3621Part of our Design-Lab/Open Source Learning class is to try and bring more people into the room, be that physically or virtually,  so that the students have access to as many experts in the fields in which they are interested.  Having Phil and Gayle come into our classroom, and then to spend time with our Middle School Design Class offering feedback on their storytelling and inventions, raised the students’ level of professionalism.  To a one, they were excellent and recognized first-hand the value of having other eyes on their projects, especially eyes that saw their projects anew.

While I’m proud of the HS Design Lab students and what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past two marking periods, I’m equally proud of the Middle School Extraordinaires Design Thinking Club.  These students have designed and build low-fi models for each other, they’ve run through thee iterations of the Extraordinaires Design Studio projects, and they’ve presented with minimal preparation.

George Peppard’s character from the 80s TV show, The A Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”  I’ll go with that, but with this admission:  I had no plan. Only an inkling, an idea, and an itch. What’s most wonderful in school is when the students help the teacher make the plan come together.  And that is what happened here.


Of Matters and Counting

Just before Christmas, the students in our Middle School Extraordinaires Design Club got to check out the Extraordinaires Design Studios.  In their first week back, they got right to work, designing, improving, researching, and trying to make the lives of their Extraordinaires better in some way.

We started with empathy maps.  The Extraordinaires cards are so highly detailed and varied in the aspects of life they show that one can easily see countless details in the character’s life, and infer or imagine even more.

character-cardsAfter we worked through the empathy maps, the students chose an “object” card which gave them the second and final piece to their design challenge.  Using their empathy maps, the object cards and their character cards, students started to devise ideas for an object to meet the needs of their character.

Some students were designing objects to carry things in for an evil genius.  Others were designing a form of protection for a ninja or something to play with for a robot.  No matter what they were doing, one of the great things they did, without prompting was they began looking at each other’s designs, asking questions, making suggestions, and complementing each other on their ideas.

Einstein, supposedly, said, “Not everything that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters.”  There’s more here–in this product, this activity, this entrance to a world of making–that matters than there is in a semester of memorizing, multiplication, and the misery of homework.  Do those things matter? Certainly.  But the world isn’t counting on an upcoming generation that can memorize and comply to the dictates of others.  It’s counting on a generation of students who can see problems and devise solutions that benefit not only themselves but also the world.

Empathy and imagination, as engendered through the Extraodinaires Design Studio and design thinking, present a clear pathway to such a future.  I’m counting on it.


An “Extraodinairey” Christmas Carol

Many readers know I’m fascinated with a product from The Creativity Hub called The Extraordinaires Design Studio.  If you’re not familiar with The Creativity Hub, you ought to check them out.  They’ve built a reputation on their first product, Rory’s Story Cubes, but are taking gaming and learning to the next level with their Design Studio Deluxe.

I’m currently piloting a Middle School Design Club of 12 middle-schoolers, three high-school helpers, and a few teachers.  The club is based on the use of The Design Studio Deluxe as an introduction to the design process and design thinking.

I’ve been studying and employing design and design thinking in my classroom for over a decade, but one thing has always held me back from helping DT spread to other classrooms, and that is the difficulty of truly capturing and communicating in succinct and pointed language just what DT is all about. And so, my class, my methods…?  They found little transfer or application to other classrooms.

And then, in March of 2016, I received The Extraordinaires Design Studio Pro for my birthday as a gift from my children.  In September of that same year, I used Extraordinares characters in my new Design Thinking class in my high school, and something amazing happened. I didn’t have to lecture, to handout 5 different versions of design thinking, to stop students at every point along the way to let them know what they were doing.  Instead, these characters, highly detailed images on 7.5″X 5″ cards (see below), captured my students’ imagination and drew them into their lives.  I was so amazed at my student’s reactions, and so happy to see how my own children reacted to the Design Studio Pro, that I purchased all three of them a design studio deluxe several months ago and could hardly wait till Christmas to give them these gifts.

spyIf I sound like a plant by some clever marketing team, I get it. I’m gushing here.  However, in over 20 years of teaching and more than a decade of research, work, and play in the world of design-based learning, I have never seen a product that makes the vast and amazing world of design as transparent and immediately engaging as this one does.  Below are some photos I took of my daughter’s second design with her Design Studio Deluxe.  I lead her through some quick empathy mapping with her Extraordinaire, but all the rest of the work is hers.  Her challenge–design a source of light for the Wizard that he could take with him

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Her final solution, iterated several times through some questions I asked, was a crystal ball filled with a potion/bioluminescent solution. (I’m not sure of her chemistry on this one…flour and urine don’t generally produce light 😉

This is my daughters fourth or fifth design since she received the kit.  I’m looking forward to many, many more.