An Extraordinaires Design Club: Christmastime Update

As some readers may know, I’m currently piloting a middle-school design club using The Creativity Hub’s “Extraordinaires Design Studio.”  One of the main goals of the club, beyond introducing students to the world of design and design thinking, is to help build their empathy muscles, something many consider a workout more people in the world could benefit from.  (See this recent article by Thomas Markham, this from Harvard, and, if you want to go way back, read the chapter on Empathy in Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mindor just google “empathy in the classroom.”)

If you’ve followed some of my previous posts on the Extraordinaires club, you’ll note that I started the club by using a modification of a lesson by Kriscia Cabral at Scholastic, Inc’s website that focuses on getting students to know each other and to build empathy for each other before I began engaging with the Extraordinaires Design Studio.

The Middle School Design Club students presented their designs to their partners at our last meeting of the year, December 21.   (We’re working on a rather extensive video with the High School film department of these presentations and other aspects of the students’ first experience with the Extraordinaires Design Studio, but a few more weeks of video need to be shot.)

We did get a chance to unbox the design studios and deliver those to the students, and students began to explore the fascinating world of the Extraordinaires.  Working individually and pairing a random Extraordinaire card with an object card, the students quickly organized design challenges for themselves.  Keeping empathy at the forefront of the process, however, I slowed them down and asked them to go deep into their character’s life and experiences.  Here are the slides I used to introduce them to the Empathy Mapping process I’ve used (based on the work done at the

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The Design club students didn’t get all that far before we ran out of time, so we’ll be revisiting the empathy mapping process at our next meeting.  However, I did get a shot of one student’s studio before we left that shows a solid beginning of the process:


This is a start of many such projects and designs that will involve individual determination, empathy for the other, and real-time feedback and iteration.  It’s the start of a process that I believe can lead to outcomes far beyond standardized tests, outcomes that reveal learning at levels never achieved via testing:  empathy, grit, imagination, and hope.

The Most Magnificent Thing…Part II

Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the 15 years I’ve been engaging students in design projects, it’s that there’s never enough time.  Our Extraordinaires design club at Perkiomen Valley Middle School East began its work this year on December 1st and for the past two weeks we’ve been working through the design process as a way to get to know each other by building partners our interpretation of The Most Magnificent Thing . (Thanks to Kriscia Cabral at Scholastic’s “Read-Write-Think” website for this lesson.)

In addition to the caveat about design and time, I should add that the return on that investment of time, in terms of developing empathy and creative confidence is immense.  During their interviews as well as the early stages of their designs, as they were sketching and tinkering around with materials, I discovered, as I always have, that the level of thinking and processing that’s happening is almost unmatched by anything I’ve ever done in my classroom.


From The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

As students have to consider which bits of information from their interviews provide insights they can use to create a final design solution, they are constantly evaluating, synthesizing, testing, discarding, and reiterating until, as in Ashley Spires book, they find a solution that fits their vision and their partner’s needs.

Two weeks ago we had some students miss our meeting, and that slowed down our process, but last week we were on again and set to work in earnest, with most students completing their designs for their partner.  We need only present our ideas next week.  After a short reflection writing on the process, we’ll be working on an “unboxing” video of the students as they open their Extraordinaires Design Studio kits and take a look at the product in earnest.

The Most Magnificent Thing

Welcome to the Extraordinaires Middle School Design club.  On December 9, twelve middle school students from Perkiomen Valley Middle School East began a journey to develop their innate design muscles and minds through a human-centered approach to problem finding and solving.

We began the year with an improvisational theater game to get comfortable with one another and to better learn each other’s names.  I then read the children’s story, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires.  This led to the group pairing up and conducting empathy interviews with each other in which they were asking questions and probing to find out as much as they could about their partner, not only through what they said but how they said it.  (The better part of this lesson is adapted from Kriscia Cabral‘s contribution at

After interviewing their peer partner and looking for patterns and emerging problems amidst the answers, students begin sketching potential “magnificent thing” for their partners.  Ms. Caadobe-spark-4bral rightly includes a preparatory step — the framing of a problem statement–which helps students organize their thoughts and narrate a problem, but my high-school student helper and I could move amongst the group quickly to provide 1-to-1 support and advice, and, in doing so, move the session along a bit more quickly.

Working with middle school students, which I’ve done for over 20 years, takes a good deal of patience and a lot of individual attention.  Some of them have already put up the ego defenses while others are as willing to take risks as third graders.  So putting them at ease that there was no “right” answer here and talking them through ways to synthesize their data and find ways to address multiple perceived problems at once gave them the confidence they needed to step up their process and move to the actual low-fi prototyping that most wanted to get to from day 1.

Pictures below reveal a good deal of their process and progress.  Next week:   Completing the projects, Presenting Magnificent Things, and Unboxing the Extraordinaires.

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Thinking, Doing, Being


The three words in the title above have become a kind of mantra for me.  (Indeed, they are part of this very website’s by-line.)  I first put them together in a paper arguing for design-based learning as one of the best ways to fulfill the full promise of American public education.  The progression I intended at first was that thinking led to action which in turn is the essence of human being (homo faber leads to homo sapiens sapiens), but the progression now seems forced to me.  It suggests a linearity where one does not exist.

Instead, what seems more likely is that these three states are part of our organic nature, part of the growth cycle that is our maturation.  In just over a week I’ll be starting a club that will offer me the chance to delve more deeply into this hypothesis.


On November 30, along with a cadre of high-school students and a group of willing middle school students, I will embark on the creation of an Extraordinaires Design Thinking Club.

My first exposure to The Extraordinaires Design simulation was when I stumbled upon the “Design Studio Pro” version at my local Barnes and Noble store.  I knew immediately that would be the gift I sought for my birthday.  Luckily my family understands my intense belief in design as a heuristic; a few weeks later the I was opening the box.

Between March and September of this year, my family played with the set, sometimes merely sketching out ideas, and other times actually building out prototypes.  But the true power of this game didn’t hit me until I introduced it to the students in my high-school Design Thinking course.  There, my students dove so deeply into the Extraordinaire characters you would have thought they’d read entire books on their characters.  Such was not the case.  We simply began our exploration of the Extraordinaires character cards by grouping up, making individual observations, and then sharing these observations.

And the results were phenomenal.

A few blogged reflections from a few of my students, and a quick e-mail to “The Creativity Hub” (the makers of the game) and the next thing I knew I was Skyping with Rory O’Connor (one of the co-creators of the game) and John Fiore, the educational consultant working with the company.  Within an hour we’d negotiated a deal that Perkiomen Valley Middle School East would be one of the prototyping sites in the USA for a new, Design Thinking Club with “The Extraordinaires Design Studio” at its heart.


This club starts in about 10 days, and while I know it will be more work, I also know the rewards that come from introducing young students to Design Thinking.  Eighteen Design Studio Deluxe kits showed up at my classroom door a few weeks ago, and I’ve been itching to get them into the hands of budding designers.  In just four days, we’ve already filled half the spots available for the club.  With the help of a few high school students from my Design Thinking course, I know we’ll find success in short measure, such is the beauty of the project/product.