This article is part of a longer series on design thinking, a flexible framework for empathy-driven creative work.

The Power of Prototyping

A few days ago, I got the opportunity to do a keynote in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. One of my highlights was the student display area, where small groups of students shared what they had created. One boy talked to me about the iterations he had made in designing a new car wheel. At another table, three students programmed a robot to pick up stuffed animals (stuffies, not taxidermied creatures), and at another table, a girl showed me how she had used Makey Makey and Scratch together to create an interactive story.

The making varied from STEM to humanities to journalism to STEAM  to history; often with a mash-up between subjects and topics and ideas. But there was something common: the sheer excitement in their voices as they shared their process. They talked openly about their mistakes and frustrations and how those led to success in the end. Students described their passion for their craft and often described how they chose to work on their projects on their own time after school.

It was a reminder that making is magic. 

When kids own the creative process, they become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and designers. They learn resiliency and grit, not through a no-nonsense toughness,  but through passion and persistence.

Creating a Prototype

In the LAUNCH process,  students start out with Look, Listen, and Learn, where they tap into awareness and build empathy. Next, they move into the Ask Tons of Questions phase, where they tap into their natural curiosity. This leads to student-centered research in the Understand the Process or Problem phase, which ultimately builds the background knowledge for ideation in the Navigate Ideas phase. After navigating ideas, students move into the creating phase.

This is the part that students tend to love—at first. It’s hands-on. It’s multi-sensory. It is what we imagine when we think about creative work. At times, students get lost in their work. With a clear sense of context based upon their research and a clear plan before them, they may even enter a place of flow in which they focus so intently on the creative process that they lose sight of everything else.

On the other hand, this can also be a phase where students hit “project fatigue.” Sometimes they simply can’t figure out how to finish a particular part of their design. The problems can feel too insurmountable. The vision of what they will create doesn’t square with their actual skills. Certain students get distracted and zone out. Others get frustrated and want to give up entirely. Often, the group dynamics fall apart over creative differences (not unlike a rock band). Tempers flare and students walk away in tears, saying, “I just can’t do it.”

But it’s worth it. When students are fully engaged in the making process, the class feels most alive. It isn’t always easy, but it’s what makes learning stick and it’s ultimately what cultivates the creativity in your students.

What Does It Mean to Make?

When you hear the word “create” or “make,” you might be tempted to think of a tangible, physical product. However, in design thinking, students might design other types of products. So here are some of the types of things students might create.

#1: A Digital Work

Students might create a podcast, a documentary, or a website that they publish to a global, connected audience. Even when this is the case, it’s important that students can identify an audience that goes beyond merely “online.” In other words, who online do you want to reach and how will you reach them?

duct tape and cardboard#2: A Tangible Work

This is what we often think of when we hear about maker spaces. This is what happens when kids do a cardboard challenge or code with Arduino or paint a mural. When we do our Shark Tank style projects, kids typically create a finished tangible work.

calendar#3: An Event

This might be something like a car wash or a dance or a graffiti removal evening. It might be something like a TEDx event or a play. Your students could plan a play that taps into empathy with  the community or they might have a screening for a documentary.

earth#4: A Service

Similar to an event, a service is an ongoing activity that students design to help others. Here, what they are designing isn’t a typical finished, tangible product, but rather an action for others. Often, this works in a service learning activity.

Embracing Vintage Innovation

It’s true that some of the best projects involve a studio or a 3D printer. But some of the coolest projects are also built with duct tape and cardboard. My friend Trevor is one of the best PBL teachers I know and his students did an amazing World War II documentary using their smartphones. The picture quality wasn’t perfect but that didn’t matter. The real power was in the storytelling and the deeply human connection of having seemingly jaded high school students interviewing former World War II soldiers.

I never had a fancy studio or the most high-tech makerspace but I learned pretty quickly that the most powerful part of PBL is student agency and creativity. Voice and Choice will always beat out a 3D printer. Always.

Sometimes the best choice in technology is a roll of duct tape and some cardboard. Sometimes hands-on learning really should involve our own two hands because it pushes you to think through ideas with a mind-body connection. The simplicity often inspires creative thinking for students:

This is the idea of vintage innovation. It’s the idea that innovation isn’t about being new but being different. It’s the notion that you can borrow ideas and resources from the past to create something new. Vintage innovation happens when you mash the high-tech and low-tech together. Here kids might do whiteboard videos that combine sketch-noting and video making. Or they might use low-tech items to build something quirky with Raspberry Pi or Arduino. It could be a Socratic Seminar that you record and turn into a podcast.

Vintage innovation mindset involves taking design challenges and using the limitations as design features. Here, the creative constraint pushes you to think divergently and innovate. So, all of those problems you hate are essentially your design features. They are the problems you will solve, the parameters you will work within, and the hidden opportunities you will explore.

What does this actually look like?

Early on in my teaching, I wanted to have cutting edge technology. I had a vision for a paperless classroom with one-to-one learning. However, we didn’t have a budget for it. I wrote grants that were rejected. Eventually, though, I was able to find a bunch of old computers and run Linux on them. Suddenly, I was teaching students how to do additional coding and we were doing blogs, podcasts, and videos. We didn’t go one-to-one but instead used a blended approach with sticky notes and whiteboards mixed with computers. I’d argue it was better as a result. The limitations we had faced led me to a place where we could have a faster, more iterative approach to digital journalism.

Another time, I wanted to use design thinking in math. Unfortunately, our curriculum map was tight and we didn’t have a fancy makerspace. So, the physical prototyping was going to be pretty basic. Besides, I felt the same time crunch every other teacher faced. However, I met with my friend Javi and we began to explore ideas for how I might design within the constraints. We landed on a very low-fi, hands-on design project where students used volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning. All the constraints led us to a  better project in the end.

Consider another problem: Students are on their smartphones all the time. True, but are there ways you can tap into the creative and connective power of their devices? What if they used their devices in the Understand the Problem phase to connect to experts? What if they created prototypes on their devices? What if they documented their process using audio and video from their phones?

A little nuance here: sometimes there are very real challenges that you need to rail against. Injustice exists and you can’t simply innovate your way out of it. As educators, we have to fight hard for the kind of schools our students deserve. Sometimes we use the hammer to chisel something beautiful. Other times we use it to tear down injustice.

But often the challenges we see are not massive injustices. They are small restrictions that require a different way of thinking — if we are bold enough to take the creative risk.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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