Rediscovering Creativity by Building It

By Svetlana Stanislavskaya, Enrollment Administrator

Staff gather to view each other’s designs of a wallet for a colleague.

Staff gather to view each other’s designs of a wallet for a colleague.

Creativity is present in every school both in the innovations and enthusiasm of the children and in the adventures encouraged and shared by teachers and parents.

Can this creative spirit be harnessed? Can one learn and teach confidence in one’s own creativity? Can this energy be directed towards focused problem-solving? “Absolutely!” say the staff of the Hasso Plattner Stanford Institute of Design (also known as the Stanford d.school).

On April 27, the Bing teachers enjoyed a staff development day of complete immersion in the institute’s inspirational “design thinking” philosophy. This day came about when Joon Yun, a Bing parent who is friendly with members of the d.school faculty, described design thinking to the staff with infectious enthusiasm and offered to organize an event to showcase it. Yun invited designers and educators to share and interpret their work and guide the staff through hands-on exercises. The presenters/facilitators included Bing parents George Kembel, executive director of the d.school; Chris Cowart, guest lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Busi-ness and a director at IDEO; and Diego Rodriguez, associate consulting professor of the d.school and a partner at IDEO. Kim Saxe, lecturer at the d.school and director of the Innovation Lab at The Nueva School, a school for pre-K to eighth grade in Hillsborough, Calif., rounded out the panel.

The event was held at the d.school, an adventure space in the heart of the Stanford campus. The staff found themselves in an environment very much like a Bing classroom for adults, where hands-on learning is led by discovery and ideas are developed and prototyped. They were asked to attach sticky post-its to themselves that described how they felt that morning. The labels ranged from “nervous” to “inspired” to “feeling connected” to “ready to play.”

The first activity of the day was to find a partner and design a most ordinary object, a wallet, for a colleague. The participants interviewed each other, examined wallets, observed their partners and discussed their understanding of how the wallet was used. They asked questions and reflected on what they saw. The understanding and observation phases of design thinking are meant to develop a sense of empathy.

In the next phase, the staff was asked to focus on becoming aware of their partner’s needs, develop insights and suggest changes that will improve the other person’s experience. A critical component of design thinking is ideation, and it was at this time that all sorts of possibilities came into view, for example, a wallet that was embedded in a hat, a wallet belonging to a mother covered with bubble wrap (to distract a young child from getting into it) and a zip-on wallet for a person who never carried a wallet. Following the ideation stage, the staff created prototypes. The d.school faculty explained that prototyping, feedback and iteration, done early and often, are central to design thinking. Colleagues are more willing to give feedback on a rough prototype than after the project is more developed.

After a delicious lunch, the next challenge was presented to the participants—they were to generate solutions to the problem of teen obesity after viewing a video made at a local educational farm.

The Bing staff was divided into groups, equipped with colored markers at stand-up portable whiteboards. The process for devising the project was similar to the process for designing an object. The five-step approach involved empathy and observation, anything-is-possible brainstorming, visualizing solutions by creating actual prototypes, testing prototypes and iterating, and repeating the process as necessary. Teams brainstormed, had lively discussions and laughed a lot. They made costumes out of found materials and each group settled on one scenario to present their solution.

In the debriefing session afterward, teacher Matt Linden had a revelation—the steps in design thinking are similar to those teachers follow in conflict resolution; empathize (create a safe environment and acknowledge each child’s feelings), observe (watch body language, listen without interrupting, gain insight), interpret (consider different vantage points and articulate the problem), ideate (let children come up with the solution, and resume discussion if the solution is not working), prototype (support children in choosing and implementing their plan) and test (let the play resume, reflect on attempts to find an acceptable alternative and reiterate, “Next time you can say/do/ make…”). The steps aren’t necessarily linear. They can occur simultaneously or they can be repeated. And just like social problem solving, the design thinking approach requires practice.

The day concluded with a graduation ceremony and presentation to each member of the Bing staff with a d.school pin celebrating the innovation that results from interdisciplinary collaborations. The staff chose from among five designs, all based on the d.school’s logo.

Yun gave the staff a follow-up gift of a heart-warming slideshow documenting their day of play and discovery the next day. The staff is grateful to Yun and all the d.school team for the experience of a design approach, not purely an intellectual exercise, but as a way to think about problem solving.