For several months, a group of us has engaged in this “grand challenge” with a local high school. Faculty members from William & Mary and administrators, faculty and staff from the local school and division have been working together to form a clear vision and pathway to making this shift. We had a number of productive meetings to discuss the issues, but we realized that we needed a process to help move from conversation to action. With this in mind, we recently took part in a design thinking boot camp under the leadership of William & Mary Mason School of Business professor Graham Henshaw in the Jim and Bobbie Ukrop Innovation and Design Studio. In the past, I interviewed Michael Luchs from the business school on design thinking. I thought that describing the boot camp process might provide an interesting view of this process in action as a strategy to help a diverse group solve a complex and ill-defined problem.
The process described below uses Luch’s model of design thinking. There are many other approaches as well. The d.school at Stanford, IDEO and the Nueva School all offer models that share some steps but approach the process differently. I’d encourage you to compare and contrast the different models.
The Boot camp
Design thinking is a process that can be used in a variety of ways, from short-duration problem solving sessions to long-term, multi-phase projects. The example I describe here was a “boot camp” or intensive approach designed to both build familiarity with design thinking and to begin the process for developing a vision for a new kind of high school. The boot camp included approximately 30 participants (high school and college faculty, administrators, counselors, and a school board member) and lasted about five hours. We began with a fun challenge designed to illustrate all the steps of the design thinking process and also served to help the participants get to know each other and get the creative juices flowing. Then, we shifted to the primary focus of developing a vision for high school.
One of the key tenets of design thinking is to develop empathy for the stakeholders of the challenge, problem or opportunity you hope to address. We began this process of discovery by conducting focus group interviews with our primary stakeholders - current high school students. We conducted these interviews and summarized the themes as a way to understand the perspective of high school students. This was just the beginning of this phase, however, as we will systematically widen the circle of stakeholders in search of feedback and ideas as the process unfolds.
Informed with the students’ perspectives, we next shifted to defining the problem. We wanted to frame the problem around the needs of our stakeholders and also to identify why the problem was important. The key at this step is to be as specific and concrete as possible. Through an iterative process of working individually, then in small groups, we honed in on a problem statement that would frame our work for the remainder of the boot camp. In this case, we identified the problem in this way: "How might we create opportunities for students to solve real problems, engage with knowledge that matters in the world, and learn from each other and people in their community?"
In the Create phase, our goal was to generate as many possible solutions to the problem as possible. The goal was for volume rather than focusing on the most practical or realistic approaches. In our small groups, we each announced ideas one at a time and posted them on a large group white board with sticky notes. In some cases the ideas were framed as single words, phrases, or even pictures/diagrams. After a period of time, we looked for themes, patterns and connections among the ideas, rearranging the sticky notes as needed. We jotted notes on the white board to make the connections or relationships between ideas clear. At the end of this process, each group voted on the most promising potential solution. The groups then shared these ideas and began to discuss common themes among the approaches.
At this point, we concluded the boot camp, but the design thinking work will continue. We are currently involved in the development of one or more prototype designs grounded in the solutions we identified in the boot camp. These are not meant to be fully fleshed-out concepts, but rather just enough of a vision to elicit feedback from the stakeholders. We will then circle back to the Discover phase with different stakeholders to get feedback on these prototypes. This may cause us to revisit and revise the problem statement as we better understand the challenge. We will engage in multiple rounds of this process until we have a well-developed prototype. At that point, we will shift to the final phase.
In this phase, we will develop a more formal, multi-faceted vision and plan for redesigning the high school experience. Again, we will elicit feedback from a range of stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, community members, etc.). We will identify strengths of the approach, possible challenges, questions and suggestions. Drawing on the iterative process of design thinking, we will then go back through the stages as necessary to fully develop our vision and plan. We anticipate this process taking several months. While time consuming, we’re confident that this approach is critical for devising a robust solution to a wicked problem.
We left the design thinking boot camp very different than we began. We came together as diverse individuals with different concerns, ideas, and constraints. We left energized, excited, and more cohesive as a group. While engaging in the design thinking process takes time and can feel a bit like “two steps forward, one step back,” I would argue that this kind of problem-solving experience is productive and encourages innovative approaches. Now, I just need to figure out how to embed this kind of experience in the courses I teach.
How might (or do) you use design thinking in your teaching?
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