Thinking with Abandon

In reflecting upon June’s dt4e workshop, I honed in on the brainstorming process. To brainstorm effectively is to think with wild abandon and not care what others – or yourself – think about the results. In the moment you begin to self-censor, you become an ineffective brainstormer. The best brainstorms are like doing improv, where your mental self-control is allowed to let go.

I think this “giving oneself permission to let go” is the most difficult part of the design thinking process. The question becomes: how to help people free up their thinking? To put it another way: how do we take adults back to when they played and thought like kids?

To keep an aging brain healthy, research suggests engaging in new, novel activities that are challenging and stimulating – not simply getting better at something you already know, but participating in something totally outside your realm of expertise. I believe that this same recipe for brain health is applicable to improving our ability to brainstorm.

What if, prior to a dt4e workshop, each person participated in something quite different for themselves as an educator? What if educators spent their professional development time away from school not only attending workshops in their areas of expertise, but also  in learning something brand spanking new? For instance, anyone who says they cannot draw, take a Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop. Anyone who says they are not facile with design or technology, take a workshop in designing Rube Goldberg-like  digital-physical chain reactions. For those who never get physical, take a modern dance class.

The goal is to shake up our personal self-monitoring systems so we are comfortable thinking flexibly, and in the process enhance our aging brains by fostering new neuronal connections.

Design Thinking Workshop for Educators Starts in 5 days! Register Today

We are so pleased to announce the 5 week FREE virtual course: Design Thinking Workshop for Educators brought to you by Edutopia, IDEO & the Riverdale Country School!

Registration is now open, so be sure you log on to and reserve yourself a spot before the workshop starts on July 30th.

Design Thinking Workshop Schedule

Each Monday we will post a new assignment. Participants will use and a Ning site to complete the assignments at any time during the week. The workshop exercises are designed to take roughly 2-5 hours/week. We will send detailed emails once a week with links and resources for that week’s assignment.

July 30 – August 3 (Week 1): Introduction to the Design Thinking Process 
What is Design Thinking? How does it work? 
We’ll do some exercises to familiarize ourselves with the process and help us get into the Design Thinking mindset.

August 6 – 10 (Week 2): Discovery & Interpretation Phase 
I have a challenge. How do I approach it? I learned something. How do I interpret it?
We’ll define a group challenge, prepare research, and gather inspiration. To interpret, we’ll tell stories, look for patterns, and frame our opportunities.

August 13 – 17 (Week 3): Ideation
We have a better understanding of our challenge. What are some solutions? 
Now we brainstorm. No idea is wrong or too stupid. This week, we generate ideas, and refine them.

August 20 – 24 (Week 4): Experimentation & Evolution 
I see an opportunity: What do I create? I tried something new: How can I use it? 
We’ll create prototypes and refine them using real world feedback.

August 27-31 (Week 5): The Future 
In our final week, we’ll work to apply Design Thinking in our school or community setting.
At the end of the five weeks, the content will be archived, but we will continue the conversation about Design Thinking in education on and social media.



Thoughts on dt4e

First of all a huge thanks to the Riverdale Country School (RCS) and IDEO for putting together the Design Thinking for Educators Workshop, what a brilliant two days!

The workshop started Thursday morning on the sunny RCS campus. Designers, students, teachers and administrators gathered together in the RCS multi purpose room filled with IDEO’s colorful rolling desks. We started the workshop with a 45-minute challenge designed to give us an overview of the design thinking (DT) process.

We partnered in groups of two and were tasked with redesigning our partner’s morning commute. Together we went through the five phases of the DT process (Discovery, Interpretation, Ideation, Experimentation, Evolution) to identify the challenges our partner faced every day as part of their commute in order to come up with tangible solutions for them.

We were given a list of tips for the discovery process, to allow us to engage with our partner’s reality in an empathetic way. We were urged to not solely gather facts but to get at the moments, the stories behind the facts because design thinking, at its core, is about the human experience. It’s about improving our moments by challenging the status quo and placing the human, as an individual rather than a statistic, at the center of every experience.

I told my partner, Pia, a learning specialist at RCS, about my commute and enumerated my many complaints: the overly crowded subways, the unpredictability of the G train, the frustration I feel every morning as I try to manage a modicum of personal space, stuck in a mass of tired, cranky, coughing, sneezing people all in a hurry to get where they are going. In retrospect however, after having seen Pia’s prototypes of the solutions she came up with for my morning commute, I realized all of these complaints are the facts of my commute, shared by thousands of others taking the NYC subway. They do not reveal anything specific about my needs or my personal experience of the commute.

Armed with IDEO’s tips on discovery, Pia was able to identify the real story of my morning commute: I’m not a morning person. I’m actually not really a person at all in the mornings until I’ve had my second cup of coffee. And I’m a bit of a germaphobe, I absolutely hate having to be crammed so close to strangers that I can feel their breaths on my face, it sends me into a whirling state of paranoia about all the many diseases floating around the subway car, waiting like predators to get me sick.

So Pia designed a subway that would have Purell dispensers as well as cup holders and coffee machines in every subway car. It was a simple, elegant solution and it was such a salient insight into the overarching challenge of my commute. What amazed me was that through this process Pia was able to identify my morning commute challenge better than I could myself.

It was astounding to see the quality, breadth and creativity of the ideas produced in such a short amount of time. From bike helmets that protect your hair do, to a digital butler, which bounces ideas off with you about things you’re interested in while you’re driving, the prototypes were amazing. (MTA, if you’re listening, coffee machines and cup holders in the subway are pure gold…get on it).

Our next challenge, which was to be the core of the workshop, was to reimagine the 21st century library.

1. DISCOVERY: I have a challenge. How do I approach it?

We were split up into groups of five and sent off on different field trips to analogous places and on interviews with students and their families. One group went to Starbucks, another interviewed students, another a family and so on. This was all part of the discovery phase. Discovery is about being inspired and energized. The goal of discovery is to achieve a state of ‘informed intuition’ meaning that an intellectual grasp of the challenge is not enough, we want to become aware of the various aspects of a challenge at all levels (emotional, physical, empathetic, etc.).

When all the teams returned from their interviews and observations trips we gathered for lunch, excited for the next phase of the process.

2. INTERPRETATION: Learned something. How do I interpret it?

After lunch, we were ready to begin the interpretation phase. We were first asked to write down the information we had gathered on post-its notes. One thought or quote per post-it. It was interesting to see how all the members of my group, despite having all been in the same room and having participated in the same interview with a family of three, had heard or noticed such different insights. After getting all the information we had gathered out onto the post-its, we began to group them by themes.

We then arranged the themes into “How Might We”s (HMW). In this step we rephrased the problems we had identified into possibilities. For example, we realized that the students found it difficult to navigate the library and find the resources they were looking for. This insight was translated into a HMW: How might we redesign the ways in which books are grouped to ensure that students are able to find the books they seek?

3. IDEATION: I see an opportunity. What do I create?

Once we had identified some HMWs, we were reorganized into groups of 15 and voted on two HMWs that the aggregated group wanted to focus on. We then had to come up with as many ideas as possible, which we jotted down on post-its and put up on a board. Our goal was to come up with at least 100 ideas in the allotted time. It was an amazing experience seeing the ideas slowly trickle out at first before spurting out in a seemingly endless flow.

The second day of the workshop was split between prototyping the ideas we had come up with during ideation and examining our real life challenges through the DT lens.

4. EXPERIMENTATION: I have an idea. How do I build it?

The experimentation phase of the process is about thinking through an idea. It’s about getting ideas out of your brain so they don’t become too precious in your mind and making them tangible so that you can evaluate them and get rapid responses from stakeholders. The goal of prototyping is to get your idea out in any form; it doesn’t necessarily have to be in physical form, it can be role-playing or any other type of representation that successfully illustrates the idea.

We were split back into groups of five and each group selected two to three ideas to prototype. To build our prototypes we had access to anything in the room (chairs, tables, water bottles, etc.) as well as an assortment of arts and crafts materials.

Once the allotted time for building our prototypes was up, each group was given two minutes to present their prototype to the whole group as well as a panel of RCS students who provided feedback on each of the prototypes.

Each of the prototypes was breathtaking; no idea was too big or too small to be represented. One group designed a set of ‘bibliospecs’, which would function similarly to Google glasses whereby the wearer would see personalized information and set of resources tailored to her as she navigated the library. Another group designed a new type of librarian position that would hand deliver special invitations and VIP event invitations at the library to students. Yet a third group redesigned the library to include within it a large tree, hammock reading nooks, modular furniture and information kiosques. Each of the prototypes brimmed with wonder, imagination, whimsy and possibility.

5. EVOLUTION: I tried something. How do I evolve it?

Evolution is an ongoing process, a way to refine your ideas and concepts over time. All products, services and systems are constantly in the evolution phase. Nothing is ever done or perfect; as our needs evolve so too should our environments and interactions.

While we did not physically evolve our prototypes, getting the feedback from the students did give us a good idea of further steps in which to take our solutions to better meet their needs.

The rest of the day was spent focusing on the individuals in the room and their specific education challenges. We partnered up in groups of two and unleashed our specific complaints, changing them together into How Might We’s and coming up with a project plan to enact tangible solutions to the problems we face.

As the workshop came to an end, it was truly astonishing to reflect on all that we had learned. We had acquired a new skill set (design thinking), we had gathered insights on students’ needs and preferences, and, perhaps most importantly, we had learned about ourselves. We tend to take our mindsets for granted because the opportunities to question deeply how we think are so rare and far between. All systems, to varying degrees, instill in us a sense of immutability. As we experienced a new methodology of thinking, we were all forced, to some extent, to realize our own biases and assumptions. It was an incredibly empowering experience to be reminded, for it seems we often forget, that our experiences as individuals matter. We do not have to passively accept systems, services, products and environments that do not meet our needs. We do not have to wait for solutions to be handed down to us by ‘experts’. With the people around us and a simple yet powerful method, we have the power to take ownership of our experiences and effect tangible changes for ourselves. Design thinking is a set of tools but it is above all a mindset. It is about rethinking problems into possibilities; it is about being human and making the most of it.

If you couldn’t make it to the workshop, don’t worry you can still experience design thinking for yourself. Check out where you can get a free 94-page toolkit, which details the design thinking process as well as presenting real case studies of how the process has been used in schools to enact positive changes. Be sure to check back here with us and on our Twitter and Facebook page for more pictures of the workshop and announcements regarding upcoming initiatives.

As always, we’d love to know what you’re thinking. Whether you were at the workshop or not, let us know what’s on your mind: comments, questions, case studies, feedback…we love it all.

*This post was origninally published on the rethinkED blog on 6.16.2012

dt4e-initial WORKSHOP

The initial workshop for dt4e brought over 7o educators from around the States to plunge into the design thinking process over two days and to consider how we can create a climate in schools that supports the concept of “teachers as designers”. It was great to have such an eclectic group run through two design challenges over the course of the two days: a mini-challenge redesigning the morning commute and a larger challenge of redesigning the library for the 21st century high schooler. It was also great to have a wonderful group of students from Riverdale joining us for the two days.

Here are some images from the day. We will be asking participants to contribute to this blog to write about their experiences.


Our overall goal of the program is to create an opportunity for a team of educators from several different school settings to work on a common set of projects together, make their schools better places by applying design thinking, develop some case studies of the design thinking process in action, and offer the possibility of replication for the broader educational community.The program aims to achieve a number of goals:

Enable a group of teachers to experience and apply Design Thinking so that they can understand, learn, and pass on the process and methods to their colleagues and learn to become designers [“train the trainers, or educate the educators”].

Develop a team (rethinkED…*) of students from Columbia’s Teachers College and Parsons to support work on projects in a number of different teacher-based projects in the NYC area.

Create case studies describing the use of the Design Thinking Toolkit in the context of education that will inspire more educators to use it. Continue to learn about design thinking for educators and evolve and improve the toolkit and website accordingly.

Provide an opportunity for collaboration between RCS, other independent, public and charterschools in the Bronx, New York City and across the United States (Bronx Academy of Letters, Public Prep, KIPP, etc) and with various other organizations such as IDEO, Parsons School of Design, Edutopia.

Develop some interesting “products” from the process.

Create a means whereby various schools and educators can share their work in a productive forum.


Phase 1 – Core Team Training Workshop Series (June 14th and 15th, 2012): Introduce design thinking to a larger and diverse group of educators and students in grades 6-12, and have them experiment with the process with specific design challenges, e.g., how might we create common language and aims across the curriculum? Or, how might we create a “metacurriculum” of inquiry and argumentation across the curriculum in schools?

Phase 2 – Communication & Awareness (summer and autumn 2012 / one month of preparation for an IDEO/Edutopia/Riverdale “Design Summer Camp” starting on July 9th and a three-day conference in the Fall hosted by Parsons): A five-week design thinking online course planned by IDEO and implemented by Edutopia and Riverdale and a large and inclusive conference hosted by Parsons School of Design (with a “101” strand for novices, “201” strand for people practicing DT already, and a core group of DT “strategic thinkers”) in NYC to bring design thinkers in education together to share their work, their results and to foster a new round of projects [250-300 participants].

Phase 3 – Projects (2012-2014): Convene collaborative projects of educators at RCS and other schools through an RFP process with the help of the rethinkED team, enabling teams of educators who have experienced the workshop or conference to take some of their ideas forward over the course of two years. Teams would pick one, two, or three ideas from the workshop and build and iterate by conducting funded summer projects and ongoing work for the next year. They would then take the best ideas to implementation and fruition and share their work with the larger community of educators.

Phase 4 – Debriefing (June 2013): Develop a one-day debriefing with virtual support to share the work from Year 1 and kick off another round of projects for Year 2 [100-150 participants].

Phase 5 – Continuation (2013-onwards): Continue the project work and sharing of results through meetings and the website.

Organization, Documentation, Research and Communication
Since the overall project goal is to create a case study, we will document the process, possibly with a journalistic approach throughout the program. We would like to find a journalist partner to help us with this documentation in an ongoing way. IDEO has already had some discussions with Tina Barghesian, the editor of MindShift and Edutopia, about this idea.

Lisa Grocott of Parsons School of Design will also help provide support for the organization of the phases of the work, documentation of the various projects and run a course that will have students developing and researching DT interventions.

We also hope to document the work in an ongoing way via a website with video as an expansion of the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators website.

Current Status & Funding
RCS has already engaged IDEO, other schools, and individuals across different sectors of education and design in thinking about this project. We have also demonstrated our commitment to the value of design thinking in schools through our initial work with IDEO and the production and sharing of the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators.

We plan on embarking on the initial phase of this project in June 2012 and hope to continue to develop the next phases of this project over the course of the 2012-2014 academic years. We have received leadership grant funding from the E.E. Ford Foundation to implement this project and will also be seeking additional funding to sustain this interesting work at Riverdale and with our partners.


In 2006 Daniel Pink published A Whole New Mind. It proposed that, given how quickly the world is changing, students, workers, and other individuals need to acquire quite different capacities than our institutions are focusing on currently. One of the most striking suggested capacities Pink thinks we need to develop in people is the ability to think like a designer, otherwise known as “design thinking”. Noted individuals such as Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management, the business school at the University of Toronto; Bruce Mau, a noted designer in Toronto; David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, the international design firm, and of the, the design school at Stanford; and Tim Brown, the current CEO of IDEO, and David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group have also made this claim. Yet, apart from arts and design schools, the notion of teaching design thinking is quite absent from many educational environments.

Therefore, in 2007, at Riverdale Country School we started looking to see who was doing the main work in defining design thinking and using the process in an ongoing way that might be translated to school settings. It is clear that one of the leaders in this area is IDEO, a company that has been using a design thinking framework for the last twenty years, first to develop products and more recently to redesign experiences. IDEO is one of the most foremost design firms in the world, having won accolades as one of the most innovative design companies, including having won the most IDEA design awards of any firm. IDEO is dedicated to bringing design to many different domains; as such they appeared to be the perfect partner to work on taking some of the principles of design thinking and adapting them for schools. This process of working and problem-solving allows schools to consider and teach notably different ways of thinking. The design thinking process allows schools a structured way to approach creative thinking, develop certain character strengths (such as optimism, grit, and self-control) and build “creative confidence” in both students and teachers.

Recently, along with Riverdale, Sandy Speicher at IDEO, Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh, Dave Bill at the Urban School, Christian Long of Cannon Design, Kim Saxe at The Nueva School and Laura Deisley at the Lovett School have been leading more of a school-based discussion about design thinking and its implications for schools. It would appear that now is the time to bring some convergence and to leverage that good work to focus on using design thinking in schools to promote the idea of the “teacher as a designer”—a designer of learning spaces, curriculum, experiences, collaboration and learning. Much of the work in design thinking has been focused on using it with students in the classroom, and although this is praiseworthy, we believe that it could be most powerful as a tool for educational reform at the teacher level.

Riverdale’s Recent Work with IDEO
In the 2009-2010 academic year, RCS engaged IDEO to help us work on three design challenges with teachers in our elementary school. This led in 2010-2011 to a more focused project between IDEO and RCS to develop a design thinking toolkit for teachers. In April 2011, IDEO and RCS released the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators, offering the methods, tools, and processes of design thinking to educators globally as a free download. Since then, the toolkit has been downloaded over fifteen thousand times and commented on by educators around the world.

The next phase of our work is now being supported by a leadership grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation.