Design Thinking as a Means of Realizing the Constructivist Ideal and Developing Critical Habits of Mind

This summer I will be back in the beautiful Pacific Northwest to present at a Global Symposium on Innovations in Education. The topic will be Design Thinking. I’m sharing the abstract for my paper and presentation here. If you’d like the full length paper, feel free to contact me via email – the address is on my “About Me” page on this website. Read and enjoy!


Despite a rapidly changing global environment, K-12 education in the United States has remained frozen in time. Educational ideas and innovations come and go, with minimal impacts on student achievement outcomes. Despite these ideas and innovations, classrooms look remarkably similar to what they looked like at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the most significant change in schools, the introduction and integration of technology, has served to only change procedural aspects of learning in most schools and has had only spotty success in significantly changing student learning at a foundational level. But it is not just stagnation in our teaching and learning that is the only concern. Certain new deficiencies have emerged or have become more notable in recent years as a result of societal pressures, changes in student populations, and popular psychology for parenting. Employers have provided overwhelming evidence pointing to a lack of innovative thinking and a lack of perseverance in today’s graduates. Theorists have provided a strong research basis pointing to the need for learning experiences that cultivate stronger creativity, that foster an innovative spirit, and which cultivate greater resiliency in our students.

How might we instill a sense of self-efficacy and self-regulation in our students while continuing to provide content knowledge seen as essential to success later in life? Design thinking provides a potential avenue by which we can foster a spirit of innovation and resiliency in students while simultaneously instilling a passion for learning and knowledge. As defined by David Kelley, one of the originators of the process, design thinking is “a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” In other words, design thinking is a structured approach that fosters creative thinking in situations where it may otherwise be overlooked. It integrates elements of many “best practices” in educational pedagogy and methodology, including but not limited to inquiry-based learning, metacognitive strategy use, problem-based-learning, and collaborative learning.
This presentation will focus on the origins and principles of design thinking, as well as sharing the relevant literature regarding design thinking. Finally, possible approaches for the integration of design thinking into established programs, schools, and curriculum will be shared.

Maslow’s Hierarchy in Education

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed a few weeks back, I stumbled upon THIS great article about Maslow’s hierarchy and how it might be extrapolated to the classroom setting. I had to admit, I was interested.

For most educators, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not new or revolutionary, and so the pyramid itself was not the a-ha for me. My a-ha came from the realization that many teachers and leaders, all of whom were at least acquainted with Maslow at some point in their studies, forget to incorporate routines or structures in their day that allow for the meeting of basic needs for learners and collaborators.

In any case, I appreciated both the “educationalization” of the pyramid so that it might be applied to classroom use and the very friendly provision of some guiding self-reflection questions. For each tier, basic suggestions are shared about how to meet needs at each level. This could apply to classrooms or faculty gatherings. Also provided are some good “Questions to ask myself” that help a practitioner to become more self-reflective about where they might stand in the ordering of things for each level of the pyramid. An interesting twist could be to educate students about the levels and the indicators for each level, and then lead them through some reflective dialoguing about their status or state of mind/being on a weekly basis. With all of the discussions “out there” about grit, metacognition, self-regulation and self-efficacy, this would appear to be a  slam-dunk way to engage students in meaningful thinking about how they are learning within the context of how they are doing in terms of their needs being met. As the research shows, this is precisely the kind of reflective practice that helps students develop long-term skill sets that set them up for future success in “the real world.”


Curating Makes a Difference

I have always been a big believer in displaying student work. First, there’s just nothing else that really communicates what is going on in the classroom or with student learning to those who are not in your classroom each day like seeing visual representations of the work that has been recently accomplished. Second, you get instant parent buy-in to your teaching and classroom when they see their kid’s work displayed publicly. And third, and most important, the twinkle of pride that you see in a student’s face when they recognize that their work is being displayed… well, there’s no substitution for that. The delight is obvious with younger students, that is true. However, upon displaying student work at the high school, I always noticed a palpable shift in attitude and behavior from those students who had their work up on display. It’s such a simple way to boost student morale and get a “buy in bump” from students.

In recent years, the display of student art has emerged as an art form in and of itself. I know that during a recent visit of many innovative schools, we saw student art formally “curated” around the school community. It was incredible! I also know that as we looked on this incredible and impressive displays of student art, that many in my group felt like it would be truly impossible to undertake “curation” of student work; it was just too complicated, required too much time, and would require tools and items that weren’t readily available at the school.

Well, I am here to say that is definitely not the case. Student work can be curated very simply and very easily. Some basic guidelines on curating student work include:

1. Symmetry. Find 2 or 3 projects or visual items that are the same size and/or same proportion, and display them together in a group of 3-5 items. Be sure they are hung evenly with good spacing between individual pieces. Voila!

2. Pattern. You can take differently shaped items and “frame” them within a given size on a wall. Have the outside edges of a few of the items create the “corners” and “edges” of the large area and place items of different sizes within the bigger space.

3. Get kids involved. Students love owning creative process and love having their work displayed. Give them a space and a few guidelines, and you will soon find that they will transform the area into a gallery. This could even be incorporated as part of the overall exhibition of learning or project: demonstrate your learning with visual representations in this designated space using these guidelines. As a part of their learning process, students could visit or research curating works so that they understand basic design principles themselves. Kid involvement can be a very teachable moment when it comes to curating their own work. 

4. Make it interactive. There are no rules that say curated work must only be looked upon and not interacted with by the viewer. The interactive component could again be used as a design challenge for students.

5. Make it elevated. Take a look at how several museums (especially modern art museums) display visual pieces and emulate their approach. It is clean, well organized and arranged, and interesting. Simple pre-cut frames add an element of sophistication. Proper arranging makes student work look like treasured art. Having small information cards that are printed on cardstock, of identical size and formatting, for each piece again lends to the feel of museum quality student display.

In short, you don’t have to spend hours of time curating student work. This two-minute “how to” video walks you through some of the basics on how to curate student work effectively. There are many low-cost, low-time ways in which student work can be shared with the greater school community in a meaningful, classy, and empowering way. And remember, no construction paper backers unless your last name is Matisse! 🙂

Go on, give it a try. And please share your results!


Recently there has been quite a media hubbub around “mindfulness” or the “mindful revolution.” Someone has dubbed 2014 as the “year of mindfulness” and even TIME Magazine ran a cover story on the concept. Until recently, I will admit that I did not buy in to meditation… mostly because I was limited by my mind’s eye perception of just what meditation was and what it involved. To me, meditation conjured up visions of hippie-garbed individuals clustered in a very earthy setting, sitting with their legs crossed and indulging in chanting “ohm”s and breathing deeply. I guess it just seemed to me that the “look” of meditation had become more important than the actual effects of meditation; at least, that’s how it appears from the way it’s been portrayed in media and by proponents of the movement in earlier iterations.  Meditation also always seemed to have some element of religious underpinning to it that focused the process in a particular bent, thereby limiting the outcomes of engaging in the practice. That just didn’t hold appeal for me.

However, there is an emerging new look at just what meditation really is, what it can look like, and the benefits of engaging in such practices. The term “mindfulness” seems to help clear away prior contexts traditionally assigned to the word “meditation,” thereby allowing the concept to transpose traditional boundaries and emerge into the daily lives of people from all backgrounds. The gist of mindfulness is that it does not have to be limited to yoga retreats, religious rituals or specialized settings or times. One can engage in mindfulness just about anywhere, anytime. It would appear that traditional approaches to meditation are giving way to a new, more generally applicable approach. This is interesting.

In essence, mindfulness is engaging in heightened self-awareness as well as engaging in objective reflection. As you know from prior posts I have made, the idea of individual reflection and awareness or tenets that I believe in deeply. Mindfulness is not something that must be done in a particular place or in a particular way. It is simply being aware of yourself and opening your thoughts to reflect and process what has happened or to future-vision what might yet come. It is a way by which one can process complexities presented and frame mindset in a more positive light.

I think what is most compelling about the mindfulness revolution are the stories emerging of how mindfulness is significantly impacting those who practice it. Specifically, I’m interested in the use of mindfulness techniques in the schoolhouse. Several schools have begun incorporating “mindfulness moments” or other structured meditative sessions during the school day with astonishing results. From students about to take the GRE to kids in impoverished inner-city settings, mindfulness has shown to help students gain greater focus and clarity, thereby improving academic achievement. It’s also led to less anxiety and stress (both in terms of anecdotal reporting and in scientific measurement of the stress hormone in several tests).  Axonal density in the brain also appears to be improved through the regular practice of mindfulness. Studies have shown that other effects of mindfulness include reduced depression, better sleep, and greater compassion for others.

It would appear that while I see many upsides to the introduction of mindfulness into the schoolhouse, I have yet to see downsides presented. Some questions I have around the practice come around how schools would gain buy-in from what I imagine to be rather cynical teenagers; I would like to better understand the “how” by which schools begin such a program and ingrain it into the school’s culture. I would be very interested in seeing how schools effectively implement a mindfulness program into their school and sustain it over the long haul. The benefits certainly seem to outweigh whatever difficulties might be encountered during the inception phase.

What do you think about the mindfulness movement? Have you seen it at work in schools? What thoughts do you have about implementing such a program?

Cave Diving Class = Professional Learning Experience

There’s a lot of conversation going on out there about internship learning, experiential learning, real world learning, deeper learning…. each appears to be a slight variation on a theme: Learning that happens out there, in the real world, with real purpose or meaning, is learning that sticks.

I can’t argue with the premise. I have done more “seat time” than most anyone I know in pursuit of my own educational edification, given that I’ve pursued formal education up through its highest levels. All of my formal education has been in the area of… well… education and educational leadership. And don’t get me wrong, I have learned a lot and I’m glad to have had the professional learning journey that I’ve had. My theoretical basis of understanding is vast and fairly deep. I am able to conduct and interpret research in ways I couldn’t have done before. My eyes were opened to thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t have crossed my path without my experiences at the various schools I attended.

But when I think about the learning that has most profoundly impacted my professional practice, ironically enough, none of my formal learning has prepared me nearly as well as informal learning that I pursued, of my own accord and on my own time (and at my own expense) for something that was completely NOT educationally related. Surprised? I know that when I first stumbled upon that realization, I was first surprised… but then it all made sense.

So then, the obvious question is: where did I have the most profound professional learning experience resulting in an impact to my practice? Well, it happened in a cenote (sinkhole) in Mexico. A cenote is a pond created by a collapse, and is fed freshwater by underwater aquifers, usually found deep within the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. These cenotes are linked to one another in many instances… connected by underground, underwater passages.

In 2003 I was a pretty active diver, enjoying regular dives in the cold waters of Puget Sound. A friend shared their experiences doing a wild and dangerous thing called “cave diving”… I was immediately interested… and researched the topic a bit… and before I knew it, I had signed up for a cave diving course in Mexico. The next January found me floating in a cenote, about to do my first ever cave dive. I was scared, nervous, my brain was firing messages like crazy. I think all of these physical reactions  combined to deliver a powerful and impactful punch to my system. I survived the first dive, even when my instructor switched off my powerful HID dive light and made me exit the cave in complete, blinding darkness.

The rest of the course focused heavily on safety related measures, and featured hour upon hour of in-water practice of safety drills and procedures inside and outside of the cave systems. By the close of the experience, I was proficient and deemed safe enough to go off on my own. Since that time I’ve logged over 300 cave dives and regularly navigate complicated maze-like systems in a confident and capable manner. But back to the topic at hand… what about my cave diving course and experiences made it the most impactful learning for me as an educational leader? The simple answer is:  everything. The more detailed answer includes these elements…

1. I learned that hands-on learning leads to “muscle memory”. And muscle memory is good. When I had to do drills repeatedly, I built what we refer to in diving as muscle memory, meaning that you begin to anticipate where you need to put your hand to look at your gas gauge or find your regulator if it falls away from you. In my work, muscle memory is the thing that allows me to navigate creating a new document in GoogleDrive or easily move through the steps of balancing staffing budgets. If you repeat an action enough times, it just becomes part of learned information. Learning by doing has merit.

2. I learned that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. There will be instances when the world around you becomes frenetic and overwhelming. There will be a time when crisis hits. Rather than be reactionary, be careful and thoughtful. In cave diving, a crisis can kill you, so we train to remain cool, calm, and collected when things go south. Our mantra is “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, meaning it is better to move slower but more precisely to fix the problem rather than hurry up and likely miss something important. In times of crisis or frenetic work days, pause, observe, and move slow but sure through the things that must be done. This approach will get more done than being gut-shot reactionary.

3. I learned that guidelines are better than rules. Rules are restrictive and make people stop thinking. Guidelines are interpretive and invite dialogue and discussion that usually lead to better solutions. In diving, we have guidelines, because diving situations are different for different environments, and there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to necessary equipment or team configurations. Schools are much the same. Unapologetic purpose, good structures, strong and regular communication and room for interpretation lead to a more dynamic educational program, stronger sense of team, and a greater sense of purpose for the whole organization.

4. Stop. Breathe. Think. Act. This is the mantra for solving problems on a cave dive. Because of the environment, a diver can’t just bolt for the surface when things go wrong. Oftentimes there are thousands of meters of passage between you and air. You have to cultivate a strong sense of mind over matter, and be cool under pressure. Given the numerous tough situations that go down in schools day in and day out, this has been the most impactful on my professional practice. Prior to learning how to cave dive, I sometimes lived by “ready, fire, aim!” with disastrous results. These days I stop, I take a deep breath, I think, and then I act. And that is a recipe for success, at least for me.

There are several other things that I learned as a result of cave diving beyond these four items listed above. But the powerful thing to me is that this experience I pursued for totally separate reasons from my career has come back to really change how I work in my schools now. And it has me wondering why we don’t more avidly pursue hands on, internship styled learning for our kids. Powerful life long lessons may result that help guide them. I had to wait until I was almost 30 to have that kind of experience; what if I’d had that when I was in high school? Interesting to think about that. Being a pragmatist I get that there are a lot of logistical things and hiccups that can interfere with creating experiences like this. But if you knew the experience could change a kid’s life… forever… wouldn’t that be worth it?

What experiences away from work have impacted you and your work life? Impacted the way you go about doing what you do? What are your thoughts about internship experiences for kids?

Interesting perspective on management

Sometime soon, I will pen more in-depth thoughts I have regarding leadership versus management, as well as the idea of what makes for an effective organization. There is an enormous pile of books on the topic, many of which I’ve read at some point. The volume of writing on the topic of effective leadership or effective management or effective organizations tells me that numerous organizations struggle with functioning at a high level while simultaneously maintaining healthy organizational culture. Schools are no exception to this. We struggle with engagement, productivity, results, and accountability. And our world is undoubtedly getting remarkably more complex in this day and age with loads of new requirements, mandates, expectations, and outcomes.

I don’t have an answer to the dilemma of effective leadership, effective organizations and how to increase productivity and engagement and outcomes… but I stumbled across this TED talk, and found the paradigm shift in terms of approaching the problem to be refreshing and interesting. Yves Morieux focuses on industry, true. But a lot of what he discusses in his “Smart Simplicity” paradigm could apply in the educational context too. When he described the “hard” and “soft” approaches and how they are obsolete, and then focused on the need to focus on cooperation, I found myself nodding my head. I  also liked the idea of managers being “integrators” who have high levels of discretionary power and few rules so that they’re able to empower everyone to use their skills and talents to move the work forward and move to cooperation. And the concept that blame is not for failure, but is instead for a refusal to help or ask for help is interesting to contemplate. Finally, the spirit of cooperation being the focus is a fascinating concept to manage complex landscapes without creating complicated systems.

Cooperation, it would appear, is king. What do you think?