Sarah Bishop and I stepped out on Stanford's campus in the pouring rain early Friday morning to launch our 3-day experience at Stanford's Design School. I walked up to ask directions from a student unlocking his bike and my face lit up when he pulled back his jacket hood: "Hi Gabe! Wow...Brentwood really does follow us everywhere!" Gabe W. '16 had been in my American history class during my first year as a teacher at Brentwood, and now at Stanford, he is majoring in design. We exchanged hugs, and he sent us scurrying in the rain in the direction of the D. School. It was a fitting start to a professional experience that would have us reexamine our roles as educators in the classroom by first throwing out the assumption that we have all the answers.
During the Discover Design Thinking workshop that the Innovators and Collaborators with Belldegrun Center for Innovative Leadership attended, approximately 50 educators from around the world gathered to learn Stanford's design thinking process. We were quick to discover that designing begins and ends with empathy—learning to set aside our own idea of what someone needs and instead focus on close listening and uninhibited brainstorming. Our first task: redesign the "weeknight dinner experience" for a targeted user. I was paired with Ryan, an educator who is the father of four children. His priorities consist of spending time with his children, minimizing conflict over food choices, and showing support for his wife. After an hour of listening to one another with empathy, I was presenting to him a "kid friendly" dinner tray, a pantry and shopping experience catered to young children, and an Amazon shopping schedule designed to share the burden between his wife and him. The insecurity of presenting my poor drawings, makeshift designs, and hastily drawn plans soon gave way to immense pride and excitement as he expressed total enthusiasm for these ideas and appreciation at being heard. Then, when he walked me over to my newly designed kitchen—complete with cabinet designs, electronic integration, and a "computer safe" all inspired by details from his interview of me, I too understood the value of being listened to and seeing someone realize a vision I didn't even know I had.
Our next task took it up a notch—design the "new city experience." Our method: interview random strangers on Stanford's campus. We had one hour to find 2-3 people willing to talk with us about their feelings and experiences traveling to a new city. I was ready to run and hide in the bathroom, but I couldn't abandon my new team. We faced a series of rejections before setting our eyes on an older man sitting outside. He seemed cranky when we asked for an interview, and without taking his eyes off his iphone said we could ask him only a few questions because he was very busy. As we started talking, he shared that his family had moved a lot when he was a child. Though we could tell that these were painful memories, the more we asked for stories and explanations, the more relaxed he became. He finally put down his phone and the conversation flowed naturally. He seemed like he could continue for hours. Next, we met Leonora, a retired woman who was back at the bookstore's tech desk to keep herself busy. She beamed with pride as she talked about her international travels as an IBM executive years ago. Her co-worker, a young man who had started his job only a few days prior, leaned over to volunteer his story as well. The hour flew by, and at each opportunity to engage with someone new, I learned how much people appreciate telling their story and being heard.
After synthesizing the comments from our interviews, our team spent the rest of our day moving through the next steps of Stanford's design thinking process: define a problem, ideate potential solutions, and then prototype and test those ideas with our peers. My group presented our solution to Julia—the young woman looking to bring spontaneity and authentic experiences to her travels. The prototype was "scratch-in," a bingo board complete with suggested activities applicable to any city. Smiling at the members of my group, I thought about the many ways that BCIL is designed to bring these types of team-building and creative experiences to life for our students.
The final day at the D. School challenged us to figure out a way to take home what we had learned. After a morning of reflection and brainstorming, the facilitators hit us with a curve ball: "Ok, in 30 minutes we have students arriving to the D. School ready to test out whatever activities you have planned. You must have an activity ready for them!" This caught me off guard—what about all the careful planning we wanted to do to be ready to bring this back? But if there was one thing I had learned at the D. School, it was that you jump right in and don't waste time worrying.
Within a few minutes of finalizing our plan, six bright-eyed students arrived. I was assigned two elementary school children to conduct the first empathy interview and I learned right away that our first method—15-minutes of questioning—wasn't going to work. I pivoted: "Would you both rather DRAW the answers to my questions?" "YES YES!" They raced over to the Fabrication Cart and picked out their supplies. This was a perfect example of one of the essential lessons of design thinking—failure is a good thing, so long as you learn from it!
During the design thinking process, we were challenged to "Be hard on ideas, soft on people." After three days immersed in this practice, I was seeing the results take shape in the way I engaged with these students. Once the dust settled and the children went on their way, we gathered in a circle with the prompt: "I like, I will, I learned..." Participants stepped into the circle and finished one of the sentences whenever the spirit moved them. My response came to mind very quickly: "I liked that I can tell my students that I too was really nervous when I started the design thinking process, and that I failed a lot during my time practicing it."