Monthly Archives: August 2014

Albino Alligators and Other Tales of a 4th Grade Classroom

Albino AlligatorWith sweaty foreheads dripping and scotch tape flying, 6 groups of terrified 4th graders presented their ideas for redesigning school with some ‘experts’ last week. Jello playgrounds and eco-classrooms, 007 super-villain-style albino alligator pens and survivalists training, their ideas were broad and exciting. A multivariant exercise for growth, they had to work together, write a persuasive arguments, draw in several different perspectives, standup in front of everyone and speak, and even do a little critical thinking.

I didn’t expect such high-quality work from young and inexperienced students.  Rehearsed speeches presented, schematics displayed on computers, and 3D models in tow, I loved the different ways they told their stories. However, I wish we had an opportunity to teach them a tiny little lesson before they started on their projects. These three basic a-ha’s hit home for me:

  1. Folks need clear framework or model to emulate to succeed
  2. Being unconstrained and truly going broad with ideas is hard, even for children
  3. People love positive feedback and it pushes them and their ideas further

1 – A clear model. Innovating is a lot like swimming. It is a completely natural thing that Swimming Babyeven babies do, but at some point we completely forget and have to be re-taught. When this first lesson happens, you just can’t just be thrown into the deep-end and expect be successful and ever want to do it again. There are the rare few who do great when that happens, but most of us turn into tight, nervous clams and have no idea what to do next. Then we drown. Pure and simple, if you want someone to start innovating and using design thinking without too much pain, you have to show them how it is done!  Our 4th graders did a marvelous job, however if I had a chance to bring them through a quick brainstorm, they would have cut their time in half.

Brainstorm with Post-It Notes2 – Unconstrained, going broad. When thinking of new ideas you must go unconstrained at first, even if it is for 10 minutes. I call this the ‘puke’ phase. The first few ideas are not your best and you need to get them out of your system to really start thinking of the good stuff. Often the biggest limit to enormous ideas are those imposed by our own minds before we even speak, write, or draw. We unknowingly restrict ourselves to what is acceptable to bosses, our environments, our families, and our peers. We need to throw those rules away for this brief time. There will be plenty of time later to think about narrowing down due to things like time, budgets, authorities, rules, and passions.

3 – Positive feedback pushes. There is a great framework that my co-conspirator, Laura Houghton suggested to use called I like/I wish. When using this you start off Wendy Spies and Laura Houghton at Juana Briones Teaching Design Thinkingyour feedback with “I like…” and then you name something that you like about the project, idea or presentation. Then you immediately say “I wish…” and you say something that could be improved or identify a problem that could be solved.  For example, a student said “Alligators are really expensive.” This caused the team to get defensive.  What would be a better way to say it is, “I like the idea of having Albino Alligators at school, it gives everyone an opportunity to observe such rare creatures up close. I wish the Alligators were not so rare and difficult to keep healthy.” This gives the students an opportunity to address a constraint as something they can fix, rather than a combative set of feedback that could be taken personally and derail the growth. It proved hugely freeing for both the students presenting and those in the audience tasked with giving help to their peers.

I look forward to returning to review their models and customer tests and to pushing the entire school out of their comfort zones and into their innovation zones.

What is some advice you would give to these 4th graders on their journey to re-design school?