Teaching IS Design Thinking

Teaching — of every kind — is all about design thinking. Teaching remotely while your Kindergarten students are in school? That’s a whole other level of design thinking!

Much like when I teach in person, I’m currently doing whole class, half class, and small group teaching. I’ve been teaching number sense lessons during math in small groups. Depending on how you look at it, it’s been:
a lesson in patience
… an example of how remarkable these Kindergartners are

the perfect illustration that design thinking is an essential element of teaching.

Take this week as an example. I wanted the mathematicians to join me in some math talks. They love to notice and share. So, it seemed like a great idea.

I populated a slide deck with some photos that allowed for all sorts of noticing. There’s tons of great photos online – just search for images for math talks. Or, make your own. You can group the items to encourage seeing in certain ways, or leave it completely free and see what they notice on their own.

I spent some time reflecting on the photos myself so I’d be prepared to join the conversation. My plan was to leave things very open. I hoped for something like this.
… “I see shells and stones.”
… “I see 4 small shells and 4 bigger shells.”
… “Hey that’s 8 shells all together.” 
… “I see a cup with a tea bag in it.”
… “I see a circle on the top of the mug and one on top of the glass. That’s 2 circles all together”

We noticed things. We did math. But, phew, it didn’t go as I hoped.

Other than math, here’s what happened.
… My Kindergarten mathematicians were all over the place. (Note to self: it’s the last full week of school and their energy and excitement is, understandably, remarkably high.)
… The technology didn’t work so well. Mathematicians were getting kicked off zoom. They couldn’t hear me, or I couldn’t hear them.
… The other mathematicians and teachers in the room seemed quite loud to us on Zoom.
… My patience, self awareness, and self regulation was quite low.
… And, my quest for open ended discussion turned out to be a little too open ended.

So, I gathered my observations, thought about what my mathematicians and I, needed, re-considered the task and goals, and designed June Kindergarten Math Talk Iteration #2.

Day 2, iteration #2: Included:
…. Fingers crossed for better wifi connection.
… More patience from me.
… More self awareness and self regulation for me.
… More breathing for me and my mathematicians.
… A request to colleagues to monitor the classroom volume level.
… A new prompt – What MATH do you see?

We noticed things. We did math. And, things went a bit better.

The tech worked better. The class was quieter. I was calmer and happier — so were the Kindergarten mathematicians. But, they remained a bit distracted by the very technology that allows us to meet together. They adore writing on the screen and wanted to do it more — and it was tough to be patient and take turns. They love changing their names, and found it difficult to focus on math instead of surreptitiously changing their screen names.

Once again, I gathered my observations, reflected, pondered, and created the June Kindergarten Math Talk Iteration #3 — unless, of course, you count the many tiny changes I did on the fly. If you do, then consider this iteration #453.

Day 3, iteration #3 (#453) included:
… Mathematicians come to group with whiteboard and marker.
… I give mathematicians 2 minutes in the beginning of our session to change their names. Four of us are now Miss James!
… Same question – What math do you see?
… Mathematicians take turns choosing a photo to examine.
… Mathematician who chooses the photo, share her findings by writing on the screen.
…. I stop share so other mathematicians can share their findings on their whiteboards.
… Repeat for each mathematician.

We noticed things. We did math. We had fun. I didn’t have to do much classroom management. 

I don’t have a day 4 or 5, but my mind is already iterating. I’m taking what worked, combining it in new ways, and being inspired to make changes that allow for remediation as well as enrichment.
… Choose an image. Each mathematician finds and circles a particular quantity (2 eyes, 1 nose, … etc). We all then use our whiteboards and various strategies to determine how many we have all together. Then we share how we figured it out.
… Same as above but I get to remove a quantity., or ask what is one more or one less. My mathematicians figure out the answer and share how they figured it out.
… We choose a quantity and each mathematician shares a way they see it in the photo.
… We all use the chat feature (I disable private chat) and they each write the quantity they see into … the chat box, but we don’t share it until we count to three, or to 10 by 2s, or to 20 by 5s.

Empathize. Define the problem. Ideate. Prototype. Test. Repeat/Iterate. It’s what we do as teachers. I love the d.school design thinking bootleg deck. It keeps me thinking, and reminds me of the remarkably deep design thinking I engage in as I teach.


Make Lots of Bad Drawings

The full piece of advice is – Make lots of bad drawings and learn not to care. It’s a gem from Michael Nobbs in his book Drawing Your Life: Learn to See, Record and Appreciate Life’s Small Joys.

I really despise making bad drawings — especially if someone is going to see them. But somehow, the planets aligned for me when I flipped to the page that held that quote the other day. Somehow, the quote found its place in my heart and brain, and now that page is one of my favorite pages in the book.

I care about learning to draw, and being able to record what I see. I care about being able to teach others to draw. But, if I care about each mistake, each less than perfect drawing, each wonkily drawn mug handle — the ability to draw a good mug handle eludes me so far — then I will never get at what I really care about — drawing, learning, teaching, and joy. AND if I can’t sit with my own bad drawings, if I can’t embrace them, be willing for others to see them, and learn from them, then I can’t help anyone else do that either.

So I care about bad drawings, but I’m not fretting about them. I’m having fun. I’m laughing at my mug handles all askew. I’m noticing, thinking, wondering and trying again. And, every once in a while the handles look pretty darn accurate.

I started with a bit of trepidation. Eee gads, could I really do it? Could I really not care? Could I really put aside my ego and embrace a beginners mind?

All I could do was try.

I started with the first page. I grabbed a pen, and I drew it. Then I grabbed two more and drew them.

It was a great first go because it was something it could do with a bit of ease and relatively little “badness.” That ease helped my protective brain relax, and allowed my thoughtful brain to draw, learn and have fun.

I’ve been drawing little bits of whatever is in front of me. I fill in the space on the pages in whatever ways bring me joy. I am embracing, and actually enjoying, the challenge of drawing without fretting about my mistakes.

This is what we want all our learners to do — regardless of their age or level of proficiency. We want them to give it a go. Try. Try again. It’s like the creative design process. Try something. Learn something. Try again. Learn again. Talk with others. Have fun. Try again.

Ideate and iterate are two of my favorite words. That’s what Michael is asking his readers to do. That’s what we should be asking our learners to do. Have ideas. Give them a go. Stop fretting. Have fun. Learn.

I want to remember my experience with Michael’s challenge when I’m with my students. Sometimes the task in front of them may feel a bit too difficult. Instead of pushing, perhaps we can allow them to do a similar less difficult task where success is more assured. That experience may give them the confidence to try and tackle the weightier task. Perhaps, we should even construct these activities and make them a regular part of the learning process. Athletes warm up, why not learners?

There’s an archived class at the Stanford dschool called FAIL FASTER. In the course students explored ways to ​[1] become comfortable with uncertainty, [2] develop tools to navigate situations of failure, and [3] learn to turn failures into opportunities I wish that course were still being offered because I want to take it.

But, since it’s not, I’ll just have to continue to explore these things on my own, and press on teaching the Kindergarten version of FAIL FASTER!

I’m serious. This is important stuff. Failing – early and often is how we ALL learn. It’s how we learn to walk, ride bikes, spell, do math, make art, have ideas, have conversations, and collaborate — to name just a few.

Failure is NOT a bad thing. Failure is how we learn. Instead of being afraid of it, instead of avoiding it, instead of being ashamed of it, let’s embrace it, let’s celebrate it, let’s see each failure as an opportunity to learn. Let’s even develop one of two tasks where fail is expected, explored, and valued.

Some people baulk at the idea of failing early and often, or failing faster. They’re concerned it implies a lack of thinking, or the encouragement to rush rather than do your best work. On the contrary, lack of thinking, or rushing without learning, would be the antithesis of the idea proposed the the dschool.

Failing forward is a “the never-give-up attitude of being willing to fail early and often in order to learn as much as possible to produce the best possible solution through real experience.”

Being willing to fail in order to learn, and produce the best thinking, work, or product possible is a mindset I want my Kindergartners to develop with me. I want them to be confident and comfortable in their ability to try, to fail, and to learn. I want them to know it is how we ALL learn, not just how Kindergartners learn. Failure is, to quote Benjamin Zander, “Fascinating!”

If my learners, and their parents, might come to an understanding of the value of experiencing and examining failure with an eye for what might we learn, wow, that would be fantabulous.

I’m on it!

Learning through Rapid Prototyping

I recently presented a workshop on Design Thinking with a fabulous NJAIS colleague.  It was an incredibly thought-provoking experience for me. Teaching educators about using design thinking in the classroom forced me — or, more correctly, allowed me  — to immerse myself, again, in a plethora of creativity and design thinking resources. I read, listened and thought deeply, as I searched for the connections, and inspirations to share with the participants.

The idea of rapid prototyping was particularly provocative. It’s not the norm for education, and yet it has the potential to be profoundly valuable. By prototyping rapidly — with ideas, strategies, or products — we gather large amounts of information in a relatively short period of time. In the process, we discover our own strength and agency, and we experience the hidden potential of failure.

Rapid prototyping and gathering information from each failure, is a natural mechanism for learning, problem solving, and innovating.  I experienced its value as I watched my students attempt the Tower of Hanoi math game.

I prepped them for the process. I emboldened them in their willingness to try. I told them they might not get it  — the 1st, the 5th or the 100th time —  but they should keep trying, and learning with each move, mistake or failure. After listening to the rules, they gathered their three blocks, and set to work figuring out the puzzle.

One of the  girls was  the epitome of rapid prototyping. Rarely taking her eyes off the blocks, she moved them without discussion.She made hundreds of moves. She appeared undeterred by her failure to solve the puzzle, and seemed to find joy and interest in the process.

The number and quickness of her moves, might suggest her moves were aimless or unstudied. Someone watching might  wonder whether she were learning anything, or making any progress. But, looking at it with the eye of a design thinker, it became clear she was rapidly prototyping.


towers 2

Her movements were speedy, and many. But, they were definitely not without observation, noticing, thought, or purpose. As she made her moves, she clearly learned about the blocks, the puzzle board, and the ways in which everything worked together. After what seemed like hundreds of moves, she paused, looking at the board. Then, she  made the seven moves necessary to solve the puzzle!

(I particularly love this photo that captured the rapid movement of her hands as a blur of motion.)

towers 1

It was fascinating and a bit humbling to watch her! I was struck by how wonderfully it illustrated how we learn, as well as my role as an educator.

I must create a culture and environment that supports my students. A culture with resources that bolster their knowledge and understanding, while encouraging them to be brave, and to believe in their ability to work and learn. I must give them provocations and opportunities to problem find, and problem solve.

Then, I must step back and let them do their thing. I must resist any urge to jump in and rescue them before they actually need my help. I must sit in my own discomfort, and trust. Trust the process of learning. Trust creativity and design thinking. Trust rapid prototyping and learning from failure. And mostly, trust them!

Finally I must breathe! My breath helps me pause and gift my students with time and space. It helps me remain calm and confident, unafraid as my students heroically brave the unknown.

It’s a spectacular process that inspires and teaches me. My students — our students — have a tremendous amount of courage, insight and capacity to do and learn. All they need is the opportunity — and our trust and breath.

Seeing Spelling With New Eyes



I read this the other day. When I reached the end and read buttufele, I had an epiphany about spelling!

Spelling is a remarkably daring journey into  possibility thinking, creativity and design!

When trying to share our ideas, encode sounds and/or spell words we all go through the following steps:

Possibility thinking: How might we use what we already have/know in a new way? What letters or letter combinations are possible?

Creativity: We have to be brave and take risks.We use what we know to make something new and useful.

Design: We define a design challenge. ( For instance, write the word – beautifully.) We ideate. (butfoolee, beyuootefooly, beeyutyfuly, buttufele), and prototype (see illustration above). Then we test. (Can I read it? Can someone else read it? Can the person I wrote it for read it?) Our test provides us with data, and perhaps, new understanding. The process then begins again for this, or some other, word.

I love this understanding of spelling. It brings an element of play, and ease into the process of spelling. It embraces the fact that the spelling process, like all other design processes, often includes failing.

I’m wondering if approaching spelling this way, might make it easier for our students. Understanding they are choosing a design (spelling) challenge might empower them. Being creative might infuse joy into the process. Embracing failure as a natural part of spelling might diffuse some fear, and increase learning.

I’m going to work on my language and give it a go with my learners. I’m hopeful!

And just a note: Conventional spelling can also be approached as a design challenge. except now the challenge might be “Spell beautifully as it is found in library books, or on dictionary.com.”

Translation in case it is needed: She is very pretty. She is funny and she is goofy. She is a kind princess. She lives in Westfield. She sings songs beautifully.