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.


Card Carrying Members!

If you read my blog with any regularity, you know I’m a fan of the cloud – blogging about it least 5 times! (In the Cloud with Uri Alon, The Cloud in the Classroom,  Yes And In the ClassroomLittle Tweaks Big ResultsThe Cloud Appreciation Society)

The reality of “the cloud” is super helpful to me as I think creatively, venture into new arenas, learn, create, and live.  About 2 weeks ago I blogged about being a proud card carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society!

Remarkably I realized I didn’t think my students were card carrying members of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Crazy, right? I love the cloud. I know it’s helpful. I believe Uri when he says the cloud “stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown.” I believe the cloud is a fundamental and essential part of learning.

WHY hadn’t I ever talked to my students about it?

I have no idea. But, I’ve changed all that!


The other day I shared the secret of the cloud with them! I drew a cloud on the board and we talked about clouds and fog. Then I told them there are a lot of times when learning is all about being in the cloud, and being brave enough to stay there – even though we can’t quite see where we are going. I shared that I am often in the cloud when I am learning new things. I said I’m even in the cloud sometimes when I’m preparing a lesson for them!

Then, I told them I believed in them so much I was going to throw them right into the middle of the cloud!

I told them I was going to ask them to do some math, and not just any math, but math that is even hard for some adults! It’s a math puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi. (You can play it here if you’d like to give it a go.)

I grabbed 3 blocks and a 3 square template, and explained the rules. My kids asked some great questions – showing me they were already thinking of ways to solve the puzzle.

I assured them they would all be able to figure it out. It might  not be easy, but they could do it. If they got stuck they should just remember they were in the cloud – and that was GREAT! If they needed help to guide them a bit in the cloud they could talk with a teacher or a friend.

I challenged them to stay in the cloud. “If it’s hard, don’t fret. Stay in the cloud. Take a breath. Believe in yourself. Keep going. … If working with 3 blocks is easy, throw yourself back in the cloud by challenging yourself to do 4 blocks!”

It was FANTASTIC!!! It was hard for some of them. And the fact that it was hard, was frustrating and discombobulating to some who felt it shouldn’t have been hard.

I’m glad! That in itself is learning. Thinking is hard. Math is hard. But it’s also good, and possible, and fun … exhilarating even … as you struggle through the cloud.

We worked on the Towers for 3 days – reworking the ones we had figured out the day before, adding blocks and trying again. Each day we talked about the cloud. Each day I told them how spectacular it was to be in the cloud with them.

After our inaugural jump into the cloud, we each signed an “I love the cloud! I am a learning superhero!” sheet. On Friday, I presented each of them a laminated card (a reduced copy of their signed sheet) and welcomed them as “card carrying members” of the I love the Cloud Club. It was awesome.

One of the girls asked if she could make an announcement during closing circle on Friday. I said “Sure.”

Confident in her thoughts, but unsure what she would share, I listened attentively. I nearly melted as I heard her thoughts.

She extolled the greatness of being in the cloud, the joy of thinking you couldn’t do it, but then realizing you could.

It was amazing.