Category Design Thinking

“Design is never finished but constantly adapting to a world in flux” – How Do You Define Design?

"Design is never finished but constantly adapting to a world in flux" - How Do You Define Design?  |

“Design is making. Design is thinking with your hands. Design is arranging the world around us to ensure the functioning and well-being of our communities. Design is the inherent human capability of understanding a challenge and its context followed by the instinctive act of rapid, iterative trial and error until a solution is found. Design is having trust in your intuition to take non-linear creative leaps in order to beat habit. Design is never finished but constantly adapting to a world in flux.” –  Matthias Reichwald

I’m always interested in hearing how people define design and I quite liked the definition above, which I found yesterday while reading an article on Design Indaba. What do you think?

How do you define design? 

Source: What Design Thinking Can Do For Africa via Design Indaba

Harper’s Playground: Rethinking the Typical Playground to Create A More Inclusive World …*

“A quality play area is more than just a collection of play equipment. It is a place for play and learning – a place where children develop essential physical, social and cognitive skills, where different generations share common experiences, and where community members gather and build relationships.”The Inclusive City, Susan Goltsman & Daniel Iacofano – MIG

Haper’s Playground, located in Portland, Oregon, is an inclusive playground which allows children of all abilities to play together. Harper’s Playground was founded by April and Cody Goldberg whose daughter Harper uses a wheelchair to get around and could not enjoy their local playground. The Goldbergs were also frustrated with the alternative option of “adaptive” playgrounds which they view as:

expensive solutions to the wrong problem.  The problem isn’t about access to a structure, it’s about allowing and encouraging children of all abilities to play together.

They decided to design their own solution to the unmet needs of their daughter. The result is Harper’s Playground, which is an inclusive, fun and social place where children of all abilities and their families can come together to play, learn and explore. This is a splendid project, which aims to create a paradigm shift in how we think of and design the typical playground. Every community should have such a thoughtfully designed and delightful play space and luckily for us, the Goldbergs have a How To tab on the Harper’s Playground website with a form you can send them to receive feedback and advice on how to start an inclusive playground in you own community.

more play for more people …

Harper’s Playground: “More Play for Everyone” from Cody Goldberg on Vimeo.

Hat Tip: A Lot of Playgrounds Can’t Accommodate Children With Disabilities. A TEDx Speaker is Changing That. via TED, published August 6, 2014. 

{ The Independent Project …* } What If Students Designed Their Own Learning?

A few weeks ago I posted a deeply insightful observation from John Maeda about the disconnect between thinking and doing in academia. Maeda argued that the gift of ideas is the curse of doing nothing and highlighted the stigma around “doing” in the world of pure academia. I posed the question: How might we help students become fluent in both literacies of doing and thinking? Just this morning I read an interesting article on Ashoka’s Start Empathy blog about the importance of college students taking ownership of their education by engaging with the myriad learning opportunities surrounding them both in and outside the classroom. The quote below really struck a chord with me and I thought it highlighted a potent entryway into rethinking * the harmful dichotomies we have created between thinking and doing and being students and “real” people functioning in the “real” world:

“The very best students wring the veritable sponge of their institution for every last drop of value. They assume ownership of their education by taking advantage of all the available resources. They let what they learn shape them as human beings so that when the mantle of “student” eventually falls away, a knowledgeable, prepared, and motivated person remains underneath.” – Engaged Learning, Engaged Living 

What might this process look like? How do we enable the young minds that are entrusted to us to engage with and construct their learning in a way that shapes them as human beings rather than simply as “students”–an identity which is context-specific and thus ephemeral (and far too often, is experienced as imposed and begrudged by children who are disengaged and cannot wait to shed the “student” label, eagerly awaiting emancipation from the school system)? In other words, how might we produce ‘knowmads’–lifelong, engaged and passionate learners? One fantastic initiative, which attempts to do just that, is The Independent Project, started by a high school student, Sam Levin, in 2010.

The Independent Project is an alternative student driven school-within-a-school that was started at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The idea for The Independent Project came about from that student’s own experience of high school, and his observation of the experiences of his peers. The two main things he felt were missing from many high school classrooms were engagement and mastery. He also felt that even students who were engaged were often learning material that was not very intellectually valuable. They were learning lots of information, but very little about how to obtain information on their own, or even create new information. His intent was to design a school in which students would be fully engaged in and passionate about what they were learning, would have the experience of truly mastering something, or developing expertise in something, and would be learning how to learn. He felt that the most important ingredient to a school like that would be that it was student-driven. Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on engagement suggested that if students have more control over their learning, they will be more engaged, excited, and committed to their studies. He also felt that it was important for the school to be focused on methods rather than specific topics, having students work like actual scientists, mathematicians, or writers. – Sam Levin’s ‘White Paper’ on The Independent Project 

The pilot for the Independent Project ran for one semester, accepting eight students ranging in grade levels and academic ability, and was divided into four parts: Orientation, The Sciences, The Arts, and The Collective Endeavor. The students’ days were broken up into collective learning in the mornings and independent, project-based, inquiry-led learning in the afternoons. Watch the two videos below, produced by the students themselves, to learn more about The Independent Project. Also be sure to check out Sam Levin’s White Paper on the project for a detailed overview of the pilot and helpful tips, ideas and insights on the project.

question, engage & rethink …*

Hat Tip: This Is What a Student-Designed School Looks Like via MindShift, published July 14, 2014

{ Romantics, Read This } The Road to Creativity Requires a Map

I’ve been writing lately about tactics for circumventing creative block that deliberately constrain creative freedom. (Catch up on those posts here and here.)

It’s true that these tactics do not conform to romantic notions of creativity, but that’s OK — because they work.

Sometimes the pressure to create has the effect of cognitive blinders, preventing fruitful possibilities from entering our awareness. What happens? It’s as though the need to “perform” creatively, on command, transmogrifies by stealth into a mindset riddled by No’s — No, that won’t work… No, that would be dumb… No, that makes no sense…

This clamping down of the imagination often happens without our even realizing it, cutting off vast creative possibilities.

Swiss designer Karl Gerstner, a student at the renowned Basel School of Design in the early 1950s, responded to this vexing phenomenon through an embrace of programmed constraint. In Designing Programmes, his 1964 book that quickly became a classic among Swiss modernist designers (think Helvetica and adherence to visual grid systems), Gerstner advocated creative decisions reached not by “feeling” but by the systematic application of “intellectual criteria”:

Designing means: to pick out determining elements and combine them. Seen in these terms, designing calls for method. The most suitable I know is the [morphological box] Fritz Zwicky has developed, although actually his is intended for scientists rather than designers. The creative process is to be reduced to an act of selection.

If you’re inclined to romantic notions of creativity, you might want to sit with that last sentence for a minute.

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Gerstner developed the “morphological box of the typogram” is a matrix of criteria by which a designer can methodically develop a type-driven logo.




Gerstner’s logo for Intermöbel is an expression of the thirteen red-shaded criteria in this morphological box. Notably, Gerstner acknowledged that not all of the criteria were central to the final solution: “Only two [criteria] are actually decisive… Combined Values [Shades] and Something Replaced.”

Gerstner’s hyper-logical methodology reveals a modernist taste for rationality. Yet he acknowledges another rationale for this morphological approach: conserving creative energy.

The programme is not a replacement for creativity… Once a designer generates a version that has something interesting about it… they can then focus on refining that idea. The programme allows the designer to expend their creative energy on the refinement of a good idea instead of a large number of ideas that may not address the problem.

Without directly addressing the psychological factors that can thwart creativity, Gerstner uses constraints preventatively to optimize design practice.

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The constraint-driven tactics I’ve been sharing fly in the face of romantic notions of what it means to create. And that’s very much the point. Whether by human programming, oblique strategies, or ‘designing programmes,’ these strategies get us out of our own way.

Or, more precisely: they suspend that reflexive but maladaptive response to creative pressure — our capacity to talk ourselves out of our own ideas — and provide a clear road map for action.

Karl Gerstner, “Designing Programmes” in Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, Helen Armstrong, Ed. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 58.
Bryan Kulba, “Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes” (PDF)
Bryan Kulba, “Celebrating Karl Gerstner


{ Rethinking Creativity } Why are Constraints Freeing?

When you imagine the work life of a great artist or musician, do you picture a person of unbridled creativity? A vessel from which ideas continuously flow?

For many of us, the creative life conjures such images. When we consider creative people from afar, we tend to focus on what they have made — not the process by which they have made it. While we sit over here feeling blocked and uncertain, creative people are over there, idea after idea flowing from their hands and taking shape in the world. For lack of information, it can appear effortless.

But I’ve learned over the past couple of years (to my relief) that even highly productive creative people often feel blocked and uncertain. They are often stuck.

The difference is that they take action, even when they don’t feel like it. Perhaps especially when they don’t feel like it.

While developing my MFA thesis, I researched designers and artists who deliberately use constraints to free up the creative process and increase productivity. That research profoundly shifted my perception of creative people. Now I believe that many (if not most) creative people are creative because they do get stuck — and they develop successful methods for getting unstuck.

I find this idea incredibly liberating: Perhaps the main distinction between creative people and me is not that I get stuck and they don’t. It’s that their methods for getting unstuck really work, and they  faithfully rely on those methods.

Over the next weeks I’ll be sharing some examples of designers and artists who specifically use constraints to sidestep the psychological challenges of creative work — the aforementioned blocks and uncertainty.

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“The process is the product,” according to the Amsterdam-based design collective Conditional Design. Conditional Design first came together around a common interest in programming and design processes whose input comes from humans rather than from code. Though they eschew labels such as “generative design” and “code art,” the algorithmic aspect to their work is undeniable. 

The designers create each piece collectively, according to strict rules they have devised for that particular piece, just as in a game. In the Conditional Design methodology, “constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”

In other words, constraints jumpstart the design process by prescribing specific actions. They dramatically reduce the available design methods as well as the different forms the final product can take. And since the experience of the “game” is fun, the process itself becomes a driving motivation. In fact, the group initially developed this methodology as a kind of game night for graphic designers.



A rather simple example of Conditional Design’s work is “Cellular Relationships.” The process involved drawing circles according to the following directions:

  • Draw a cell that intersects one or two cells of another color. 
  • The center point of the cell must be outside the intersected cells. 
  • Find the points where your circle intersects with other cells and connect them with straight lines. 
  • Erase all enclosed cell segments that result from the intersection. 
  • If your cell intersects two cells, draw a baby cell within one of them. 
  • Cells can only be impregnated once. Repeat.




“Drop Fringe Garland Red Green Blue,” a piece commissioned by Items magazine in the Netherlands, was governed by more complex rules.

  • Draw a continuous periodic line from left to right. 
  • The line is defined by its period and its amplitude. 
  • Each period consists of max. 6 line-segments until it repeats. 
  • The line-segments are constructed from: red = diagonal lines;
    green = diagonal lines and vertical/horizontal lines;
    blue = vertical/horizontal lines. 
  • The period of each new line is either the same size, double the size, or half the size of its predecessor. 
  • The amplitude of each line is the same and overlaps half of the previous line. 
  • Color the smallest fields that emerge from intersections. 
  • Repeat.

The collective developed this process-based design tactic for practical reasons as well.

After writing our [Conditional Design] manifesto, we decided to use these evenings to create work. Through these workshops we could define better what we were trying to talk about. Every week one of us have to come up with an idea, and then within that evening we had to do it. We built a system where we could document it easily and present it to the outside world directly [i.e., photographs shot from above]. 

Not every result was a success. But in the aggregate, the methodology yielded a compelling body of work.

Both the failures and successes of the evenings were sent to the outside world. It was difficult to keep this going… 

Quickly after starting the workshops, we began getting questions about exhibitions. Somehow we started becoming professional with the space, which was meant to be an amateur place where we could just play around. We are trying to find a balance right now. 

To me, what’s remarkable about the CD methodology is that it seems to harness intrinsic motivation, if unconsciously. In other words, the collective credits “human programming” as the inspiration for Conditional Design, yet it developed a tactic that it continues to pursue for its own intrinsic delight.

In that light, it’s not surprising to learn that CD’s casual “game night” tactic yielded lucrative work after the group developed and reified the tactic as “conditional design.”

Today, the collective has published a book on this methodology and is regularly invited to hold workshops at design schools and companies. By honing a process so deliberately — and documenting it — they transformed process into product.


The use of constraints in creative practice is a powerful reminder that
what distinguishes creative people is not having creative ideas. It is taking action upon having a creative idea.

Constraints make taking action easier. And in the case of Conditional Design, they are the creative idea and the action rolled into one.

Source: Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

Experiential Learning & the Value of Personal Narrative in teaching {{Growth Mindset}}

Hello rethinked…* ! I have been travelling quite a bit these past few weeks, but last Friday I had the chance to attend a great Mindset workshop at Riverdale Country Day School run by the wonderful Mai Kobori and Lisa Grocott from Parson’s THRIVING learning lab. The workshop was a bit of a prototype on how to use experiential learning and personal narrative to instill the idea of growth mindset. Elsa has a great summary post about this construct here. Generally the idea is that a person with a fixed mindset believes that their ability at a given thing is fixed and unchanging, and therefore puts in less effort (since effort is meaningless) and is less likely to seek challenges or take risks. Alternatively, students with a growth mindset believe that ability is flexible and improves with effort and practice. We all hold different fixed or a growth mindsets in a variety of domains (and we hold different ones for different things). For example, I may believe that my running ability is fixed, but my reading ability can grow.

Lisa and Mai used this video below to drive the concepts home, and I think it does a really great job of summarizing the basic findings around this construct:

In the workshop, we discussed times in our own lives when we experienced the symptoms of a fixed mindset, thought about metaphors for these ideas, and then we broke into groups and developed short narratives using Adobe Voice that presented the transition from a fixed to a growth mindset using metaphor. The use of personal narrative in small groups cultivated trust and encouraged vulnerability which undoubtedly strengthened the program. Additionally, I think the method of inventing and creating stories to instill the growth mindset is a great way to teach these concepts in an engaging way. Prior to this, I had mostly heard of lecture-based approaches where students learn that their brain is a muscle. If I were a teacher, I would definitely use this method in my own classroom.

I worked in a group that focused on the idea of effort seeming futile. We all shared our own personal struggles with fixed mindset and ultimately developed the following short story using carnival games as a metaphor. We sought to express the idea that effort seems futile when you aren’t actually measuring effort (but rather chance), and perhaps you should refine your instrument and take a new perspective before throwing in the towel. Check it out below:

While we only had about 20 minutes each to develop our videos, it would be interesting to give students more time with this tool to see what they could develop. Ultimately, I see a TON of promise in using this sort of pedagogy to promote character education.





Buzzwords Can Be Dangerous If They Don’t Promote Sustainable Changes In Thinking, Doing & Shared Understanding …*

Buzzwords Can Be Dangerous If They Don’t Promote Sustainable Changes In Thinking, Doing & Shared Understanding ...* |

You may find the confession I’m about to make a bit strange given how central design thinking is to our team’s work as well as my rethinked*annex side project. But here it goes: I am sick and tired of talking about design thinking. As you know, design thinking is a huge buzzword right now in innovation and management circles. Unfortunately, most conversations and articles about the discipline center on either embracing it as a cure-all methodology for every single one of our innovation and creativity woes or decrying it as a depthless, overhyped, passing fad. I find these two binary views to critically miss the point about what design thinking is and what it can offer.

Just yesterday, browsing LinkedIn’s “Management Consulting” news tab, I found two separate articles detailing the woes of design thinking. In “Design Thinking” Destroyed Us, Brian de Haaff  writes:

The problem is when this approach is fervently adopted as the only approach to solving challenges and delivering great customer experiences. And this is where it all went wrong. Everything looked like a problem that we could “design think” our way out of to the UX teams.

Even problems that no one on the product team thought were customer or business problems became ripe for long design-centered studies by people who never previously spoke with customers and definitely did not grok our product.

I see three big problems with the above passage. First, nothing about design thinking mandates that it should be embraced as a step by step recipe. “When this approach is fervently adopted as the only approach to solving challenges” –who is doing the fervent, exclusive, adoption? That is a result of the company’s culture and management, not the discipline of design thinking itself. The second issue is the “long design-centered studies” that he describes. As IDEO’s Kelley brothers like to say, “Fail faster, succeed sooner.” Design thinking is about rapid prototyping and iteration, not months of market research. Also, and perhaps more worryingly, why are these studies being conducted by people who are not at all plugged in to the environment of the challenge they are trying to solve–those “people who never previously spoke with customers and definitely did not grok our product”? If there were a design thinking mandate it would be to empathize. Design thinking is, above all, human-centered–meaning the solutions focus on the actual perspective and experience of the people invested in the challenge, not on unexplored assumptions of what that experience might be.

The third big issue here is “everything looked like a problem that we could “design think”.” I think this statement reflects a serious misunderstanding of the design thinking process. It is not simply a list of steps to problem solve, it’s a way to explore and redefine the problem landscape to uncover more holistic and potent solutions. One of the major benefits of design thinking is how richly it allows one to explore and reframe the problem one is trying to solve. In design thinking, teams use an initial definition of the challenge at hand as a springboard for further exploration. I have never participated in a design thinking challenge where the initial statement of the problem wasn’t later reframed and recrafted.

de Haaff goes on to list some of the specific reasons why his company’s “application of design thinking destroyed progress and fractured the UX groups from the product and engineering teams“:

“The core issue was that design thinking fundamentally requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions must be created for consideration and testing.” 

Again, design thinking doesn’t fundamentally require anything–it’s a tool. If you had to mow your lawn and you had at your disposal a lawn mower and a pair of scissors and decided to use the scissors, when you found yourself exhausted and discouraged at having wasted your afternoon cutting only a small patch of grass with your scissors instead of finishing the job in an hour with the lawn mower, you wouldn’t blame your scissors for the poor outcome, would you? Tools are just tools, their impact and effectiveness depends on how we choose to use them.

I do not mean to pick on Mr. de Haaff, but I think his article illustrates a lot of the problematic ways in which design thinking is being framed and experienced. Design thinking is a human-centered problem solving methodology–it gives us a framework and a set of tools to problem solve. It is neither a miracle nor a curse, it is what we make it. Which is what makes Tamara Christensen‘s interview on think jar collective about Demystifying Design Thinking such a refreshing and important read:

Buzzwords can be dangerous if they don’t promote sustainable changes in thinking and doing, and shared understanding. They can be easily dismissed. Ironically, I find that most designers have trouble clarifying exactly how they think and making their own process explicit for others. The most simple definition of design that I use is by Herbert Simon, from Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, 1969) where he describes design as “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones”. Design thinking, therefore, is basically about the kind of mental activity that facilitates this transformation. Fortunately IDEO and the at Stanford (among others) have done a great job of promoting the process and providing a wealth of information about how it’s done and why it’s valuable.

I think the biggest obstacle to understanding Design Thinking is to treat it as a rigid process, a series of steps that must be followed in a particular sequence. I have seen this happen time and again when a team tries to apply Design Thinking with questionable success and then decides “Design Thinking doesn’t work.” In reality, what doesn’t work is treating Design Thinking like a recipe that must be adhered to. It is more like a mindset, multiple modes of thinking and doing that are iteratively utilized as the project requires. Design Thinking is first and foremost about people and keeping them at the center of the process.

The most common modes are Empathize (with humans), Frame (an opportunity from the perspective of a human), Ideate (about how to address the opportunity), Prototype (possible solutions) and Test (your ideas with people using the prototypes).


  1. It is human-centered and people-powered, keep stakeholders engaged as much as possible.
  2. Empathy is an essential and transformational experience for fueling creativity.
  3. Prototyping is about building to think and test ideas. The faster we fail, the better.

Source: Demystifying Design Thinking: Interview With Tamara Christensen via Think Jar Collective

{ How might we } develop Ed Tech that teachers and students will actually use? Include them in the conversation!

While the title of this post may seem like a no-brainer, it is shocking how wide the chasm is between research and practice. On one side, we have researchers and ed tech companies developing new curriculum, apps, and tools for the classroom. On the other side, we have teachers and students who are often not included in the conversation until the Beta version roles out and they are asked for feedback.

Classrooms are castles that teachers spend a ton of thought and effort in carefully constructing. Therefore, many teachers are resistant to change, especially new ideas that they haven’t had any say in. On the other side, researchers often have a warped or idealized image of how a piece of technology will play out in practice, and there are many classroom factors that could make their plans obsolete. Additionally, there is a huge issue of ensuring teachers have adequate professional development and training in how to use new tools in the classroom.

A huge focus of the Instructional Technology and Design course I took this past Spring was to include users EARLY in the process and – if possible – make them part of the project teams. Teachers and students should be included in every aspect of the process when designing technology that they are going to use.

When I first heard about he Design Thinking for Educators (DT4E) handbook, I knew this was an important step towards changing how we view the role of the teacher in developing new practices and tools for the classroom. However, realistically some projects are too huge for full-time teachers or schools to take on on their own. This is why integrating them into the work that researchers and companies do is so imperative.

It looks like one state has finally gotten the message with this. Hawaii has brought the teachers’ voices into tech ed integration. In this article from Ed Surge,  the author explains that Hawaiian educators are integrally involved in the decision making process as Hawaii transitions to a 1:1 “device in every hand” state. Additionally, the teachers have been allotted TIME to play with new technology and time to construct their own integration strategies. In fact, they found that teachers ideally need a whole school year of professional development before releasing devices to students.


In my own research project (I am developing a computer based coach for Invention activities), we have teacher consultants who we are working with, and the PI has many years of classroom experience. We will be pilotting in real classrooms by the end of the study, working with teachers and students to assess how they use and enjoy the learning experience

However, I think there is definitely more room for more teacher and student voice in the development of new products. How Might We better integrate technology in K-12 education? Let me know what you think!

{ Stanford 2025 } Design Thinking Major Paradigm Shifts For Future Learning Opportunities …*

Just yesterday, I was writing about an upcoming MOOC on the Science of Happiness that is poised to make online learning history according to this Forbes writer. MOOCs have sent the world of education into a bit of a frenzy as we attempt to collectively shape and understand the disruptive effects that online learning will have on future learning environments. Personally, I find the idea that schools have now been rendered obsolete by online learning misguided. It is a gross oversight of the critical need and function of social connection to deep learning. As Sophia Pink, daughter of Dan Pink, observed after spending a year of independent learning, using a mix of online learning courses and independent projects:

“classroom education shouldn’t be fully replaced by online courses, but it can draw on what works well online. Huge online courses have many virtues but need to do better at fostering the sort of side by side back and forth collaboration that we all need to learn.”

What might this relationship between social and online learning look like? And what types(s) of environment might facilitate and enhance this hybrid form of learning? Those are precisely the questions that Stanford’s explored through its @Stanford Project, which ultimately generated the Stanford2025 exhibit and website. Noting the potential disruption posed by online learning and noticing that “many parts of the undergraduate experience are ripe for reinvention” prompted a team at the to question how time, space, expertise, accreditation, and student agency may also change within higher education:

College has multiple aims: it’s a place to gain expertise and develop abilities, but also to come of age. These are entwined together in a residential college experience―a complex and special setting. Enormous energy and investment are now being placed in experimentation and pioneering in the online learning space. We wanted to complement these efforts with an exploration of learning and living on campus, now and in the future.

A design team from the Stanford worked with hundreds of perceptive, creative, and generous students, faculty, and administrators over the course of a year to explore this territory. We considered many lenses—from how students prepare for a Stanford education while still in high school, to patterns of undergraduate decision-making about what and how they study, to the shifting needs and expectations from future employers. 

The project culminated with an experiential exhibit entitled “Stanford 2025,” held at the in May 2014. To encourage an exploratory mindset, the event was staged as a time-travel journey. The community embarked to the distant future—and landed just at the moment when Stanford was looking back retrospectively at major paradigm shifts that “happened” around 2025. These possible shifts were shared as provocations—a subjective, student-centered imagining of what could happen as the future unfolds.

While the Stanford2025 exploration of future learning environments is focused on higher education, the provocations listed are critically relevant to K-12 learning as well. Head over to the website to dive more deeply into each of the four provocations and download the accompanying toolkit to “Make them your own. Try them, tweak them, push them, or even reject them.”

  • The Reflect Worksheets are excursions into imagined worlds inspired by the provocations.
  • The Imagine Cards are prompts to spark inspiration in your own work.
  • The Try Playbook is a set of activities and suggestions to get started.

reflect, imagine, try & rethink …*

{ OPEN LOOP UNIVERSITY } Bringing an End to a Society of Alumni in Favor of Lifetime Learning:

From: Students received four years of college education, front-loaded at the beginning of adulthood

To: Students received a lifetime of learning opportunities.

The perspective that the university could effectively serve its original mission while continuing to narrowly define the time in one’s life when learning would happen was challenged.

Open Loop Vimeo from Stanford on Vimeo.


PACED EDUCATION } Abolishing the Class Year & Embracing Adaptive Learning:

From: Structured, 4-year courses of study advanced students by seat hours on a quarterly rhythm.

To: Three phases of varied lengths provided personalized, adaptive, calibrated learning.

Paced Education Vimeo from Stanford on Vimeo.


AXIS FLIP }  Flipping the Axes of Knowledge & Competency:

From: Knowledge within a particular discipline was the criteria for graduation; skill development was secondary.

To: Stanford flipped the axes so that skill development became the foundation.

Axis Flip Vimeo from Stanford on Vimeo.


PURPOSE LEARNING } Declaring Missions, Not Majors:

From: Students declared Majors and focused their studies around set requirements.

To: Students declared Missions and coupled their disciplinary pursuit with the purpose that fueled it. 

“I’m a biology major” was replaced by “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger.” Or “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”  

The goal was to help students select a meaningful course of study while in school, and then scaffold a clear arc for the first 10 – 15 years of their professional lives. It wasn’t about the career trajectory, but the reasons behind it.

Purpose Learning Vimeo from Stanford on Vimeo.


[ Hat Tip: Students Travel To 2025 To Question the Future Of Higher Education via PSFK, published May 9, 2014 ]

Can students learn something about failure from the design world?

Can students learn something about failure from the design world? This is not a novel idea for this blog, but it is something that I am going to begin to explore empirically (with research studies) over the next year.



Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the design world’s mantra of “fail early, fail often,” or the more recent idea of “fail forward.” In the tech industry, there’s talk of a “failure fetish.” As outlined in their book Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, Babineaux and Krumboltz explain that the idea behind the mantra is that successes arise out of hundreds of mistakes and failures. The earlier you fail, the earlier you begin to learn.  Therefore, you should push ahead with an idea early, knowing full well that you won’t get it right on the first try, in order to gather feedback. The President of Pixar calls it a process of going from “suck to non-suck,” and the director of Finding Nemo stated that “I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.”

The benefits of this iteration process are often told through case studies in the design world. For example, in the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Art Makingthere is a story about a ceramics class.  In this class, one group of students was graded solely on the quantity of their work (e.g., 50 pounds of pots is an A, 40 pounds is a B), while another solely on the quality of their work (the single best piece will be graded). At the end of the term, the students who made the most technically and artistically sophisticated work all came from the quantity condition. These students experimented and learned from mistakes as they created piece after piece. In contrast, students in the quality condition carefully planned a handful of  “flawless” pots across the course and with limited practice, showed limited improvement.

Photo from


I’ve blogged about the Marshmallow Challenge before, but in case you missed it – in a 2010 TED Talk, Tom Wujec discusses the same principle in terms of his design exercise, the Marshmallow Challenge. In this task, groups of four are given 18 minutes to produce the tallest freestanding tower using pasta, tape, string, and one marshmallow that must be placed at the top. Wujec has facilitated over 70 marshmallow challenges and one of his biggest findings is that teams that prototype iteratively over the 18 minutes have time to learn and adapt their towers and therefore perform better on the task. Teams that carefully build out one idea for 17:50 and then try to place the marshmallow at the top during the last 10 seconds almost always see their towers collapse.


Photo from my most recent Marshmallow Challenge with 7th and 8th grade students at Grand Street Settlement

Photo from my most recent Marshmallow Challenge with 7th and 8th grade students at Grand Street Settlement


In the design world culture, failure is simply a part of the journey towards innovation and is part of every day practice. While this “permission to fail” culture is often view negatively in education (the phrase is used to mean giving certain -often minority- students permission to do poorly), it is something that highly successful design firms such as IDEO pride themselves on and feel directly contributes to their successes.  Why is failure celebrated in these spheres, rather than taking on the same motivation-killing, gut-wrenching connotations that it does in academics?

I’m currently conducting research on a pedagogy known as “Invention with Contrasting Cases,”  (Invention for short) for middle school science learning. Invention is guided exploration where students analyze a set of data and are asked to “invent” an external representation or “index” of an underlying principle that runs through the data. This data takes the form of contrasting cases: examples of scientific concepts or phenomena with predesigned contrasts to highlight key features that will clue young inventors into the abstract ideas. Students are given some time (in our current study we give 15 minutes for each set of cases) to explore the meaning of these cases and invent their own principles, often with scaffolding from teachers or in small groups. Then, students are given a traditional lecture to explain the principles. Multiple studies of this pedagogy have demonstrated that it is an effective form of instruction, compared to traditional tell-and-practice methods, inquiry learning, or reading and summarizing text.

Invention involves what are called “productive failure” tasks, which are characterized by giving students novel problems to solve before giving them direct instruction (as opposed to traditional tell-and-practice pedagogy). Studies have shown that exploring and generating multiple solutions and grappling with the relevant concepts can be productive for learning when direct instruction is subsequently given, and learning gains are found even when problem solving leads to initial failure. In particular, Invention has been shown to foster deep understanding of science concepts and transfer to novel contexts.

However, anecdotally we have noticed that students often have difficulty generating ideas for new inventions after an initial invention fails, requiring high levels of teacher guidance. We have also noticed that sometimes students hit a wall motivationally when they first come across an invention task. I don’t blame them – asking a 13 year old to “invent an index using math” is asking a lot, and it is very different than what they are usually asked to do in a science or a math class.

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But what if these students could think like designers? or like the start-ups in Silicon valley? If we can get students to dive right into the challenge, expecting and aiming to fail early, learn from that failure, and continue on, I’d expect to see less hesitation and far more progress as they move through these invention tasks.

SO – I am currently developing an intervention where students can learn about design thinking, internalize its failure philosophy, and go through a short design task to experience the utility of failing forward. I’m interested in seeing how it affects their persistence and success on the invention tasks, but I also think this sort of thing could be generally useful for teaching and learning. For example, how would computer programmers benefit from the mantra? Or students writing essays that need multiple revisions? What other academic tasks require this willingness to fail at first and understanding that with iteration, you can improve and succeed?

I’ll keep you posted on my progress!



Babineaux, R., & Krumboltz, J. (2013). Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win.  The Penguin Group, New York, NY.

Bayles, D., & Orland, T. (2001). Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. The Image Continuum, Santa Cruz, CA.

Wujec, T. Build a tower, build a team: Tom Wujec on | TED Blog. (2010). Retrieved from



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