Insights from Parsons’ Learn.Engage.Design Prototyping Workshop

First of all, I would like to extend a huge thank you to Lisa Grocott of Parsons The New School of Design and her Transdisciplinary Design students for inviting a group of Riverdale Country School faculty and students along with several rethinked…* team members to participate in a prototyping workshop aiming to explore learning futures for the 21st century. On Thursday September 20th, Lisa and her students invited us to participate and collaborate in a workshop where we would be prototyping some of the early ideas coming out of their course Learn.Engage.Design.


The workshop is part of the Learn.Engage.Design course at Parsons — a course where the students work in collaborative teams with external partners to design innovative systems, experiences and services that hopefully serve a broad community of students, teachers, administrators and families interested in how we build engaging learning experiences.

The focus of the workshop will be on prototyping some of the early ideas coming out of the course. There will be time upfront for RCS faculty and students to add their voice to the students’ insights and framing of the project, but just as importantly we will be using the prototyping process to further interrogate the situation and refine our ambitions.

For the workshop, the participants (RCS faculty & students, Parsons students and rethinked…* team members) were divided into four Engaged Learning project teams, each centered around a different theme connected to exploring learning futures in the 21st century: Teaching Teachers; Anytime, Anywhere; Learning Spaces; and Students as Teachers. The teams that emerged were truly interdisciplinary and created a well-rounded unit of people with a wide array of skills and expertise all honing in on the challenges of education.

Teaching Teachers 

This project recognizes the value of co-designing with teachers’ strategies for fostering a student-led, inquiry-based approach to learning. The project builds on literature around design-based learning and positive psychology — with the emphasis on investing in the teacher.

Anytime, Anywhere 

Embracing technologies of cooperation and cultivating open learning environments allows this project to explore how, when and where a student might learn in the 21st century. The project emphasizes the individual student by building on the potential of collaborative learning platforms — specifically exploring the framing of the school as a learning commons.

Learning Spaces 

This project recognizes the role space and place impact our learning environment and shape how we learn. Shaped by the maker economy and emphasizing authentic learning this project builds on the notion of school as simply the base camp for learning — promoting the peer-to-peer learning of a collaborative environments.

Students as Teachers 

This project emphasizes the value of self-directed learning where the student embraces the role of framing his or her own learning contracts. Recognizing that to build resilient learning communities this project acknowledges the school’s role in extending the teacher / student relationship to include family, coaches, tutors, and mentor learning teams.


Once we had established our goals, defined our how might we’s, attempted to define an integrated idea from two opposing solutions, and selected a couple ideas we wanted to explore (what ifs) we were asked to identify a protagonist for our story and sketch out our ideas in the form of a two-minute video. While the workshop as a whole was incredibly informative and fun the part that was most educational, for me personally, occurred when we were asked to think about the challenges, solutions and users in an integrated and holistic way by telling a short simple story. Our instructions were as follow:

1. Identify a protagonist for your story & consider the following: 




Demographics: gender, age, class, ethnicity,

2. Sketch out a character arc of the protagonist through a 4-act play

Act I. Introduce the problem space or opportunity.

Act II. Set up how the core tension/problem might be resolved (HMW)

Act III. Present your idea, the potential solution (What If…)

Act IV. Disclose the resolution, identifying the impact of the idea.

3.Video Sketch

a) Simultaneously develop the script and set design for your 4-act video

b) Rehearse the actors’ movements, do a read through, then shoot the video in one take to share with others.

c) Copy video on to computer, then flash drive, then Lisa’s computer.



I write to think, to know and to remember. This is not an abstract meaningless cliché; it’s my reality. For ideas to be fully processed, remembered, created and connected to other ideas, I have to write them all down. It’s a painstakingly slow process and runs counter to every tenet of efficiency, but it’s the way that works for me, my brain and my personality.

By framing the execution of our prototypes in the context of a story, I was able to achieve a fuller, more in depth, conceptual and integrated understanding of the challenge at hand and its various elements than I have been able to up to now with previous design thinking challenges. In most design thinking challenges I have participated in, the execution of the prototypes is left open ended except for an emphasis on using cheap, fast and ordinary materials so that your ideas and prototypes do not become too precious to you.

Sketching out a character arc was a way to identify, keep track of and integrate the various elements of the ‘topography’ of our challenges: the users, activities, environments, objects and interactions that come together to create the reality of the challenge and the impact of the solutions. The medium (video) was also particularly helpful for me because it created a way to visually keep track of all these elements as a coherent whole.

While oftentimes you might not be the intended user of the prototype(s) you are making, it is important to pay attention to your individual needs, preferences and cognitive characteristics when framing the execution of the prototype. Different frames and constraints for executing prototypes will work differently for different people. The key is experimenting with various limits and restrictions until you find the right mix and medium for you.

Head over to our Facebook page for more pictures from the workshop.

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