For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.


I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

To be continued…

So, thanks to a spot of laser surgery to rectify a small tear in the retina of my right eye, this weekend this keen reader isn’t really up to doing much reading. No problem. I have a bank of podcasts I often complain I can’t find the time to listen to. Case in point, this Serial podcast I’ve heard so many people go on about.

And never being one for half measures where text is concerned, I managed to listen to the entire first season in one day.

This is what struck me: nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Everything is complicated. Like, everything. My recollection of an event is not the same as yours. It gets filtered through my experiences, my bias, my senses, my brain. What strikes you is inconsequential to me. And vice versa. This reminds me very much of why Memento is one of my all-time favourite films, with this as one of my all-time favourite quotes from it: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation…” 

Before I go too far off track here, let me just say that I am profoundly interested in the intersection between stories and identity. The way we interpret and understand the world around us is through stories. Stories are our identity. And stories are multifaceted, they are layered. They are complex.

Image Sources: Change Management, Complexity

Which is why something like ‘change management’ structures irritate me so badly. Change is multifaceted, layered and complex. It cannot be stuck into boxes to follow a set pattern which will magically get everyone working together with the same goal in mind.

A good comeback at this point might be to say, okay, sure Philippa, you don’t like change management processes, but you’re a bit of a raver for design thinking…what’s the difference, really? And fair enough. The way design thinking is often portrayed is as a linear process: first this, then that, and then the other.


The first thing? Immersion: empathy building. Sitting with the complex, the multifaceted, the layered. And seeking to understand it from another’s point of view. When you do this, you honour the stories of another. You honour who and what they are, and who and what is important to them.

I’m still grappling with these ideas (one of the reasons why it’s been so long between blogposts), and you can hear my grappling as well as some more of my thoughts here in a podcast I did with Pete Hall of Network for Learning. But there’s something about language, stories, identity and empathy and what these might offer us in education to invite others into agentic practices that has gripped me and is occupying a lot of my thinking. I guess this is an episode that for me is to be continued…


How might Design Thinking transform our schools?

This blogpost is the final in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

Let me start by looking at the title of this blogpost. Something that’s common in design thinking practices is to use the phrase “how might we” (often abbreviated to HMW…which doesn’t stand for ‘homework’!) to pose a framing question. I find these three words powerful. “How” implies something is possible, but it’s a broad question word which encourages immersion and exploration. “How” is free from agenda, in the sense that it doesn’t imply that the answer is already known and that rubber-stamping is being sought. “How” asks us to problem find, as well as problem solve. “Might” is another open word which encourages free flowing ideation without judgement or bias. And “we” is utterly inclusive. I like this way of framing a question as it encapsulates the design thinking mindsets: empathetic, curious, collaborative, growth-minded, biased towards actions, requiring deep thought, and focused towards an as-yet-unknown outcome. So, how might we use design thinking to transform our schools?

(Side note, the verb that follows the ‘how might we’ requires careful thought and consideration too. Choosing one often sends me towards a thesaurus and I usually write multiple versions in search of the perfect nuanced combination. I love this post by Mary Cantwell of DeepDT on this very topic.)

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Image Credit

So, if you’ve followed along with me so far, you’ll have learned that for me design thinking is extremely powerful, and I believe that it has much to offer us in the education sector. But you’ll also be aware that I actually can’t answer my own ‘how might we’ question, as it will be up to you in your own specific context to explore how design thinking might disrupt and transform your school. Instead, I thought I might pose a series of ‘what if’ questions. (Design thinkers like those too!)

What if we…

  • Used design thinking to craft a strategic vision for our school, and then use this overarching vision to inform whole school planning?
  • What if we embraced the design thinking mindsets and actively encouraged question asking, risk taking and a ‘just do it’ approach within an iterative feedback loop?
  • What if we wrote bug lists in our staffroom and classrooms…and used these to inform our next steps? (NB: A ‘bug list’ is not a list of the insects to be found in the school grounds, but a list of things that ‘bug’ – i.e. annoy and irritate – you.)
  • What if we explored radical collaboration to give voice and agency to learners, teachers, and the community?
  • What if, by embracing a whole school design thinking approach, we could short-circuit change management concerns because we had engaged empathetically with all involved?

By way of an example, I’d like to return again to Grant Lichtman’s book #EdJourney (Jossey-Bass, 2014), where he tells the story of the Los Altos School District in California that comprises nine schools. They wanted to be able to capture student voice in order to truly revolutionise learning. So, they created “Student EdCon”, a three day design thinking conference that was student centred. In the book, Alyssa Gallagher, the director of strategic initiatives and community partnerships, reports that at the conference they “exposed the students to thought leaders who would resonate with them and their interests. Then they learned about the design process, and had a chance to develop solutions they had created for different ways to approach learning.” (p. 155) I wonder what students themselves would create if we opened up thorny issues like curriculum design and timetabling to them in honest and democratic ways?

Because, I guess, that’s what all this design thinking business is about for me: What if design thinking gave rise to a movement to drive innovation in our schools?

Further reading:

Edutopia: Design Thinking in Education

Where can I go for more help with Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the fourth in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

Okay, so the watchword for this blogpost is curation. We’ve begun by thinking about what design thinking actually is, why I think it’s important to use in education – silver bullet, people! – and the variety of ways design thinking can be used in an education context. For those of you on this design thinking journey with me, this post is really just a list of my favourite ‘go to’ places.

Firstly, when people want to get started with design thinking, I often show this quick clip from Daylight on what design thinking is. It’s a useful introduction with reference to a particular product that was designed and made. But I personally think the best way to learn what design thinking is, is by getting hands-on and stuck into a design thinking challenge. So, here’s the d. School in Stanford’s “crash course” in design thinking, and embedded below is a presentation I gave late last year to a group of principals interested in learning about design thinking:

If people are readers and want to explore the concept of design thinking, my favourite article is this one by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt. I find this research by Swee Hong Kwek useful too. In last week’s post I recommended Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney and Ewan McIntosh’s How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make them Happen. Grant’s blog is also one to subscribe to.

For people wanting to see the different ways the process of design thinking can be expressed, I start with the “biggies” of design thinking: IDEO, d. School and notosh. I also suggest these models as being of particular use to teachers, or that have education-specific resources: Mary Cantwell’s DeepDT, Frog Design’s Collective Action Toolkit, and IDEO’s design thinking for educators. This latter site also has a great downloadable toolkit, as well as short videos to watch and spark inspiration.

When you want to get practical with “stuff” you can just use in the classroom tomorrow, I don’t think you can go past this great collection of design thinking resources collated by Thomas Riddle in a Livebinder. I found it super-handy when I created my first design thinking-inspired unit. And the d. School K-12 Lab Wiki also has excellent resources – I use their downloadable images a lot.

And finally, for those who want to connect with other like-minded design thinking educators, I always point them in the direction of Steve Mouldey, particularly as he’s a local Kiwi educator; and also, for those on Twitter, the #dtk12chat. Like me, Steve was a CORE Education eFellow in 2015, and he also conducted some research into design thinking. I recommend a read of this blogpost, as he inquired into the impact of design thinking from a student’s perspective.

What else have you uncovered/discovered on your design thinking journey? Please suggest other nifty resources in the comments below:

How can I use Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the third in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.


I recently spoke about my passion for design thinking at educampwelly. In my quick-fire Smackdown presentation (so, under 60 seconds) I said, slightly hyperbolically, that for me if there is a silver bullet for education, design thinking is it.

So far I’ve said a little bit about what design thinking is. In the last blogpost, I spoke about why I think we should use design thinking. This kind of boiled down to the idea that if we want creative, innovative problem finders and problem solvers, then design thinking offers a structured yet flexible, empathetic way to this. So now, let’s get a little bit more practical, and think about the possible applications of design thinking in our current educational context and climate.

Um. It can be used every way.

Yep, I really mean it.

You can use design thinking to shape a one-off lesson. While maybe not ideal, this could be a great way to introduce the overall scope of the method. You can use design thinking to shape a whole unit of work. My preference would lie here, and you can see such a unit I created with a class of Year 8 English students here. Of course, you don’t need to be a ‘slave to the process’, and the design thinking mindsets can be used at any time to enhance the specific context at hand.

Beyond the scope of a ‘one subject, one hour’ secondary school timetabled environment, design thinking offers an excellent way to bring subjects together in a naturally integrated, cross-curricular way. The current New Zealand Transport Agency’s game design competition is an excellent example of an authentic, purposeful activity that would lend itself perfectly to design thinking, and I know of a school that’s doing so.

Beyond the classroom, design thinking can be used as an approach to professional learning. I use it to shape my own learning, and it can also be used from a facilitator’s perspective to help inform the shape of a professional learning session. In fact, my eFellowship research looked into this idea in more depth, and you can read about that here. I believe there are strong links to be made here to the New Zealand curriculum’s model of teaching as inquiry, as well as Timperley et al’s spiral of inquiry (2014). The latter in particular, with its central focus on meeting the needs of the learner.

Beyond professional learning, design thinking can be used as an approach to leadership and strategic thinking. Steve Mouldey has written about this. What if we structured whole school initiatives using a design thinking model? Wouldn’t staff and students and the community feel involved? Wouldn’t we have a diverse, wide range of ideas and perspectives to pull from? And wouldn’t this equate to more innovative, targeted and collaborative solutions? I’d recommend Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney as well as Ewan McIntosh’s How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, as places to start thinking about this.

Basically, I find that the more you explore design thinking, the more you see that it’s an overarching approach, not dissimilar to choosing to adopt a growth mindset, and that you are limited in applying it only by your imagination.


Lichtman, G. (2014). #EdJourney: A roadmap to the future of education. San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass.

McIntosh, E. (2014). How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make them Happen: A Pragmatic Strategy Handbook for Education Leaders, Innovators and Troublemakers. Edinburgh, UK: NoTosh Publishing.

Timperley, H., Kaser, L. and Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning inschools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series Paper No. 234.

Why use Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the second in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

So if we’ve established a bit of a common understanding of what Design Thinking really is, and remember the ‘sound bite’ from last week was: “Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving…” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4let’s now turn our attention to why we might embrace a design thinking approach to teaching and learning. What might it offer our learners?

Perhaps the place to start is with the idea of ‘21st century’ skills, a phrase which is a bit amorphous, but is often used as an umbrella term for the kinds of skills that educationalists, researchers and future thinkers regard as being key for our current (and future) learners in order for them to be active and aware citizens. These 21st century skills are sometimes alliteratively grouped as three or four Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

Image Source

As a group works through a design thinking process using the design thinking mindsets, they cannot help but hit all four of these Cs in a meaningful way. There will be the collaboration of the group itself as they work iteratively through the framework. Many proponents of design thinking actively encourage diverse groupings in order to encompass a variety of voices and of perspectives. Collaboration cannot be done without communication. Additionally, there will be communication with the users, the people for whom the design solution is being sought. Empathy building will require some kind of interview, survey, research – or all three – to be conducted. This also draws on critical thinking, particularly as the group moves from an immersion to an ideation phase. Synthesising a wealth of information requires a hugely critical eye. Finally, one of the reasons I personally feel drawn to design thinking is the way it provides a semi-structured way to develop creativity. The ideation phase in particular targets this. But creativity will also be fostered in imagining ways to communicate effectively and deeply with users, creating prototypes, pitching an idea for feedback.

In New Zealand, our ‘21st century skills’ are really the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum:

  • Thinking
  • Relating to others
  • Using language, symbols and text
  • Managing self
  • Participating and Contributing.

Hopefully even with only a cursory glance at this list, we can see that again design thinking will hit meaningfully on these too.

As notosh says: “Design Thinking can be a powerful vehicle for deeper learning of content, more divergent thinking and building the thinking skills capacity of learners. Key to the process’s success in learning, is that it provides the platform for learners to become problem finders.” I’d like now to consider a further this idea of problem solving and problem finding. It might seem a little odd, but let’s not consider these two things as separate from one another.

You may recall from the previous blogpost, that Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) looked at tracing the origins of this phrase ‘design thinking’ and in the process of doing so, focused on ‘thinking about design’. In his article, he makes a salient point about problem finding by quoting Horst Rittel: “formulating the problem is the problem.” Rittel uses the phrase ‘wicked’ to discuss design problems, as, among other aspects, “Every problem can be seen as a symptom of another and problems cannot be separated into disciplines.” (Protzen, 2010, p. 6)

‘Wicked’ problems are not just limited to problems of design (in a narrow sense of the word). Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert (et al, 2012) discuss these in an educational context in their superb “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”. They define wicked problems as those that “cannot be solved using straightforward puzzle-solving or mathematical solutions. They span multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral…” For example: climate change, poverty, drug trafficking. “It is argued that education for the 21st century needs to support learners…to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.” (Bolstad and Gilbert et al, 2012, p. 12)

I believe that design thinking offers one way to begin to tackle wicked problems. Working in a cross-curricular, trans-disciplinary, collaborative manner to hear the voices of those ‘on the ground’ seems to me to be a way to bring highly complex challenges from the abstract to the concrete and thus begin to find workable, realistic solutions; finding the problem in order to work towards solving it. Thus I believe design thinking fosters active, agentic, empathetic citizenship. More than developing and nurturing 21st century skills, design thinking offers hope that things can change for the better.


Bolstad, Rachel and Gilbert Jane (et al). (2012). “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, Retrieved from

Kwek, Swee Hong. (2011). “Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning”, (Master’s thesis) Retrieved from

McIntosh, Ewan. (2014). “The Design Thinking School”, Retrieved from

Protzen, Jean-Pierre. (2010). “Design Thinking: What is That?”, Retrieved from

What is Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the first in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

It’s actually really hard to find the ‘sound bite’ answer to this question. This is probably the most succinct response I’ve come across:

“Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving…” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4)

Which is all well and good, but what does this actually mean?

It is loosely possible to trace the origins of the phrase ‘design thinking’. In fact, Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) has had a go at that exact task. He focuses on where ‘design thinking’ has come from, from a strictly design perspective, and ultimately chooses to discuss ‘thinking about design’ which is, naturally, subtly different. By tracing the various definitions, theories and philosophies about design over the 20th century, and comparing and contrasting various definitions of design, Protzen posits the following:

“Design is not a thing but an activity.

Design is purposeful.

Design in creative, searching for something new.

Design is meeting expectations,

Design involves uncertainty and risk,

Design involves simulation.” (pp. 3-4)

Which brings us rather nicely to the folks most design thinkers recognise: the Kelley brothers. David Kelley formed IDEO in 1991. With his company he designed products, such as the Oral-B toothbrushes, but found that he was increasingly asked to work in non-traditional design fields, for example health care and education. This prompted a change to “design with a small d” which ultimately led to the formation of the d. school Stanford.

As the CEO and President of IDEO, Tim Brown, tells us:

“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.” (2010, p. 5)


For me, these ‘3 Is’ are central. If you Google ‘design thinking’ you will find various representations of models:, NoTosh, Frog, Design Thinking for Educators. Rather than get worried about which one is the ‘right’ one, focus on what’s similar. I like to think of these as ‘iCubed’:

  • a period of Immersion (Research, surveys, interviews. Sitting deeply with the problem and looking to understand it from a multitude of perspectives.)
  • a period of Ideation (Synthesising the data collated, re-phrasing the problem for a particular user, then going wild with intense bursts of rapid, creative idea generation.)
  • a period of Implementation (Filtering ideas to create a prototyping which goes through various iterative feedback and refinement loops until a working solution is arrived at.)

And overlapping the design thinking framework, is a series of design thinking mindsets. In brief: design thinking is a human-centred process that has a bias towards action. It draws on practices of radical collaboration and a culture of prototyping in order to show, rather than tell, possible solutions to problems while always being mindful of process.

Image Credit:

Of these, human-centredness is key. Empathy is the core tenet of design thinking. As Tim Brown puts it, “Not only does [design thinking] focus on creating products and services that are human centred, but the process itself is also deeply human.” (2010, p. 5). In education terms, empathy and human-centredness is the key distinction that differentiates design thinking from other inquiry processes such as problem or project-based learning (Kwek, 2011). You are formulating a problem in order to solve it for a real person or group of people. It is authentic, immediate and altruistic. And that is what design thinking is.


Brown, T. & Wyatt, J. (2010). “Design Thinking for Social Innovation”, Retrieved from

Kwek, Swee Hong. (2011). “Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning”, (Master’s thesis) Retrieved from

Protzen, Jean-Pierre. (2010). “Design Thinking: What is That?”, Retrieved from

Feed the Hungry: Applying design thinking principles to invigorate teachers’ professional learning

This blogpost is a written version of the ULearn presentation I gave on 8 October 2015, as the culmination of my CORE eFellowship research. 


Here I will seek to share some insights into my research as part of my CORE Education eFellowship where I wondered about how my design thinking pedagogy might invigorate teachers’ professional learning.

By way of an ultra-brief introduction to design thinking, it is a process or methodology of problem finding and creative problem solving that seeks to keep users at its centre. There are various iterations of the process, but the d.School in Stanford, and the NoTosh representations have been most influential in my thinking.

For the purposes of this research, I have focused on the design thinking mindsets, and these have particularly informed my professional learning facilitation in my current capacity as the Postgraduate Programme Director (Wellington) at The Mind Lab by Unitec.

In this role I facilitate a 32 week programme, the first 16 weeks comprise weekly four hour, face-t0-face sessions, ultimately working towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning). I joined The Mind Lab because I was hugely inspired by its founder, Frances Valintine, and her vision of having 10,000 teachers complete the course in the next five years. To me, this represents a real tipping point, a disruption to the New Zealand education system.

Hence, when it came to choose a particular focus from the design thinking mindsets for my research, I gravitated towards ‘bias towards action’ – it wouldn’t be enough for me to contribute towards this disruptive vision with ideas, something tangible and concrete would need to come from the teachers who complete their DCL. I was going to change the world one classroom at a time.

I figured that, if that was my aim, then I had better learn about what makes for effective professional learning. I started with the Timperley et al (2007) Best Evidence Synthesis. And immediately came to a crashing halt. I felt there was a certain arrogance in my role as facilitator – was I assuming I knew better than the teachers who willingly give their precious time to this professional learning opportunity? Were we being upfront with teachers about our assumption/expectation that a shift in their practice is needed? Other facilitators seemed to be provocative, to play the role of devil’s advocate, but I felt I didn’t have the stories or the experience to do that. And isn’t that a bit rude anyway? Who was I as a facilitator?

After thrashing around in the dark for a fair bit, I decided I needed to come back to first principles – those of the design thinking mindsets. What I realised/remembered was that empathy is key to design thinking – it’s actually what separates design thinking from other inquiry or problem-based learning models. Design thinking is user-centred design; it is a deeply human process. I felt much more comfortable with this, but still harboured a secret desire to disrupt…while disliking the word itself…

Then, the amazing Louise Taylor, one of our CORE Education research mentors, handed me the phrase that set me back on the path: “disrupt with humility”. It suddenly all made sense to me. Focus on respectful practice. This aligned perfectly with both my personal and professional values.

So the arc of my research process went like this: reflecting on my own practice and blogging about it; a ‘goldilocks’ survey to find out what the teachers thought I should do more of/less of/was doing just right; listen to teachers to hear their stories, and from this conduct interviews to hear some particular stories in more depth. I unpacked these interviews to tease out ways in which we might disrupt with humility.

Disrupt with Play

I don’t think we value play nearly enough as a powerful learning experience for adults. Every session at The Mind Lab includes a ‘play’ element, and design thinking itself, I have come to see thanks to Keryn Davis, is playing with ideas. In a dedicated design thinking session, one of the teachers on the course, Imogen Warren, was so struck by the process that the following week she instigated a challenge with her class: ‘How might we make Room 9 even better?’ One conclusion the class reached was to have an Imagination Club. The design thinking session sparked a creative force in the class whereby learners are now actively encouraged to explore their creativity and individuality – and thus Imogen reports that it “changed the culture of the class in an afternoon.”

Similarly, another teacher reported that by experiencing a live, hands-on demonstration of a Twitter chat facilitated by me and Tim Gander, Education Director of The Mind Lab in Gisborne one Wednesday evening, this sparked the realisation that Twitter can be a powerful source of professional learning. So much so, that he returned to his own school to spread the word amongst his colleagues.

Disrupt with Dialogue

There is immense power in conversation, humour, asking questions, following tangents. One teacher spoke of how being with a colleague on the course, and car-pooling with this person drove her back onto the path of being interested in leadership. The opportunity for critical reflection and to develop critical friendships was seminal. In fact, the time to converse with fellow teachers, to network across the educator sector, to build a community of practice, was a key theme emerging from the goldilocks survey. Teachers want to connect, to converse, to share their stories, and this is what is most valuable to their learning.

Disrupt with Time

Thus the connector between the themes in my research became obvious to me: time. It takes time to play, to think, to talk, to discuss, to reflect. While the individual stories the teachers generously shared with me were all very different, the concept of having the time to embark on a learning journey came through loud and clear. Because it takes time to learn. We have this myth of a sudden ‘eureka’ moment, but we know this flash of insight or inspiration rarely comes like this. Instead ideas develop iteratively, as a ‘slow hunch‘, combining, building, colliding, from which deep learning occurs.

And these teachers’ stories disrupted my thinking. What were the implications of espousing respectful practice? I began to examine my own assumptions, starting with the very title of this research: ‘Feed the Hungry’ which comes from the phrase ‘feed the hungry; don’t water the stones’. I also referred in my research outlines to ‘willing and curious’ teachers. Who was I to call some teachers ‘stones’? Who was I to judge some teachers as ‘willing’ and thus position others as ‘unwilling’? Where was the respect, the empathy, in that? I began to wonder about the language we use to refer to the so-called ‘resistant teachers’.

Maurie Abraham, principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, gave me a new analogy. What if we ‘invited teachers on the bus?’ He spoke of inviting teachers on a learning journey, on a bus. They could wait at the bus stop if they so chose, but the bus was on a public transport loop and would come around again. At which point, they would be invited on the bus. This warm but demanding metaphor fits much more comfortably with my need for respectful, empathetic practice.

So what have I learned about design thinking as a tool to invigorate teachers’ professional learning? I have come to realise that learning is a deeply emotional experience – it sits right at the heart of who we are as people. Design thinking takes empathy as its core tenet – it has a human-centred focus – and this is why the two fit together so beautifully.

Really, I have come back to where I started: how might we invite teachers on the bus?



Introducing the “Imagination Club”

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know what makes an impact and what doesn’t. It’s the same as a facilitator.

Being passionate about design thinking, it would come as no surprise that I leapt at the chance to shape a design thinking session for our postgrads completing the Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning) offered by The Mind Lab by Unitec. What was a joyous surprise to me, however, was how warmly it was received by the Wellington teachers when we ran this session in June.

Even more exciting though was when, the following week, one of the teachers kindly let me know that not only had she gone away and trialled a design thinking process with her class, but it had been extremely successful.

The question Imogen posed for her class at Tawa Intermediate was: How might we make Room 9 even better? And out of that, the Imagination Club was born. Two students lead the club, which has been timetabled into a weekly slot. Initially, students were asked to ‘audition’ by drawing something from their own imagination. One of the lead students sidled up to Imogen as everyone was sketching to quietly let her know that everyone would actually be allowed in.

GetAttachmentRecently, the Imagination Club finished their first project: creating a class mascot. Named, rather appropriately, Sparkle, the mascot is testament to the students’ self-direction, ability to sustain their interest, engagement and, of course, imagination, over an extended period of time. I was lucky enough to visit the Imagination Club in their planning phase.

But, even more than this, is the way Imogen reports how this design thinking challenge has marked a real turning point in the learning journey of the class. She told me how it “fostered…spawned…[a] kind of creative force in the class.” Students are now actively encouraged to put their own creative spin on any activity. In this way, creativity and individuality have become honoured. Design Thinking “put a spotlight on a new path” – one of “being creative and embracing their [the students’] own individuality”. Imogen believes that the challenge “changed the culture of a class in an afternoon.”

Powerful, inspiring stuff.

So, what are the implications of this, beyond the obvious reported success of design thinking in the classroom? Imogen herself says that, for her, it was the suspension of judgement, particularly in the ideation phase, that attracted her attention.

  • ‘Yes, and…’ is an empowering phrase.

This story of the Imagination Club has also helped me to reflect on my own practice as a facilitator, and given more fuel to my fire that design thinking is a way to play – to play with ideas.

  • We don’t value the power of play in adult learning, and perhaps we should.

And we can never truly predict, not as teacher, not as a facilitator, what will make an impact on others. Therefore it is always important to treat others with empathy, and to offer opportunities to learn in a multitude of ways.

  • Teaching is about opening doors.

DT Reflection

Apologies in advance for what will be a longish blogpost…

My final unit with my Year 8 (12 year olds) English class of 2014 was an extended design thinking exploration. For it, I posed the following question: ‘How might we welcome students into the Marsden family at Years 7 and 8?’


To shape my reflection of this unit of work, I’m going to use some of the headings from the d. School design thinking process that we used as our base structure.


Under this heading, I’m going to focus on what my students thought of the unit we completed, and what they reported they learned through their reflections.

The girls learned three key things: what empathy is and why it’s important in a design thinking process; the value of prototyping; and a greater appreciation for design thinking and what it has to offer. They reported especially enjoying the ideation and prototyping phases of the unit. They loved that all ideas – no matter how wacky – were accepted without judgement, and they loved making physical prototypes. As one student said, “I can concentrate when it’s fun.”

We spent quite a lot of time in the empathy phase in this unit, for one thing, this was where I was particularly emphasising some specific English-related close reading skills, and consequently I felt the girls really grasped this important concept well. In their own words, they defined empathy as “informed sympathy”; learning “to put yourself in someone’s shows and relate to how they feel.”

I was equally pleased, however, with their obvious enjoyment of the prototyping phase. Being a highly academically successful school, sometimes I worry that our students are afraid of taking risks and being ‘wrong’. Learning to fail fast, fail forward, and fail with a positive attitude to build resilience is crucial. So to hear comments like: “it takes a while to get the exact thing that you want/like,” and: “I learnt how good it is to design something without it being perfect and then changing and evaluating later,” made me feel proud.


Here are what the girls themselves said they learned through experiencing the design thinking process:

  • “how to think hard to create more ideas”
  • “how to put yourself in other people’s shoes and produce things that will help others, not just yourself”
  • “design thinking helps you to learn how to process ideas into something to help people”
  • “design thinking helps you to efficiently solve a problem”

And my absolute favourite:

Design Thinkers must be selfless people.


In this section, I’m going to outline the unit that I put in front of the students.

I had no preconceived ideas of the products or solutions I thought the students might come up with. I really just wanted an authentic issue – the overarching question links to something staff had been discussing over the year – and a context the girls themselves could easily relate to, with resources easily on hand. I’m indebted to the #dtk12chat community, and this LiveBinder resource, curated by Thomas Riddle. And from this resource, I based my unit on this challenge.

The folder of resources I created is available here.

Something I was pleasantly surprised to learn about a benefit of using a design thinking approach was the way that it made me be much more consistently explicit about what we were doing, and how it tied into the bigger picture of the unit and the guiding ‘How Might We’ question. I became much more focused on the learning. Instinctively, I started to write reflective sentence starters on the board for students to use in the middle and/or at the end of the lesson. This is something I would like to formalise more in a future iteration. Schools who use a learning portfolio could really capitalise on this.

Overall, what I needed to improve on was the ‘define’ phase of our unit. This was woolly and waffly, and the girls themselves identified this weakness in their reflections. We had a guiding ‘HMW’ question already, and although we spent time writing point of view statements (‘___ needs a way to ___ because she ___’) these weren’t quality and therefore failed to be of sufficient value. Subsequently we didn’t whittle our mass ideation down well. Although the overall products definitely met the brief, and have been taken up by the school for implementation in 2015, we lost our way in the middle here.


In this section, I’m going to brainstorm some ways in which I could improve this unit in future, particularly focusing on the identified weak points of the ‘define’ and refining ‘ideation’ phases.

  • Have a formalised reflection log. This could take the form of: portfolio, blog. Consider other forms, e.g. voice/oral reflection.
  • Spend more time explaining the ‘point of view’ statements. Just as we did with ‘ideation’ and ‘prototyping’, build these skills first. Have a practice run.
  • Rather than write ‘point of view’ statements, refine the original ‘how might we’ question.
  • Write a ‘point of view’ statement for an actual person, rather than a fictional girl.
  • Write a different ‘point of view’ sentence frame that suits the specific challenge better.
  • Research other user statements to use in place of the ‘point of view’ statement.
  • Evaluate the defined problem in light of the over-arching HMW question.
  • Use more than one method of refining ideation: 6 stars; safe bet/long shot/darling; rating system e.g. novelty, usefulness, viability, risk.
  • Think about what online tools could help, e.g. writing user/point of view statements in Google Docs for ease of collaboration. Google Forms to rate ideas/get feedback on point of view statements.
  • Sum up what’s been learned by empathising to guide more direct links to defining a specific problem/area of focus.

[I’d love your input here…what thoughts/ideas can you suggest for me?]


Because I won’t be in a formal classroom like this in 2015, I’m not going to prototype a further iteration of this unit at this stage. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this unit, but, more importantly, teaching in this way. It confirmed for me the power and promise and purpose of design thinking, which I’ve written about before here.

I was highly amused at the stumbling block we hit as a class once we finished our prototyping phase, and I expected the students to actually create their products/solutions. The girls thought I meant just making a ‘tidier copy’ of their cardboard creations. It took almost a full hour to convince them I meant otherwise. This brought home to me that mostly teachers require ‘fake real’ projects from their students. Unschooling my students out of this, albeit briefly, was a win.

IMG_1053IMG_1055 IMG_1057 IMG_1059

These are the girls’ final products. They presented them to their deans, who were so impressed they had the girls work on a modified version for use with the new students starting next month. I hope my students learned that they have a voice to create something of value, that they have the skills and resources, and, most importantly, the disposition to make a contribution.