Getting Comfortable With What You Don’t Know

One of the sessions at the NAIS conference was titled ‘Unplugged’ which was organized as an ‘unconference’. I attended this for a few reasons: 1)  my friend and colleague, Liz was involved, 2) I am a proponent of this format as a way of learning, and 3) NAIS was taking a risk and trying something new within the larger conference.

There was another reason that didn’t become apparent to me until we started. The ‘unconference’ format is an open one where the participants set the agenda. There were large sheets of chart paper on easels for those wanting and willing to facilitate a session or conversation on any particular topic.Usually, someone who is eager to share something they’ve been doing for a while at their school.

There was a good turn out, but there seemed to be some reluctance in people volunteering to lead a session at first. Now, while there are topics in education that I’m passionate about and would feel confident in leading a discussion, I instead decided to pick a topic I only know a little about, and have only tried a couple of times in my classroom: “using design thinking in social studies.”

My hope was that any drawn to this topic would have their own stories to share and I could learn from them. I also wanted to practice facilitating which doesn’t require you to be an expert, but to be able to listen and move the discussion along.

This was a great experience for me as I wasg able to step outside my comfort zone, and in doing, so learned a lot from others. Our group described projects they had done with their kids using this process, the successes, failures, and challenges. We discussed how it was similar to, yet different from project or problem based learning. It was a great example of educators sharing what they knew with each other and what they wanted to know. We talked about how to use it to solve larger school-wide problems.

What I like about design thinking is that it starts with empathy first. It’s the part that’s missing from a lot of other problem based strategies. The first step in design thinking is to find out more about the user before defining the problem. What are their needs? How do they feel about it? For some school problems, the users are students, other times it’s teachers. Sometimes, it’s even parents.

Empathy can be achieved through surveys, interviews, and other means. After this, the second step is to define the problem as it should become clearer. The next step is to collaborate to brainstorm as many ideas as possible, then selecting a few top ideas and creating prototypes.

It’s the final step in the process that becomes a challenge. The challenge with design thinking in the classroom or even in a school is the lack of time to test the prototype/product and go through many iterations of the process. We could use design thinking to work on improving a master schedule, for example, but once a schedule is set, revising, refining, and changing it throughout the school year is not very practical. Still, it’s a process that has a lot of potential and perhaps needs to be matched with the right kind of problem. Also, the steps in this process are not mutually exclusive of each other.

Stepping outside one’s comfort zone isn’t easy. Right now I’m trying to do this with my class’s home learning assignment. I don’t know much about the game Minecraft, but there are several students in my class who are obsessed about it. So, it’s an option on one of their assignements. The game as a learning tool was mentioned by one of the speakers at the NAIS conference and featured last week in the Washington Post. Of course the students’ learning target is to be prepared to share what they have learned at home. The medium, be it Minecraft or a cake, will be their choice.  I can’t wait to learn something new from my students.

Below are some resources for design thinking in education:

Design Thinking for Education

Virtual Crash Course from Stanford’s

A great segment on 60 minutes on design thinking from earlier in the year:


One of my students’ beginnings of a penguin habitat.


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