Learning by Design

As we evolve our library space, I’m pressed with decisions regarding design. Who enters the library where? When and why do we arrive? What signage most effectively attracts patrons to where they’ll solve their library needs?

The process is research intensive (what have folks done at other libraries? what opportunities have they created?) and highly empathetic (what do individuals in our community need? what particular challenges and opportunities do we have?).

The Design Thinking Process Cycle employed by the d.school, otherwise known as the Hasso Plattner’s Institute for Design at Stanford University

But the process isn’t one I’d like to reserve for adults in the community. Instead, we’ve been working through the design thinking process with several classes here at Annie Wright.

Some quick background:

Design thinking is problem-solving on steroids, as participants are given an overall challenge or idea and are taught steps to gain a better understanding of who they’re solving the problem for. With that understanding, design thinkers can create a more precise, complex, and unique problem to solve, brainstorm ways to solve the problem, build a prototype to gain insightful feedback, and then refine their work. And design isn’t just relegated to the world of things. However intentionally, daily schedules, lunch line experiences, story experiences, and social interactions are all designed. How might we redesign the lunch line experience? How did Jay Gatsby design his rise (and how might we, without collaborating with that selfish tough, Meyer Wolfsheim)? How might we create cleaner waters in Commencement Bay?

So, lately I’ve worked with 8th Graders on a brief introduction to design, using the Stanford D.School’s Design a Wallet Challenge that they also use with corporate clients and Stanford attendees to build creative confidence–one’s ability to think of oneself as a designer.

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A screenshot of steps five, six, and seven in the Wallet Challenge design process. Click on the image to learn even more information about this particular challenge.

In 4th grade, we took on an even more pressing design challenge: how to redesign the library space to optimize learning. In coordination with their inquiry unit on learning styles, art teacher Mr. Weir and I guided the students through the design process.

First, we took iPads throughout the school to gain empathy for a wide range of learners. Then, we viewed those video clips and created Empathy Maps to create a snapshot of what people generally think, feel, say, hear and do when they’re learning at their best.

We created problem statements (what problem do these folks have that we can help solve?).

We learned about the four factors that we can adjust to suit learning activities: posture (the height of a participants in a learning session), orientation (the direction we face in a learning session), ambiance (the feeling the space gives off during a learning session), and surface (the vertical and horizontal spaces we work on).

We brainstormed ways to solve those problems, and we prototyped design solutions.

Rapid Prototypes need not be prefect; instead, they should be quickly built, and they should communicate the essence of an idea. Here we are using cardboard to rapidly prototype library features

Rapid Prototypes need not be prefect; instead, they should be quickly built, and they should communicate the essence of an idea. Here we are using cardboard to rapidly prototype library features

The resulting design were incredible, creative, and tied to problems these young designers unearthed by talking to others. Check out this quick display of the many rapid protoypes we created.

What if we had light fixtures with many colored bulbs suited to set the mood for a range of learning activities?

What if we had light fixtures with many colored bulbs suited to set the mood for a range of learning activities?

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Two young designers put their work together: what if we had more window seats with a relaxed posture for reading, and beneath those seats had heaters to keep readers comfortable?

What if we had a reclining chair with movable cushions to suit a wide range of postures, activities, and body sizes?

What if we had a reclining chair with movable cushions to suit a wide range of postures, activities, and body sizes?

At the end of the project, we presented our individually created design problems and our prototyped solutions. Finally, we offered each other feedback (I like…, I wish…, What if… on our respective ideas).

The design process involves so much of what we already do in school (research in a variety of forms, writing on empathy maps and problems statements, idea development, and testing the idea for others), and it also locates young designers in authentic learning opportunities that they themselves drive. This sort of knowledge work is one of the key drivers of the school library evolutions you’ll see in the coming months and years, both in terms of its the library program and the library space.

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