A few months ago, I met with a group of Year 10 students and asked them what an ideal learning experience would look like. They wanted to work on real world problems that were either personally meaningful to them or would help them in their chosen career path. They wanted to be pushed out of their comfort zone and to feel a sense of achievement. They wanted to work in small teams and they wanted their teachers to be part of the process but like a mentor or a coach. They wanted their teachers to be learners as well! I asked them who they would need to hear from in order to buy into the experience – Google, of course.
Armed with a pretty detailed ‘wish list’, the Year 10 Integrated teachers arrived at the idea of running a real world Design Sprint. This felt like a natural continuation of the work we had already done using Design Thinking in the secondary classroom, and also offered the added bonus of a great framework for tackling big issues. Design Sprints are a five day problem solving methodology that originated out of GV (formally Google Ventures). As the venture capital arm, GV invest in and assist companies like Slack, Uber and Lime to help grow their ideas and businesses, aiming to push the bounds of what’s possible.
We also looked to push the bounds of what’s possible, both in terms of traditional education and in terms of running a Design Sprint. Design Sprints usually occur within a business, they have between 5-10 people drawn from the business working together. The participants share an understanding of what the business does in addition to their unique insights. In contrast, we ran 27 Sprints, working on nine previously unseen problems. For the girls, it was akin to arriving for your first day in a new job and being asked to do a Design Sprint – out of their comfort zone indeed! In total, 175 students simultaneously stepped out of their regular classroom, out of their regular timetable, and into small teams and a brand new problem solving methodology.
The five day process
The Design Sprint methodology privileges innovation by not jumping to solutions. It privileges talking to the experts and those affected by the problem. You may also be surprised to note that for the most part the week is tech free. Design Sprints minimise time spent behind screens in order to maximise time spent connecting with one another and placing humans at the centre of the solution. As collaboration is a central tenet, in a Design Sprint every team member sketches potential solutions to the problem thereby affirming the value of all voices, not just the most dominant. The solution sketches are anonymously critiqued and the best ideas or best parts of ideas are pulled out. In our model, each team submitted their best solutions to a ‘subject matter expert’ who weighed in with a “supervote” to guide them towards narrowing in on one idea to prototype. The teams then created a collective storyboard that mapped their idea in eight frames before creating a realistic prototype.
Our week ended with pitches delivered back to industry. The pitches were authentic, they lived or died on the strength of the students belief in their idea. There wasn’t time for polish and there wasn’t time for multi-stepped approaches. The teams had three minutes each and a singular concept. In many respects the afternoon finale was done ‘on the fly’, some pitches were uploaded just moments after they were completed. While we deviated from the traditional ‘test’ day of a Design Sprint we certainly remained true to words spoken by Steve Cox, the General Manager of Dymocks, when he gave his keynote on Monday morning. Steve spoke to the students about embracing a ‘test and learn’ mentality. A mentality that eschews perfection in favour of producing something that can be tested with real people in order to understand whether the idea is moving in the right direction. By limiting time spent on detailed slide decks the teams were able to test the validity of their ideas and assumptions and decide on a roadmap before committing to developing the idea further. A Design Sprint is by its very nature is fast paced, encourages action and experimentation and, importantly, develops tolerance for failure and setbacks.
A changed educational landscape
If it’s been a while since you were at school you may be surprised at just how much has changed. School’s are very much at the forefront of responding to the oft-written about complexity of the world today and the changed economy. Our Loreto Normanhurst Student Growth Model (LNSGM) has a particular focus on lifelong learning and sparking genuine curiosity about the world. When certainty appears to be the way of the past, being a continuous learner is more important than ever. Learners have longevity, they adapt to a changing world.
Contemporary businesses are also concerned with adaptation and what it means to thrive in a changing landscape. Increasingly they are looking to schools and tertiary education to ensure that students are graduating with different skills to their predecessors. Recently, AISNSW and the Knowledge Society collaborated on a project which asked prominent industry CEOs what they were looking for in young people about to join the world of work. The report affirmed the importance of working in the school context towards building students propensity and comfortability with action and experimentation. Steve Cox was interviewed as part of this report and generously gave up his time to work with our students throughout the week. He explained that businesses are dramatically changing the way they operate, they are not committing months of time and resources to an untested idea but finding lean ways to test an idea and learn from it. Educationally, we underpinned Sprint Week with a focus on increasing students ‘creative confidence’. The term ‘creative confidence’ aims to capture the idea that creative ways of thinking and doing can be taught. With sufficient practice, within meaningful environments, we can all act creatively. This break from old ways of thinking about the innately creative beret-wearing artist is important in a global economy that values and rewards creativity as a valuable component of social and economic enterprise. To be creatively confident strikes a remarkably similar chord with possessing a ‘test and learn’ mentality. Both require the confidence that your idea has merit, the gumption to go and test it and the humility to change tact when its not working.
Canon recently commissioned a whitepaper entitled ‘The Future of Education’. The report is focused on how we can better prepare the workers of the future to become learners for life. Canon were, naturally, delighted to partner with us on our Design Sprint project and see first hand how schools are already engaging in the Disruption Revolution. Both parties have a lot to gain by welcoming industry into our world, the world of your daughters. We hear a lot about how the world of work has radically changed, and will continue to do so. It is true that we will most likely not stay in the same career or role our entire lives anymore. It is true that our daughters will likely hold jobs not yet invented. It is true that distributed and diverse teams are becoming the new norm. It is true that part time/flexible work is normal. By inviting industry into the classroom we are offering a taste of what is to come. It is also true that many of our current Year 10 cohort will work for a company that needs to stay relevant in a dramatically changed landscape. She will need to step into the space of creative problem solver. She will need to work well in a team, she will need to embrace ambiguity and be willing to back her own ideas.
Interestingly, there was a theme that emerged from many of the students pitches which was how to adequately prepare for the future. One of the winning presentations made to the panel, which included the Dean of Education from Notre Dame University, was entitled ‘Strive’ and was all about “prepare now, relax later”. Another group pitched ‘Discovery Day’ wherein their transition to higher education would be smoothed by discovering a little more about the world that awaits. The groups working on the issue of early intervention for The Benevolent Society also focused in on expectant parents as an ideal time for tapping into the anxiety of what is to come and equipping them with appropriate tools. Our Sprint Week at Loreto has a similar aim and that is to prepare students for the type of work that awaits.
Who did we work with?
Our intention was to offer an authentic real world Design Sprint process and in order to do that we needed industry to work with us on a learning experience. We wanted to level the power axis between the young and the experienced and facilitate a reciprocal flow of information and mirror the increasingly flattened hierarchy of contemporary teams. To this end we worked with our industry partners on suitable problems that were both real world and where the student may also have some domain expertise. On Monday morning students heard about the value and importance of what they were about to embark upon and crucially, on Monday afternoon they worked side by side with subject matter experts drawn from the various industry representatives we had partnered with. In their small teams they interviewed Steve Cox, GM Dymocks; Terri Martin, GM Dymock’s Children’s Charities, Nina Spannari, Head of Digital, Canon Australia, Julie Rangan, Business Manager – Insights & Segments Marketing Canon Australia, Jennifer Cooper, Canon Collective Team, Marina Ugonotti, Deputy Principal Loreto Normanhurst, Darren Fitzpatrick, Project Manager and University Lecturer Notre Dame University, Annmarie Townsend, Child, Youth and Family Practitioner The Benevolent Society, Emma Goodsir, Educational Psychologist, and Sarah Warmoll and Samantha Devlin, co-founders The Footnotes. We are grateful to all these individuals and the companies they represent for giving up their most valuable asset – time.
A challenging but key part of our Sprint Week was the role these subject matter experts played on Wednesday when they provided feedback on the students work to date. The ‘supervote’ is about having the right person in the room. We told students to love each idea they submitted equally and be prepared to champion the one that was selected for them. This was a very real world lesson but also a process affirmed by the students. When asked, ‘What gave you a sense of achievement today?’ a number of responses mirrored this: “Seeing the response to my ideas from professionals”.
Not only can students benefit from forging connections with industry but teachers were firmly in the camp of learner this week as well. We pulled together a multidisciplinary team of staff who were also asked to remain open to a new way of working. We were generously provided training by Adaptovate in advance of the week. There is a lot to be gained from stepping out of a space that you are an expert in and walking the novice journey with students. The girls were working on legitimate real world problems, the companies we partnered with don’t know the answers and the teachers certainly don’t have the answers. Just as we asked students to be brave so too must we step up to the challenge of ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘sage on the stage’. It was a huge cognitive shift for all involved and we embraced new ways of capturing feedback on the go so we could conduct a retrospective and learn from the experience.
Overall, the week was a huge success but there is a lot still to learn from the experience and we will be working hard to ensure we use the data we have collected to strengthen our learning programmes for both students and staff. I have no doubt we will see more of this kind of learning in the future as well as projects managed and delivered for students, by students. It was interesting to see that two of the three winning pitches were school based problems. What a tremendous opportunity to further empower our students to be the change they wish to see.
Today I returned to the ‘wishlist’ students had given me, specifically how they wanted to feel: “Open to mistakes”, “challenged”, “engaged”, “driven”, “inspired”, “interested” and “like this experience is helping me grow as an individual”. I’m confident that Sprint Week has moved the next generation of young Australians a little closer towards having the confidence to make leaps of faith when it comes to backing their own creative ideas. That’s something we can all feel good about.
Ms Elizabeth Green
Knowledge and Learning Strategist