Complex challenges in teaching: can design thinking help?

Last week I participated and presented in TERNZ (Tertiary Education Research in New Zealand) 2011 conference. Participants were higher-education lecturers and researchers who came from across disciplines and had a common interest in research into teaching and learning in higher education.

This conference has a unique spirit that asks presenters to present a research work in progress rather than final results, and look at the conference as an opportunity to discuss their ideas and directions with colleagues. In this way, conference participants are helping each other in the journey towards better understanding higher education.

Another interesting thing about TERNZ is its unique format. Instead of the expected 15min presentation – 5min for questions, each session lasts 45min and is compiled of 10min presentation and 35min discussion. After each session, you go to your “host group”, in which you meet with about 9 colleagues and reflect on what you’ve learned from the session you participated in. Since there are 6 parallel sessions, when you get to the host group discussion you get to hear about some of the sessions you have missed.

The discussions in the sessions and in the host groups were so inspiring and I am now left with many new understandings, and mainly – new questions.

The session I presented was called “Complex challenges in teaching: can design thinking help?”. The abstract for this presentation is available here under Day 1, 1pm.

The design thinking process according to how I see it

(Above is a sketch of the design thinking process as I see it).

Basically, in this session I tried to give participants a quick experience of the design thinking process, as well as some design tools they can apply for solving complex teaching problems/challenges (e.g. prioritizing their expectations for a solution under what Must/Should/Could this solution contain?, ideation process – using de Bono’s “random word” as an inspiration for a solution to help break your patterns of thought…).

The challenge that was raised in the session was “How can we help students develop critical thinking across disciplines?”. Obviously, we didn’t get to solve this question in the time-frame we had, however, we did use the process to address it and gain some of the strategies that are being used in the design world and can be applied to teaching.

Personally, I was interested in learning more about the thought processes teachers use to address challenges, as well as finding an answer to whether or not having an explicit thought process is helpful? If so, is design thinking a valid option for that?



Presentations from the 2011 Spotlight on teaching and learning

The presentations from the 2011 Spotlight Colloquium about teaching and learning we organized at the University of Otago are now online.

Please feel free to follow this link to see the abstracts and some of the presentations.

This year, we also tried out pecha-kucha, which is a unique format of presentation, which is based on 20 images X 20 seconds per image. Presenters are expected to make their point in 6:40min, which is refreshing to watch (and a bit nerve-racking to present).

This tag cloud (made using represents the main topics that were discussed at the conference. Enjoy!

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What triggers our creativity?

There are small things I do to trigger my creativity. Whether I use well structured techniques like inserting ideas into a “must should could” scheme, or simply focus on something else until ideas “come to me” – my door is always open for creativity.

There is a certain magic in knowing that something new (to me) is going to come up any moment now.

However, I wonder if the more we practice the same methods of triggering creativity, the less creative they allow us to be? Also, I believe each person has techniques that work for him, and some that just don’t. This is why I’m always looking for more ways to trigger creativity. 

In this article I found some interesting ideas people have. I’m sharing my techniques on twitter under #TriggersMyCreativity. If you want to join the discussion and share your secrets, you are welcome to add comments to this blog or simply tweet and include #TriggersMyCreativity in your tweet :)

Do we need boredom in order to be creative?

Do we need boredom in order to learn?

Recently, I took part in a journal club exploring a paper regarding boredom in the lecture theater – warning us from the destructive nature of boredom.

However, during the journal club we began discussing a possibility of boredom being an integral, and at times crucial, part of successful learning. One associate professor even suggested (naturally, while supporting his stand with the appropriate literature) that one cannot reach a state of enlightenment without reaching a state of “profound boredom”.

A similar stand was taken in this article (written by Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon show “Dilbert”) asking people to find time to be bored for the sake of creativity (and therefore – the world…). 

Personally, I can’t say I get bored very often. Actually, it only takes a few seconds before I already start doing something else that interests me. Even when I stare out the window “vacantly” it’s not because I’m bored, it’s because I’m thinking or reflecting (and that, to me, is interesting). 

I think that “boredom” takes different forms, and I’m not sure I agree with either the paper nor the article regarding its role in our lives. I don’t see it as an “enlightenment inducer”, as a “learning terminator” or as a “creativity generator”.

A person who has a need to express his/her creativity will do so regardless of being bored of something else. Growing up, I have always preferred concentrating on my creative projects rather than listening to class. I did so, not necessarily because the class was boring, but because I found my projects to be more interesting.

This leads me to the conclusion that sometimes people refer to boredom as the list favorable/interesting option they can think of. If that was the only option they had – I’m not sure if they would have regarded it as being boring at all.

About Learning and Tweetting

Recently, I began using Twitter. I’ve known about it for years, but was frankly too afraid to try it myself. My pursuit to maintain some level of privacy in my life, had led me to the conclusion that social networking is just not for me.

For years I’ve been the “lurker” – enjoying the benefits social networking offers without actually contributing to it. I had a Facebook account only so I could see my closest friends’ photos and updates – and never put anything up there myself. I read numerous blogs and have learned hips from them, but have never bothered to write my own. I even avoided typing anonymous replies to posts I enjoyed. All, until the past couple of months. 

As I was starting a new research project (about teaching, learning and design) I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague regarding “open research”. If you have yet to encounter this concept, the main idea of it is that you perform parts of your research in an open-online environment (e.g. a blog). At the university, we tend to keep a lot of what we do behind the scenes, and only when we reach the final “answers” we were looking for – we publish them.

This behavior may lead to well-polished studies and results, but those are usually shared only through the academic channels of journals, books, or conferences. The unfortunate part of it is that a lot of the first stages of research, as literature reviews for example, are performed behind closed doors. 

“Open-research” suggests that by conducting as many parts of your research as you can openly, you can contribute to the community while receiving back from it. For example, if I write about what I’m researching/exploring I hope to create synthesis that would be of interest to others, while learning from their comments, discussions and links to further resources I wouldn’t have thought of or found myself.

So, going back to my small “social media revolution” – I opened this blog, and as I said in the beginning – I also recently started using Twitter. I did so when I wanted to get some feedback and tips regarding my blog, and thought to myself I should try and see if someone out there, in the #design community on Twitter could help me?

The pressure was on. As I was about to send out my very first tweet, I felt both anxious and excited at once. What is going to happen next? Who will be able to help me? What would they say?

And so I tweeted. That’s it – it was up there for the whole world to see!

Or………. was it?

By the time I typed #design in the search field to see my first post in its glory, I discovered 2 highly embarrassing facts:

1. The post wasn’t there. It took me a while to find that it was only showing the Top tweets (which naturally, my first post wasn’t a part of…).

2. When I chose to see All tweets (rather than only the top ones) I discovered that my post was already long down the list of tweets and, as we can all assume, probably wasn’t seen by anyone other than me.

Disappointing? I’m not sure… Something in me was quite relieved to discover I didn’t have to dive into the rush immediately, but rather take some time to learn the rules of this foreign territory. And so I started my Twitter journey.


After spending 1 hour on Twitter I can now say the following:

1. I can probably do this all day, every day. (How scary!!!)

2. I just had one of the most intensive learning experiences of my life! I’ve been exposed to more resources, ideas, projects, people and initiatives than I could ever imagine. I’ve deepened my understanding of concepts I was already exploring and was exposed to many new ones. (How exhilarating!)

3. Working in the field of Educational Media, I was familiar with the idea of Twitter being used in classes and conferences as a platform for discussions between participants/students. I have always found that to be rather annoying to be frank, and didn’t see the benefit of people typing their thoughts through this platform instead of raising their hands and speaking out to encourage in-class/in-session discussions. However, after exploring Twitter from a different angle, and learning so much, I can now see that it may have many possibilities to enhance teaching and learning. That is, if it is being used in a slightly different way if I may suggest (mainly, not as a discussion tool for people who are sitting in the same room together).