This summer I took an experimental course at Simmons SLIS: LTK: Library Test Kitchen. This class has been offered at the Harvard School of Design, but in this iteration, instead of getting design students to think about libraries, the course got library students to think about design. I took the class because of our work in South Portland to integrate the design process into our curriculum. I hoped I would get a better sense of how I could teach my students about design thinking, and I did. But, rather than learning from theory or a pedagogical perspective, I learned by taking part in the mode of learning in which I want my students to participate. This class was a game changer for me in many ways, and I wanted to share some of the take aways I learned by being a student.
- Scaffolding is Key: Our final class outcome was a prototype for a library solution, but along the way we learned about design through smaller exercises. Some were meant to teach a tool or approach. For example, for one assignment we were asked to propose a use of a LibraryBox, and include a comic showing how it would be used in the wild. Others were more about going through the design process, so an early assignment was to go to a place other than a library where people read, observe their behavior, and think of how it could be applied to the library setting, as well as the potential problems of that approach. These activities broke the design process down into smaller, manageable pieces. There was no requirement that ideas generated in this exercise would lead to the final project (though in some cases they did). Instead, we got practice in problem scoping, observation, and sharing our ideas.
2. Authentic Feedback Not Tied to Assessment: As we worked on our projects, our instructors Jessica Yorkofsky, Jeff Goldenson, and Matthew Battles asked questions and made suggestions based on their own areas of expertise. They served as mentors who were helping us to reach our goals rather than instructors with a set idea of outcomes. Feedback was constant while assessment was absent, creating an atmosphere of experimentation and risk. There was also a sense that assignments were meant to help us grow, not to prove mastery. After the first couple of assignments I realized I was not going to be judged based on my artistic ability whether it was those paintings, my comic, or anything else. That was immensely liberating for me. As teachers, I’d like to see a focus on increasing the amount of work we give to help kids grow rather than as a means for us to assess them.
3. Class as Community: We quickly grew together as a community of creators. Our own strengths came to the forefront and we learned who we could go to in the class to get help with or feedback on a certain aspect of our work. Work was shared in a Google folder that all students could access, and as we began working on our final projects, we offered each other suggestions and feedback in this shared area. This opened up the creative process so it was not a back and forth between teacher and student but a work group approach. I’m thinking about ways to open up the creative process with my students, including using the shared Google folder idea.
4. Ideas in Action: Part way through the class we took a field trip to the library at Olin College of Engineering, where our instructor Jeff Goldenson is the library director. There we were able to see how he was putting his ideas into action with the help of his students. In a course that focused on ideas without limits, seeing how these plans could come down to the ground was really useful. It was clear that library staff and students embraced an approach of experimentation and iteration. Something that was stressed through-out the tour: make changes that can be undone. That lessens the risk and frees up your imagination. Finding opportunities to showcase real-life examples of designers, engineers, and others doing the same work as your students will help them to see their work in a larger context.
5. From Practical to Pie in the Sky: We closed our class with an exhibition of all our projects. Some of the projects were ready to be implemented in libraries tomorrow. Some are so ambitious and oversized that they probably never will. Both approaches to design are essential, and, perhaps not surprisingly, are approaches that I have seen in my own students. The challenge as teachers is to value both the practical and the dreamy, to push the practical thinkers to the extreme of their ideas, and to ask the big dreamers how to scale their ideas to reality.
I feel fortunate to have been part of this class this summer, and know I will bring the ideas highlighted here into the new school year with my students.