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I’m sitting on a plane right now writing this blog post. I just spent an hour working on a sketchy video and before that, I worked on another blog post. I’m nestled up against a window where I can look to my right and remember, in awe, that I am floating on the clouds. I’ve grown to love plane rides. However, it wasn’t always this way.

I used to hate feeling cramped in this space. I hated the fact that I had to time my restroom breaks. I felt overly annoyed by babies crying. I felt cagey and bored. Then, I saw this bit by Louis CK where he reminds us that airplane travel is actually pretty amazing. That small fragment of his comedic monologue stuck with me.

I can look at everything wrong with an airplane flight or I can treat it as an uninterrupted oasis where I can get a ton of work done without interruptions. I can get frustrated by the noise of the engines or I can view it as white noise. I can get annoyed by a baby crying or I can learn how to tune out the sound or maybe even feel a little empathy as I recall the challenges of taking care of a newborn. I can get frustrated that I don’t have wi-fi or I can treat it as a forced period free of distractions where I can think and dream and write and create.

Too often, I default to a deficit mindset, where I only see the negatives and I miss the possible positives in a situation. When this happens, I miss out on creative opportunities inherent in these challenges.


The Power of Creative Constraint

In design thinking, we view limitations as opportunities. The creative constraint pushes you to think divergently and innovate. So, all of those problems you hate are essentially your design features. They are the problems you will solve, the parameters you will work within, and the hidden opportunities you will explore.

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My wife works for a record company. They began in 1990 and slowly grew during some of the roughest years in the record industry. While the major companies fought against digital media and jockeyed for a market dominance, this tiny company continued to acquire vintage music and sign smaller indie artists. They saw digital media as a challenge, a parameter, and opportunity. So, they began cultivating relationships with musical supervisors and signed licensing deals for film and television.

While classrooms are not the same as record companies, I think teachers can cultivate this kind of mindset. Students are on their smart phones all the time. True, but are there ways you can tap into the creative and connective power of their devices? Homework isn’t working but your school requires teachers to assign homework. Is there a way you can change it up by making it authentic, optional, and student-centered?

You have limited time and a rigid curriculum map. That’s tough, but is it possible to work within the map to do a design thinking unit? Does the map explicitly prohibit the teaching of additional standards or does it merely tell you which ones you need to focus on in each week? Are there time-wasters you can scrap to free up the schedule (like multiple choice tests)?

A little nuance here: sometimes there are very real challenges that you need to rail against. Injustice exists and you can’t simply innovate your way out of it. As educators we have to fight hard for the kind of schools our students deserve. Sometimes we use the hammer to chisel something beautiful. Other times we use it to tear down injustice.

But often the challenges we see are not massive injustices. They are small restrictions that require a different way of thinking — if we are bold enough to take the creative risk.

Finding the Hidden Opportunities

When I was in my third year of teaching, I met a brand new teacher named Javi. His favorite question was, “Why not?”

When we didn’t have enough resources for a project, I would say, “Maybe we should scale this down. Do you really think we should go this big?” and he would say, “Why not?” When students worked through the design thinking process and came up with a bold idea, I often wanted to hedge our bets. But Javi’s “Why not?” often pushed the students into finding innovative workarounds in their multimedia, coding, or community service projects.

Javi’s “why not?” helped me see that the greatest barriers were often internal. Things like fear or perfectionism or a failure of imagination. I remember developing a set of questions we used when students felt stuck. These morphed over time, but they were essentially the following:

What part of this should I actively resist or abandon? 

What part of this can I tweak?

Is there some kind of material or resource or system that I can use differently?  

What is a different angle to this situation?

What are the parameters I can work within? 

What hidden opportunities does this challenge offer? 

For the longest time, I resented this element of design thinking. I longed for a school with better resources. I wanted things to run smoothly. I felt like a fraud — like there was something wrong with me when things weren’t working perfectly. But looking back on it, as I run into former students who contributed to these projects, is that these challenges were critical to our projects. They became the design features that sparked innovation.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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