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Students at Santa Rosa's Montgomery High School dip into 'design thinking'

The classroom action was fast, fast, fast, punctuated by enthusiastic shouts of 'Waaaaaa Bam' to jolt things along.

Room 57 at Montgomery High School last week was all about working together to get to the next step and quickly design solutions to a wide range of challenges.

'That's the whole point of design thinking — there's huge bias toward action, because if you're pushing and pushing you end up with lots of quality ideas that you can refine,' said student Claire Pavelka, 17.

She was one of three students in Simone Harris' Theory of Knowledge class who were introducing their classmates Friday to one of the hottest approaches out there to innovating and finding solutions.

'Design thinking' emphasizes a close focus on the people affected by whatever is being tackled — from education to architecture to simpler problems like how a restaurant should be laid out — and rapidly brainstorming, prototyping and testing solutions.

It is all the rage in Silicon Valley — one of Stanford University's biggest draws is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, dubbed the d.school, and the method is increasingly popular in corporate and nonprofit arenas.

'It's a different way of approaching problems that focuses on radical collaboration with a bias toward action,' said Riley Beal, 17, a Montgomery senior who developed the workshop after encountering design thinking on a visit to Dartmouth College, then learned more from his father, a Windsor High School teacher.

'We usually just sit there and receive information. I wanted not just to do it, but bring it into the classroom,' said Beal, who is leading the five-day workshop with Pavelka and classmate Justin Carver. It will conclude with a presentation to faculty.

The process started with a question: 'How might we make grading more useful?' Students were then dispatched in teams to interview friends, schoolmates, teachers and others about that issue.

The question evolved dramatically based on those interviews, spawning other lines of inquiry, including:

'How might we create a more interesting environment that provides effective feedback for uninspired college-bound high school students?'

'How might we give honors/IB (International Baccalaureate) juniors the opportunity to self evaluate in order to make them value the process of learning rather than receiving the grade?'

'How might conflicted English teachers develop a more efficient system than previous biased grading?'

Students, nearly all of whom appeared thoroughly engaged in the exercise, said it was both illuminating and useful.

'It's a good learning experience for us because you figure out everything about school and how to help the next generation,' said Desenia Hernandez, 17. 'It's a new way of thinking about school and what we really value.'

One expert said the Montgomery students had chosen an effective angle from which to approach teaching — and doing — design thinking.

'We often see really strong engagement when students use the design thinking process to work on something they care about deeply, or in this case something that regularly impacts them, like grading,' said Susie Wise, director of the K12 Lab Network at Stanford's d.school.

'It will be exciting to see where they go from here,' she said in an email.

As the period ran down, the student teams brainstormed how to solve their questions. Prototyping would be next. Pavelka and Beal urged them to be as open-minded as possible.

'We really need to be together and feel that we're safe enough to put out all our crazy ideas,' Beal said.

The class joined in with gusto.

'It gives us a way not only to ask the questions but to create the solutions,' said Sydney Angel, 17.

In a corner, teacher Simone Harris said the post-workshop challenge was to figure out how to implement and share the student-generated solutions.

'A lot of the people who were interviewed are coming to me and say, 'What is going to happen actually? Is there going to be change in the way we do grading?' '

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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