Great ideas are easy to come by, but true innovation is more rare. Innovation is when those great ideas are put into practice to meaningfully improve our way of life, our way of thinking, and our programs here at SA. At the heart of innovation is the design cycle, a feedback process that values testing an idea as quickly as possible in order to learn its shortcomings and further understand the original problem you were trying to solve.
There is a great activity that many design teachers use on the first day of class, the Marshmallow Challenge
. Teams are given some string, some tape, a defined number of uncooked spaghetti sticks, and a marshmallow. The challenge is to build the tallest tower that will support the marshmallow in a set period of time. Spoiler alert: those who do not test their tower with the marshmallow as they build generally fail. They end up building a beautiful structure only to find it crash down when they place the marshmallow on the top. This experiment demonstrates the fact that successful design requires testing, prototyping, and feedback. Failure is expected; it is an important part of the process.
The design thinking cycle can be a challenge to utilize in schools, because it requires us to fail in order to learn and to innovate. And who wants to make mistakes with our students? But if we don’t test out new content, techniques, and ideas, we can never innovate. And the more quickly we get through those first cycles, the faster we get to the good stuff. Most importantly, how do we go through the design cycle without turning our students into test subjects? At Sonoma Academy, where we value collaboration, mentorship, and relationships with our students, the solution to this dilemma is simple! We partner with our students as we go through each phase.
Our Impact program is a great example of this. The process of developing the program started through developing empathy, interviewing all constituency groups: community partners, faculty, students, etc. Then, we worked through Grant Wiggins’ tried-and-true Understanding by Design process to define what success would look like, working backward until we had a skeleton of a plan. Student leaders and teachers were the ideators, developing courses that were engaging, student-driven, and impactful. We then developed a prototype of the program (some Zoom, one in-person) to test out through the pandemic. The feedback from the prototype is incorporated into the current iteration of the program.
We launched Impact during the Covid-19 pandemic while everyone was ready to try anything. During the first semester, we required all students to participate and then quickly scaled it back to optional during the second semester as the Zoom load was taking its toll. Through these iterations, we learned how to better engage students and form meaningful community partnerships; we also learned some things we may never do again. And as a result, our current Impact program is now much stronger.
We continue to look for opportunities to partner with our students as we innovate and iterate. This year, we actually have an Impact course where students advise us on Intersession programs, for example. Utilizing design thinking encourages students to test out their marshmallow well before time is up. It enables our students to learn how to be more flexible, analytical, resilient, and open-minded, all key traits they will need in our changing world.