Borrowing a Powerful Brainstorm Protocol from IDEO

This summer I spent a week at IDEO in San Francisco learning about design thinking and their process for tackling challenges. While I was there, I observed a team brainstorm and was shocked by their results.

Like most teachers, I want students to brainstorm and generate ideas to fuel their inquiries and drive projects. However, this seemingly simple task of generating ideas is really challenging for students for a few reasons. During a brainstorm, students:

  • Self-censor limiting the flow of ideas.
  • Fear “bad ideas” or “dumb ideas.”
  • Jump to a solution instead of investigating possibilities and living in the space of ambiguity.

All of these tendencies limit a student’s creativity and their ability to generate a large number of ideas. After watching a team at IDEO brainstorm, my teacher team decided to create a clear protocol around brainstorming. We even modeled this process for students so they could see it in practice. They selected the challenge, and we walked through the 5 steps below.

Step 1: Heads Down Silent 3 Minute Brainstorm Using Post-its

Students have 3 minutes to silently generate as many ideas as possible writing each idea on a separate post-it note. We emphasize that there are NO bad ideas because even off the wall ideas can spark ideas worth considering.

Step 2: Take Turns Sharing Your Ideas

Students take turns sharing the idea on each post-it and adding it to a whiteboard or surface. At this point, they know their job is to listen without judgment. Questions and comments are shelved for the next step.

Step 3: Categorize and Discuss

Once every student has had a chance to share his/her post-its and add them to the board, then they must try to group post-its that share commonalities. This step is important. It helps students to identify complementary ideas or similar thoughts. At this point, students are invited to ask questions about ideas to understand them better. They can also add ideas or add to each other’s ideas during this step.

Step 4: Identify Most Interesting Ideas

Once all of the post-its are up on the board and categorized, each member of the group puts 5 dots on their favorite ideas. This creates a heat map of the most interesting ideas generated during the brainstorm.

Step 5: Document the Brainstorm

Students take photos of the brainstorm to capture the ideas generated and add themto their digital notebooks under the “Project” page.  This way they are easy to reference as the project progresses.

IDEO’s 7 Little Rules for Brainstorming Sessions

Once students understand the process of a formal brainstorm, we cover the norms for their engagement. We use IDEO’s “seven little rules that unlock the creative power of a brainstorming session.” These rules create powerful norms around the brainstorming process. In short, those 7 rules are:

  1. Defer judgment.
  2. Encourage wild ideas.
  3. Build on the ideas of others.
  4. Stay focused on the topic.
  5. One conversation at a time.
  6. Be visual.
  7. Go for quantity.

For a more detailed explanation, check out “Brainstorm Rules” in the IDEO Design Kit.

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6 Shifts to Maximize Productivity and Happiness

This year I’ve decided to pursue my doctorate at Pepperdine University. It is a blended program with a mix of face-to-face and online learning, which is obviously perfect for this blended learning enthusiast! My program will allow me to continue teaching and coaching, but it will present some very real challenges for me personally when it comes to balancing my various roles and responsibilities–mother, teacher, trainer, coach, speaker, and author.

As part of our initial orientation, we read an article titled “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time” written by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy. As I read through the article, I was struck by the difference between managing time–a finite resource–and managing one’s energy. I realized there are small changes I can make in my daily work life to increase my energy levels and make sure I dedicate my energy to high priority items, both work and personal.

#1 Spend the 1st hour of work focused on high priority items. 

I don’t consider myself a procrastinator, quite the opposite actually. That said, it’s common for me to become overwhelmed by everything I have to get done so I begin working on the low hanging fruit and easy to accomplish tasks. These aren’t usually high-priority items but they are easier to tackle and less intimidating to begin.

The problem with this strategy is that I have the most mental energy when I first begin working so I need to spend that first hour focused on high priority items that may be more mentally taxing. Then as my energy wanes, I can shift my attention to the easier to accomplish tasks.

#2 Designate two specific times during the day to check email and social media.

Email is a constant drain on my energy levels. I have four different email accounts associated with different roles and responsibilities. This means I always have new email messages. I could literally spend my entire day fielding and responding to emails. My most unproductive days are those when I am constantly checking my email.

Social media is no different. It’s easy to get distracted by Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook notifications or use these social media platforms as an escape from the work I need to get done. So, I’ve decided to designate two specific times during the day when I will check email and engage on social media. I’ve selected two times in the day when my energy and productivity are typically low.

This has been a game changer. Instead of allowing email and social media to become a drain on my energy or a distraction from important work, it’s built into my day during moments when I need a mental break. Ironically, responding to emails when I am not in a mental zone to lesson plan or write allows me to feel productive in these moments.

I’d suggest you not even log into email during until your designated email times. I have also found it useful to turn on the “do not disturb” feature on my phone, so I’m not distracted by the social media notifications that typically light up my phone.

#3 Work for a focused 90-120 minutes then move your body.

Physical activity is often the first thing people neglect when they are busy, but the body needs to move. Exercise energizes the mind and body. I’ve tried to follow the advice in the article and focus on work for 90-120 minutes, then break for some physical activity. Sometimes it is a 20-minute walk around my neighborhood, other times it is a trip to the gym.

At first, I felt guilty taking this time for myself when I had so much to do, but I almost always return to my work feeling more motivated, inspired, and focused. It’s clear my brain and body need regular breaks to recharge.

#4 Unplug during family time.

I’m a mom of two energetic children. I struggle to balance my role as a mom with all the other hats I wear. Technology doesn’t help. So, I unplug. From 5-8PM, I turn on the “do not disturb” feature on my phone and leave my computer closed. I want my kids and my husband to feel they are my priority and have my full attention when I am at home.

When they are old enough to have their own devices, I plan to have a “parking lot” where we all leave our devices for a designated period of time. My hope is to create a sacred space for our family to talk and connect that is not interrupted by text messages and notifications.

#5 Take time to breathe and gain control over your thoughts.

Breathing. We do it without thinking, but how often do we close our eyes and take a series of deep breaths? It’s incredible how powerful the simple act of intentional breathing can be. In moments when I feel particularly stressed or overwhelmed, I close my eyes and take a series of deep breaths. In these quiet moments, I try to calm the chatter in my head. I focus on my breathing and the small movements in my body and try to limit my thoughts. This immediately calms me and helps me focus on the most important tasks in front of me. It also provides some much-needed perspective when I am feeling daunted by my workload.

#6 When you’re feeling overwhelmed, pause and think about something you’re grateful for.

When work is intense, it’s easy to slip into a negative mental space so I try to practice gratitude. Work might be crazy, but there are wonderful aspects of my life that need to be celebrated. Stopping in moments of frustration or irritation to think about something in my life that is great helps provide perspective. I’ll often follow this with a written note or verbal affirmation to someone in my life who makes my world a little brighter. It might be a post-it note on my children’s bed or a quick audio message to my husband. Practicing gratitude helps me focus on all the positive instead of getting stuck focusing on what is hard.

What strategies do you use to stay productive and positive?

Reading “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time” motivated me to think about my own energy levels and has helped me to adopt simple strategies that maximize my productivity and leave me feeling happier at the end of the day. If you have strategies you rely on to stay productive and positive, I’d love for you to post a comment and share them!

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Grade Interviews

Over the last two years, I’ve moved further and further away from traditional grading. I’ve blogged about grading for mastery of skills instead of the accumulation of points and ditching my traditional grade book in favor of an ongoing assessment document.

Each grading period I identify target skills and assess those skills. Instead of spending hours grading assignments designed to help students develop these skills, I limit my energy to providing feedback in class as they work and grading the actual assessments–exam, essay, performance task.

Students are given class time each week to look through their body of work and reflect on their developing skill sets. They determine what the quality of their work reveals about their journey towards mastering those skills. This reflective activity encourages them to think metacognitively about their learning.

Grade Interviews

Then as grade reporting approaches, I sit down with every single student for a grade interview. Students come to these grade interviews prepared with a formal argument. I’ve structured the grade interviews so they mirror our argumentative writing process.

They begin with a claim. “I deserve a B in English because I 1)_______, 2._______, and 3.______.”

Once they’ve presented their claim, they must support it with three pieces of evidence from their body of work for that grading period. Students have 3 minutes to explain how the evidence supports their claim. They must have all of their online work bookmarked and pulled up in advance of our conversation to save time. Because my students keep their work in digital notebooks, this process is quick and painless.

I also come to the conversation with a grade that I generate based on each student’s performance on the assessments. If my grade is different from the grade the student feels they deserve, then I counter. My counter argument usually sounds like this: “I have a grade of a C for you in English because of …”.

If I counter, then the student gets a rebuttal. The rebuttal is their opportunity to highlight edits, revisions, and improvements they’ve made to previous work. For example, a student may return to a formal essay or lab report to improve it after I’ve formally assessed it. Alternatively, students might do additional practice or work to master a skill that I have not assigned or assessed. This is the incentive my students have to continually edit and improve their work to demonstrate their growth and developing mastery. However, I may not always have time to return to a previous piece and reassess it prior to this conversation, so this gives us time to chat about their hard work.

Some teachers have asked, “How do you have time for this?” It’s a fair question. These interviews take between 3-5 minutes per student. I typically spend two full days during the grading period interviewing students. That is a substantial time investment, but it is worth it on a few different levels:

  1. Students have to build a formal argument and present it to an adult, which is a nerve wracking experience but an important life skill.
  2. It encourages students to think about what the quality of their work reveals about their skills. Instead of getting a grade because they did all of the work, they receive a grade that reflects their skill set.
  3. This approach also means that grades don’t happen to students. They can look at the rubric, read the description of what a 1, 2, 3, and 4 look like for each skill. This removes the mystery that’s often associated with grading.

While I’m meeting with students, the rest of the class is moving through a station rotation lesson or working on a project. This process is easier to do because I teach on a block schedule and work with a co-teacher. That said, I would conduct grade interviews regardless. These conversations are invaluable. Students walk away knowing exactly what they need to work on or what they are doing well. Also, I feel like I know my students so much better because we sit down and chat about their learning every 5-6 weeks!

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