The art of brainstorming has always been one of my favorite topics, and as a design educator, it has quickly become one of my favorite lesson plans. I typically introduce design students to a series of different ideation methods, discuss what has worked well and not so well for me in my practical experience, and then encourage the students to research alternative ideation methods online and in published journals. To put theory into practice, I ask the students to build off existing methods to create their own process, and then ask them to prepare and conduct a group ideation session during class.
On the day of brainstorming, we break into small groups and the session leaders introduce their process and objectives to the other students, their unknowing test participants in the creation of a novel ideation method. And then… the room lights up. While implementing their methods the students become electrified. Bouncing around the room, building off each other’s ideas and enthusiasm, literally shouting in joy when a radical, often humorous, idea emerges. The space radiates. The laughter, the physical interactions, the pantomiming. Markers dance across the tables. Paper and sticky notes fly through the studio air. It’s a productive machine, and pure joy to observe.
This year has been different. Many of my previous lecture slides on ideation were useless. I have one slide titled ‘Get Physical with Your Ideas.’ I left it out this semester. It’s not relevant. Sure, we went through the motions, discussed ideation methods and good practices, and I even introduced some new ideas for remote brainstorming. The students engaged in deep conversation and developed some great ideas. But the radiant energy I love so much about group brainstorming was simply not the same.
The studio spaces this year are different too. The usual clutter of paper, cardboard, markers, and physical mock-ups is noticeably absent. Class seats are spread out. Instructors can no longer grab a student’s computer mouse and catch them up on a step they’re struggling with in a particular software. We hand motion more. We wipe everything down more. We wait patiently much more. And we remain 6 feet apart.
Similarly, there’s a noticeable change in the students. They’re stressed, anxious, and bored, all with good reason. Recently, I sent a short survey to my students to gather some feedback, and the responses were tough to read. They’re worried about the normal things for sure, but on top of the typical anxiety they’re scared for their own health. They’re concerned about their friend’s well-being. They’re bored and distracted by constantly sitting in front of their computer screens. They find it more difficult to ask questions during remote lectures, and then find it more difficult to reach out to instructors after class. Perhaps most concerning, they have a tough time imagining a future that looks brighter.
Change is hard, especially when the future looks less appealing. It takes a toll on people. But change is also inevitable and necessary. If we refuse to adjust, to pivot our approach to solving problems, we’ll fail to succeed. We’ll fail to care. This is important to understand for students and for educators. In light of this, I’ve put together a few simple ideas for pivoting this semester. This is certainly not exhaustive, and the ideas may not work for everyone. I encourage you to read, reflect, and add your own. Document them. And solicit feedback.
Trust your curiosity. When you don’t know something, ask about it. Ask constantly – during Zoom lectures, during group exercises, while working in the computer lab, while making things in the shop (if possible). Ask how. Ask why. Now, more than ever, it’s important to expand your courage to ask more. Minimize the fear of the unknown by finding the answers to your questions.
Engage in conversation. Reach out to your professors outside of class time. Set up a time to discuss a particular problem you’re trying to solve or ask for feedback on an idea you have for an assignment. Do the same with classmates, especially ones you might not typically engage with socially. The traditional means of engaging in happenstance conversation has been challenged by COVID-19 protocols. It’s important to find new ways to talk to each other.
Challenge yourself and your classmates. Provide your classmates with feedback, both positive and constructive. Start the conversation in class, and then continue it afterwards through chat forums. If you’re worried about being negative, consider starting the conversation with, “You may want to consider…”. Or consider balancing your constructive criticism with praise such as: “I really like this solution, but what if…?” Ask your classmates what they think of your ideas, your sketches, your work. And listen.
Solicit feedback. Send out a short survey to engage your students in a dialog about what’s working well and what’s not working well in class. Your students are exposed to a wide range of pedagogical approaches, and they can tell you which courses are proving more successful during this time of rapid evolution in educational practice. Use this knowledge to improve your own approach to coursework, assignments, lectures, and exercises.
Show you care. Tell your students you care about their success in and outside the classroom. It’s easy to forget. But also show them you care by making yourself available. Remote lectures are not as engaging. Augment your lectures with more one-on-one engagement outside class time.
Introduce moments of joy. This one’s simple, just watch this Ted Talk with your students: Ingrid Fettell Lee on the Aesthetics of Joy. Have a discussion after the video, and encourage your students to think about how to integrate joy in their lives and their design work. Sometimes, you just need a reminder.