Step 2 of The Design Process: Collecting Information

A site self-study exercise via the design process, step 2

The second step in many design processes is to research, collect information, and to more deeply understand the internal product/system to be redeveloped. In education, that information can come in the form of achievement data, community surveys, classroom observations, anecdotal evidence and from meetings designed to try to organize information that relates to the the problem being addressed. This article will focus on collaboration and meeting times where self-study, research, organizing are central to being able to successfully move onto brainstorming in Step Three. Schools and teams might choose to use Step Two to; align curriculum, investigate a single assessment up for redesign, mapping a problem with the parent community, to evaluate a literacy program or to break down state assessment data.

A quick reminder of the Design Process:

Systems Modeling

All of us have seen or taken part in meetings full of wonderfully colorful sticky notes plastered all over chart paper, whiteboards, even glass windows. It is also easy to scan social media and find professionals, teachers and school leaders bragging about these meeting sessions, sharing colorful photos full of multi-colored post-its littering a massive sheet of paper, proudly stating how many post-it sticky notes have been used but with no evident organization used. Yet, this evaluation of a successful self-study might be missing a key component of success — how these ideas and notes relate to one another and the important story that relationship should tell.

Tom Wujec, a leader in collaboration, calls this critical organisation of these, note cards or sticky notes a “systems model.” Grouping, flow, meaningful connections and other strategies are what bring out the collective team-owned product from its individual contributions. Mr. Wujec describes the fundamental, organisable components to this system modeling as “links and nodes.” A link can be described as the visual, usually graphic material that exists between or around the sticky notes. They often take the form of arrows, numbering, shapes, vectors for grouping or even may be pictorial to add a theme to the work. Nodes are the content written or drawn onto a card or a sticky note that contains a singular thought or singular piece of a system. These are most often single idea text or pictures that also represent a single idea, step, person or object.

Taking these links and nodes to create a large-scale visual and textual representation of a self-study helps to build a group understanding as to the place, time and constraints that the identified problem exists in. All members have the opportunity to understand, build upon and make meaning from a group representation activity. High quality facilitation that can drive the product further and can prod even the most reluctant team members is now and will always be critical to success. Check out a few provided examples from a recent workshop I led in Luxembourg to see how dialogue can manifest itself into these visual maps.

The initial meeting where you wish to establish the culture of using links and nodes may have a few distinct components. First lead the “draw toast” activity that Mr. Wujec has created. Then, follow that up by viewing his TED Talk, if this is the first time your team is working together on a design thinking project. Drawing toast as an activity and the related TED talk help serve as establishing group norms and an agreed upon language for doing this work. Now you are ready to begin your first effort of collaborative meeting by where all members can write nodes, move elements around and create meaningful links to tell the story of the problem at hand and meaningfully model the current situation as it truly is.

After this initial meeting, what comes next?

Be sure to capture your major takeaways and outline the next steps you need to take. Save the physical work whenever possible or take detailed photos that can be shared and read by a whole group again at a later time. Capturing the model to drive future use is critical. Make sure to include specific time during the meeting to capture and to outline the group’s next steps, or you risk this effort stalling or being lost. When possible, have a full schedule set prior to the initial systems drawing meeting as well as a plan to fully capture the work done.

A possible schedule for your school faculty that meets weekly for one hour:

  • A pre-meeting with a school leadership team to prepare for the following meetings. Scheduling, facilitation, materials, possible problems and so on.
  • The initial meeting to generate the links and nodes will be to “draw toast”, discuss the methods for 30 minutes. The final 30 minutes will be to make teacher groups and begin the work on chart paper to model the problem at hand.
  • The second faculty meeting would be to jump in and continue that work for 45 minutes, leaving a discussion for next steps to come last. As much other business as is possible should be parked or written in an email.
  • The third meeting should be to accomplish two goals, to fully understand and recognize the system model as valid with any changes made and to begin the work of brainstorming, Step 3.

A possible schedule for your grade level team that meets weekly for one hour:

  • Meeting 1: Verify that the problem has already been properly identified, “draw toast” and build your first model, with a second meeting already scheduled.
  • The second meeting is a continuation of the modeling and finalizing of the model with specific time left over to determine the next steps to take now that a common agreement has been reached about the initial problem and the self-study systems model is complete.
  • Step 3 should now be ready to begin, Brainstorming and idea generation.  

This work may initially feel extensive or even unnecessary, but a complete study of the system in which your well identified problem exists will provide you and your team everything that you need to know in order to more quickly move through the next steps and to do so successfully. You are also building a common language for you and all involved stakeholders, buy-in and offering a meaningful voice to all stakeholders who should feel that their contribution is honored by the process. Great meetings have gone by any number of names and formats and this is just another example in of itself. When put into context with the entire Design Thinking process, you have what can become a school culture of meaningful improvement and a method to maintain that iterative community.


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