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Papers Published!

5 Dec


Those of you who have attended our workshops have seen the above slide (click on it to see it full size). We use it to illustrate a technique called “how-why laddering,” which helps you work up and down between levels of abstraction when thinking about areas of a problem space to address. In research, we have found it a useful tool for conceptualizing how different parts of a larger project fit together and thinking about the “what” we are trying to solve and the “how” we might do it.

When we first sketched out the RAD project (over three years ago now!) we identified two areas of what we were trying to do that could best be addressed by a traditional academic study. The first was establishing an empirical basis for the content of the workshops. We wanted to understand how innovative, successful scholars approach their research, how creativity fits in, and whether their practice is close enough to design thinking that teaching design thinking techniques to graduate students could be helpful. While we had a hypothesis we would find evidence of similar mindsets, we wanted to rigorously test this.

The second study came from a desire to understand what participants were actually getting out of the workshops. By analyzing data from three years of workshops, we were able to pause and evaluate what is happening in the workshops, what we might improve, and how we might better understand the impact.

Both these studies were published this autumn in the same issue of the International Journal of Doctoral Studies. Like everything else we’ve done with RAD, they are the result of plenty of iteration, feedback from colleagues, and learning within our team. We are pleased to share them with you and look forward to hearing what you think.

  • Cravens, A.E., Ulibarri, N., Cornelius, M., Royalty, A & Nabergoj, A.S. (2014). Reflecting, iterating, and tolerating ambiguity: Highlighting the creative process of scientific and scholarly research for doctoral education. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9, pp 229-247.
    (Link to PDF)
  • Ulibarri , N., Cravens, A.E., Cornelius, M., Royalty, A., & Nabergoj, A.S. (2014). Research as design: Developing creative confidence in doctoral students through design thinking. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 9, pp 249-270. (Link to PDF)

Embracing the shake

28 May

From one perspective, limits are those things that hold us back. We often dream of what we could do if we only had more time, more grant money, better mentorship, etc. We frequently frame problems as how to eliminate constraints. How can I get more attention from a busy advisor? How can I maximize my time and efficiency?

While sometimes these are useful ways of looking at a problem space, other times what is holding us back from generating a whole new set of solutions is our perception of limits. We use constraints in brainstorming to challenge ourselves to move past the ideas that first come to mind. Constraints can also be useful in shaping solutions, when limits are embraced and worked within. For instance, I regularly make it a practice to spend an hour or less on a first stab at a presentation, to force myself to get at the essence of what I’m trying to say.

An attendee from our spring workshop shared this Ted talk from artist Phil Hansen, who developed a tremor in his hand, meaning he could no longer create the pointillist drawings that had defined his art to that point. In this story of how he came to “embrace the shake,” he poignantly captures the way that what at first seems like “the ultimate limitation” can sometimes turn out “to be the ultimate liberation.”

What limitations have you embraced and found liberating?

What We Can Learn From a Mediocre Brainstorm

4 Dec

When brainstorming goes well, it feels like flying. You and your teammates produce copious amounts of ideas, many of which provide new and unexpected insights or potential solutions your current challenge. You are energized to start trying out multiple of these ideas immediately.

Every so often, however, the ideas produced don’t seem quite so sparkling or magical. One reason might be the team’s or your own emotional state…is your energy low? Was your team energy building off one another? Was someone not suspending judgement? But if the team is working well together and still the ideas that come out of the brainstorm seem lackluster, it might be a sign that you’re not yet solving the right problem and have more problem-finding to do.

At our last RAD Workshop, we had an uneven number of participants. So I jumped in to fill out the number of pairs. I am taking a required class this quarter that is difficult and not particularly relevant to my research. It is also taking a frustrating amount of time away from the qualifying proposal that is my real priority this autumn. Thus the problem I selected for ideation was “How can I pass Class X while minimizing the time it takes?”

The initial ideas in the team brainstorming were mostly unethical and clearly infeasible…cheat, date the TA, find previous exams. The only sensible solutions were obvious ones that didn’t add much to my understanding of the situation…get help, find a tutor. Looking at the ideas after the brainstorming time was up, the only one that seemed to hold any promise was “incorporate the class into your RAD work.”

As I started to think about how to prototype this idea, I realized that the way I had framed the problem for this brainstorming session had obviously failed to stimulate our creativity. So instead of moving on to prototyping, I decided to take a step back and re-define my problem.

Thinking about the idea of incorporating Class X into the RAD project, I realized that this idea appealed because it suggested that there might be a way I could learn other useful things from the required course than the content it is ostensibly meant to be teaching me. Bingo. Moving from the specific idea to the general formulation of the problem it suggested, I realized I could re-frame my challenge to be “What can I learn or gain from taking Class X besides the content it covers?” or similarly “How can I make the experience of taking Class X useful to my research agenda or personal life?”

This second prompt proved to be much more amenable to good brainstorming. Ideating about how to make the required class useful suggested ideas like using this problem as a RAD case study (as I’m doing in this blog post) or as an exercise in serenity/acceptance or as practice at doing just the minimum necessary work (quite a challenge for an admitted perfectionist).

As this example shows, a mediocre brainstorm can be a sign that your problem still needs additional re-framing.

What else might we learn from a mediocre brainstorm? How about from a disappointing experience at other phases of the design process?

Freewriting as Design Thinking

4 Jul

One winter afternoon while I was writing my masters’ thesis, my officemate and I made a discovery that permanently changed how I approach the act of “doing research”. I don’t remember how we came to read a review for Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by once Harvard Writing Center Director Joan Bolker. However we stumbled upon it, however, we were inspired to brave the rain to find the library’s copy right away. We read most of the book in about three hours that afternoon, and continued quoting sections aloud to each other until she finished her thesis a few months later. In the four years since then, I have become somewhat of an evangelical for this book and have passed copies out to a number of friends.

Bolker’s premise is fairly simple, but profound. Rather than writing once you have ideas or results in order to tell the story of what you did (i.e. writing as storytelling), she urges a graduate student or scholar to write continuously throughout the research process:

“Writing is at the center of producing a dissertation [or any other piece of scholarship]. This book will teach you how not to talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics. You will learn to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright. You will write constantly, and continuously, at every stage, to name your topic and to find your way into it. You will learn to write past certainty, past prejudice, through contradiction, and into complexity….If you’re to do all of this, you need to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day” (page 5).

During my masters’ thesis, I embraced this method that Bolker (and others) advocate: regular freewriting and academic journaling. I began work each morning by sitting down with a cup of tea and producing 5 single spaced pages of writing. I wasn’t aiming to produce 5 pages of text that would ultimately go into my thesis. Rather, I was developing ideas, exploring tangents, asking myself questions, problem-solving. Design thinking is often thought of as a social process, but looking back now, I realize the conversation that my daily writing allowed me to have with myself played many familiar roles to that played by team members in the innovation cycle.

My freewriting was a key source of new ideas. Often I started with a self-created “prompt” that had arisen in my work the previous day, perhaps from my reading or, later, from chapter drafts I was working on: To what extent did the culture of the Department of Lands and Survey influence the new Deparment of Conservation after its creation in 1986? Why are attitudes towards wilderness different in the United States and New Zealand? In answering my prompts, I wrote in a brainstorming spirit, without thinking about whether what I was writing was right or not. Instead, I tried to suggest as many possible answers as I could come up with without stopping. Investigating them, analyzing them, testing them against the literature, discussing them with my advisor, weighing them against one another – all these analytic processes came later in the cycle of the day, after my 5 daily writing pages were complete.

Daily writing also served as a means for prototyping. I tested chapter outlines or structures by sketching them out quickly in the morning without the pressure of drafting them “for real.” I tried alternate versions next to one another and then evaluated them, answering (in writing, of course), questions like What are the pros and cons between these two prototype thesis structures?, The daily writing pages gave me what web developers call a “sandbox,” a place on the server to try out pieces of code (or in my case, snippets of writing) and see what it looks like before implementing it in the real document.

A third function my freewriting pages served was to raise new questions and thus identify new needs to be addressed in my work. My style in the pages was reflective to a fault, continually asking myself about the implications of an argument I was making or an explanation I was developing. Being able to ask myself questions in writing allowed me (1) to know where I needed to gather more empirical evidence and (2) forced me to fully think through possible criticisms of my ideas before anyone else saw a draft. Additionally, since writing up ethnographic and interview research can be solitary and even lonely, the pages gave me a way to use my own mind as sort of a teammate, literally carrying on a conversation with myself through my writing each morning, paying attention to not only content but also my own mood, motivation, etc., and suggesting solutions for the inevitable slumps in productivity.

Most importantly, perhaps, by creating an inviolate habit that I began my days with a set amount of writing, I was building in consistent time for creative thinking to occur. Five single spaced pages is a fair bit of writing, taking at least an hour each day. Not daily, but with decent regularly I found myself reaching the state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about, where an idea would lead to a new idea and then to another. By the end of the hour I would have produced a piece of writing with very little conscious sense of having done the work. Besides being exhilarating, this flow state was also incredibly productive. Just about every new idea worth anything in my masters’ thesis made its initial appearance in some form or another during my morning daily writing practice.

Prototyping vs. Experimentation

3 Jun

We are in the process of planning for RAD Public Workshop v2.0.

Overall, we judged Public Workshop v1.0 to be a success. Thirty-six participants came, spent an energetic day, some told us they took away insights for their research, and most agreed this is a conversation worth continuing.

When we met a few days later to debrief, we discussed both the elements of our curriculum and logistical plan that seemed to contribute to those successes as well as those that didn’t work as well. D.thinking style, the RAD team instantly slipped from identifying something that had not worked as smoothly to brainstorming a multitude of other configurations that could have avoided the perceived issue we’d just identified. (I think our jumping between analytical, research style identification of possible problems and immediately generating possible ways to solve them have frustrated the wonderful woman who had observed the day for us and who was providing feedback about her observations.)

Now our task is to choose among the multitude of ideas we generated to design v2.0. We’re relying on instinct honed after vBeta and v1.0 and on our respective prior experiences running similar workshops or courses. For instance, before v1.0, we were thinking of our curriculum more as teaching d.methods, but a key comment by a participant made us realize that the workshop curriculum – like many courses – is actually using d.methods like prototyping to teach larger d.mindsets like a bias towards action. Plus there are certain structural constraints  like our crazy intersecting travel schedules and personal preferences that weight the balance one way or the other given two options that in theory seem rather equal.

We are clearly prototyping, not experimenting, though the two activities share many similarities. Yes, when we run workshop 2.0 in September, we will be testing an unknown configuration of activities and will be vitally interested in observing what results. We are paying similar conditions to the starting conditions to what we would if this were an experiment; we know that the observed results in v1.0 came from curriculum 1.0+advertising strategy 1.0+registration form 1.0 etc. And we are recording the workshop results so we don’t forget what happened, should we eventually get to v8.0.

But what we are not doing – which we would certainly do if we were experimenting – is making incremental changes. To truly understand the effect of advertising strategy 1.0, we ideally would run workshop v1.0 again changing only the advertising strategy to advertising 2.0.  Classic experimental methods rely on isolating causal variables to make causal explanations. The importance of varying only a single factor at a time goes back to the nature of logical argument that classic experimentation relies on, expressed in its quintessential form by John Stuart Mill’s methods for causal identification. (While there are now sophisticated statistical/econometric techniques that overcome some of the limitations when isolating a single variable is not possible, a classic experiment varying one factor and keeping the others constant that shows the effect is present when the factor is present and absent when it is absent is still often considered the “gold standard” for establishing proof that the factor caused the effect.)

So why are we not making incremental changes? Three reasons:

1) Logistical constraints – We simply don’t have the time or resources for as many iterations as we have ideas for elements we want to test.

2) Multiple causes – Mills’ methods and varying single factors do not lead to conclusions about effects with multiple causes or interaction effects (effects of factor A that result differently depending on whether factor B is present or not). Like many effects in education that deal with complex human group behavior, the effect we are interested in (an energetic group experience in which people learn d.mindsets) is probably the result of multiple causes and interactions between different factors.

Most importantly, however,

3) Different purposes – We are not interested in causation so much as finding a recipe that works.

Ultimately, we are not interested in establishing how each of the different elements in our workshop plan individually contribute to the overall success of v2.0. What we care about in the end is finding a successful combination of elements that collectively produce a stellar workshop. And since we are interested in finding that magic recipe as quickly as possible, it makes sense in our case to vary whatever we think needs varying and try it out. It is this concern with getting to a solution that makes what we are doing in our workshop creation at the moment prototyping and d.thinking.

Two other thoughts:

1) Education has a educational design sub-field which does similar work getting to a solution that works but pays more attention to the causes behind the success in order to make the findings generalizable. (See Theme Issue: The Role of Design in Educational Research Educational Researcher January 2003 32: 3-4, doi:10.3102/0013189X032001003)

2) Later, of course, when we do have a combination that seems to work, there might be an opportunity to return to study what we’re doing with a more analytical eye and move back along the r.thinking side of the spectrum to explain the causes for that success. This is what my dissertation is doing with a software tool.