trying on design thinking mindsets

Attendance: 34 students from Grade 8 and 9, Uyana Kanishta Vidyalaya (Uyana Junior School)

Learning goals: A basic understanding of design thinking through quick hands-on activities in brainstorming and prototyping

Activity/ies: snap-clap-stomp; blind contour portrait; uses for a paper clip (check out the full set of ideas here); face cover; five chairs (check out the full syllabus in super draft-like form here; a draft of the slides in Sinhala here; and the chair prompts in Sinhala here). Many thanks to all the Stanford stars I learned from in the spring – especially Grace Hawthorne, Manish Saggar, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, John Cassidy, Elysa Fenenbock, Aithan Shapira, Anja Nabergoj, and Lindley Mease – whose workshops featured most of these activities.

Insights/surprises: The learning never stops, does it? For me, I mean. Three hours cooped up in a class is too much, especially for kids who have just finished their exams, so every future workshop will be shorter – 1.5 hours, I think? Part of the problem was that I didn’t want to take them out for the usual energy dissipating activities we do, like Dog and the Bone, or Fruit Salad. It’s a school day and I’m only doing this for a few kids, so I didn’t want to be too disruptive – I wanted them to say yes to doing more workshops!! – and everyone got super antsy after a bit. I felt really sorry for them, and suggested wrapping it up – but was surprised at the vehemence with which this suggestion was rejected.

Design thinking really is a mental workout, more so than my previous workshops and it was hard for nearly everyone, despite my cutting nearly all of the “lecture-y” bits about design thinking mindsets and keywords – like human centred thinking, quick and dirty prototyping, and working together. They also really struggled at first, and I’m clearly super naive for — five years on — not keeping enough time for this. But they’re also much louder than the kids up north, and much more confident that I will repeat myself umpteen times for their personal benefit. I stopped doing it, leaving some to flounder (an unpleasant surprise).

They had to do the blind contour portrait twice, because they really didn’t want to produce something “ugly” the first time, but that’s normal. I’ve done it in multiple workshops, and adults find it hard too, including yours truly. But it’s an exercise worth doing more than once…and I will. I was also surprised at how mentally challenging they found the paper-clip exercise. I thought it would be a fun DT warm-up, and it turned out to be a strenuous workout. This would have been a good time for a break.

The first attempt.
The second attempt.

Also, why is it that the boys were in some ways so much easier to teach? Perhaps  it’s because they were all somehow temperamentally similar. The girls varied wildly – either they were docile to the point of inactivity, or (a first for me) flat out ignored the activity prompt. The same girls got into just as many fights as some of the boys did. And yet, perhaps fittingly, my stand-out student (the one I secretly hope I can train to do these workshops for younger kids) is a girl named Iresha, who blew me away with her incredibly thoughtful, well-crafted pieces. As always, too, it was five girls stayed behind to help me clean up – and, again (as with my workshops up north) I’m horrified at how ready the kids are to leave a classroom full of rubbish. (But I couldn’t have that, not after the principal had just done a 180 and asked me to come tomorrow after the vice principal said tomorrow was too busy! Have to leave a good(ish) impression. So I’ve just cancelled a wedding-related meeting to make tomorrow’s workshop happen. Priorities, right?)

Also, the name tags don’t stick, and caused a bit of a derailment. Womp womp.

Also, 35 kids is exhausting. Dear goodness.

Interesting projects: Oh my stars, Iresha. She’s an absolute gem. I have no idea how she performs in regular class, but she’s hands-down the most thoughtful one here. In some ways, her talent was wasted in today’s sea of 34 boisterous participants. I wished we could have talked more about her “face cover” – she deftly folded the paper into a pair of glasses that I couldn’t photograph, and when Vikum said he flat-out didn’t believe she didn’t use scissors, she made him another pair. Ha. I do have pictures of her cardboard “chair for grandpa” though – an absolute delight which even had a walking-stick holder and mini walking stick. Clearly a talented (and rapid) paper-crafter.

Iresha’s is the second from the left at the top.
Check out her little cane holder!
Navodhi’s mask stays on by being firmly jammed on the nose, and passes the “Does it work for a friend?” test too!

Rasindu understood the blind contour portrait on the first try – and so did four others (sort of). The second try was better, with about 50% success. Definitely doing this one again.

Workshop feedback: I was amused at the range of responses I got in class. One girl, a bit resentful about having to think again so soon after exams, asked me if we could stop the workshop and go play cricket. One little boy right in front turned around and told her off, turning back to tell me to keep on going.Most kids perked up at the thought of cricket, only to be dampened by my explanation that I wasn’t here to do a cricket workshop. I told them I knew it was hard to do this right after exams, but I could wrap up soon so they could be left to their own devices and not be bothered with my weird little exercises…but we all know how that went.

The feedback is hilarious. I explained that writing feedback was like a test for me, so I could be better, and I got a lot of “Well done. Good workshop.” and smiley faces…much like their teachers must write in their own schoolbooks. I really hope they enjoyed a certain sense of power at that moment. Also, they really really love clay. The next workshop will be 100% empathy sculpture, I think. I don’t have the energy to translate to English, but the full set of feedback “forms” is here (the “well done” comments are in English, though, haha).

Also, apparently many seem happy to do holiday workshops, contrary to what the principal believed. Or so they say. As our good friend Margaret Mead apparently observed, what people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.

I can’t think why I never thought to do end-of-workshop feedback forms before. Perhaps it’s because, five years ago, I was more afraid of negative feedback, and more likely to think of setbacks and hiccups as a sign of personal failure. Design thinking has clearly changed me, too. Children are pretty perceptive, too, and I think even if it felt like a drag at times, they could see I’d put a ton of effort into bringing them pens and scissors and modelling clay and coloured card (one boy asked me bluntly, “How much did all this cost?” – Thanks, MIT PKG Fellowship!) and several boys fell in love with the twin cap Sharpies (me too, Vikum, me too).

BUT I really need to have proper feedback forms. They spent half their time writing out my question! Dear Sri Lankan education system, what a challenge you are to me.

Continuing challenges: Workshop materials. The kids love them, and some accused some others of filching some of the stuff. I don’t blame them — that purple clay was positively hypnotic — but I’m a little afraid of looking in my Sharpie boxes to see which ones made their way back. I’m also afraid of having a look at how many of those Sharpie tips have been all smushed, because I still believe that all items of stationery are holy objects. Also, it’s hard to keep track of 35 sets of scissors, tape, sharpies, pens, and paper all at once. I could implement disciplinary systems for managing this much quicker in Vavuniya, because those kids were a lot more docile. (Not that I’m judging! Just observing.)

Several boys asked me how much the Sharpies cost, and divined (to their disappointment, I think) that these were Glamorous American Pens (yes, plain black Sharpies). After fruitlessly pleading with me to give him a Sharpie, even suggesting I give it to him while no one was looking (“Miss, mata ekak horen dhenna baridha?” – cheeky boy, but I couldn’t help but feel bad at how much he coveted it), Vikum then asked for some clay. I got this locally, and I felt so bad at having to deny him a Sharpie (I explained that I need to use them for future workshops with them, and you can’t get those dual-tip ones here) that I said ok. Several other kids then asked for clay. I’m torn between knowing how little they have, and a fear of encouraging repeated requests for Stuff. Perhaps an announcement? And perhaps we find some sponsors for end-of-year stationery presents? It feels really weird to say, “No, you can’t have this bit of clay,” when I know it cost me 50 cents, especially when we got to keep an entire little box of Play-Doh after we did the chair game in Creative Gym. Blurgh. It’s at moments like these that I really feel my privilege – although do I look back and remember how I would have thought a stack of Post-its was definitely too precious to buy and then wantonly waste on silly brainstorms. So, a smidge of conflicty-uncomfortable feeling amidst my general euphoria, as always.

02 August 2017
Click through to view the full set of photos.


I’m clearly incapable of writing a short blog post. EVERYTHING IS SO INTERESTING AND I MUST CAPTURE IT ALL.

None of the following fits in our all-new blog post format, but I must, I must write it down.

I was fairly dejected for a couple of weeks because the principal of St. John’s didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the thought of holiday workshops, and then never got back to me despite my follow-up. I wonder if I somehow went about it wrong — by all accounts, he’s been supportive of the visual arts workshops — and whether I should have gone with Irf to meet him, as a kind of introduction. I didn’t want to impose, so I decided I would simply share the workshop materials at the end, but not trouble him any further.

But what to do now?

I thought of, then rejected the thought that I could do something at my old school. The girls would probably love it, but are, after all, generally upper-middle class kids like me. I’d learn a lot about facilitating, I’m sure, but that’s not quite what I was setting out to learn. For one thing, I’d be conducting these workshops in English, and for another, I’m sure Ladies’ College has primed them in certain ways that would make them readier for such a series. It would be an easy out.

Then I thought of the school in front of our house. The village’s poorest kids go to school here, and I have no idea who they are or what they do. I just throw cricket balls back into the schoolyard when they land in our garden. I’d never done a programme there because Building Bridges started out as an initiative for reconciliation, but I felt much more comfortable now, given how much more I’m interested in something that intersects what is called “21st century skills” (all lies, they were always useful skills) and what is termed “positive peace”.

Also, this is where I grew up. I liked the thought of giving something back.

So I made inquiries. We know two gentlemen, Milanga and Lalith, whose tuk-tuks I always use, and who have known me since I was young. Being from the village, they also know the village much better than I do. So I figured an introduction to the Uyana Kanishta principal would be helpful.

In the end, everything worked out because of the incredible effort made by Lalith to convince everyone that I was some kind of superstar workshop facilitator (although I think he truly believes it — he’s taken me on my massive stationery runs for Vavuniya in the past — and I think he’s pretty excited that I’m finally doing something in our own village). On Monday, first went to the principal at UKS, who hesitantly said the programme sounded interesting, but that I needed permission from the director in charge of the whole Moratuwa education circuit (i.e. the larger suburb). So we went to see her, but she wasn’t in. So we went again at 3pm, and to my surprise she gave me permission almost immediately, thanks to Lalith’s fulsome praises of my work, and my somewhat halting explanation of how I believe that the skills I was teaching for reconciliation were useful for all children. But I had no written guarantee, so she said she’d call the principal.

Her bombshell, though, was suggesting I start the very next day, as exams were over and I could keep the children occupied while their teachers marked papers. I didn’t want to tell her that I hadn’t yet begun on my translations, or even bought the materials, so I smiled and said, “Absolutely!” Then went home and started frantically making a Sinhala powerpoint. Fixing ridiculous Google translations, cutting and pasting a whole bunch of unicode, and pondering over whether something that sounds ok in English sounds downright bizarre in Sinhala was a fairly time-intensive task. It also became mortifyingly apparent how much Sinhala I’ve forgotten since I stopped being taught in it, in 2004. Funny, how you can learn in your so-called mother tongue all your life, and yet, because it wasn’t actually the first language you learned or loved to read and write in, how quickly you can then forget it. It was all a bit horrid, really. I had to stop in the middle because I’d agreed to go see a play that evening with friends, and came back to work until late that night.

On very little sleep, I went back to UKS the next day, to ask when I should come in to do my workshop, only to discover that the principal wasn’t in, and that the vice principal hadn’t heard another from the circuit director. He suggested I come in on Wednesday with the signed letter. I was secretly rather relieved, because there was so much more prep to do, so for the rest of the day I went at it. I spruced up my (at the time) sad-looking B&W presentation to include more colour, did more translations, changed whole sections so that it would serve more as a fun teaser than a “first of five” workshop, and then spent three hours buying materials and getting photocopies (dear goodness, what a slow photocopier!).

Wednesday morning, I woke up before my alarm, and started meticulously packing sheets of paper and related materials into bundles corresponding to each activity (a useful but time-consuming task). We headed over to the circuit director to get my official letter signed…but she wasn’t in again! So we left it there, took a copy of the un-approved letter, and I went back to UKS to see if she had spoken to the principal. He wasn’t in either! We left the letter with the vice principal, who said the principal would be in shortly. I gave him my number, and Lalith (who was my pillar of strength throughout) had the very smart idea of suggesting we leave the small carry-on suitcase chock-ful of materials in the office, reiterating once more how hard I’d worked to put this whole thing together.

It worked like a charm. Barely ten minutes after I got home, I got a call (or rather my mother did, addressed as “putha” by the vice principal, ha!) to come back, because the principal had confirmed that I’d gotten permission to do the workshop.

And so I did.

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