The essential core of any true Design Thinking exercise is empathy – having the ability to see the problem through the eyes of the user first, the creative genius second. In the best of both words, the user experience and the creative genius come together to create something of an invisible success. Take, for instance, the system of waiting lines to board Disney World rides. No one deserves more empathy than people who stand in line—with children—for an hour simply to experience a four-minute ride.
If it sounds like I’m speaking from personal experience…whoo boy, am I ever! I’m just now returning from a family trip—which included boys both seven and four years old—in which we visited all four of Disney’s hallmark parks – the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. As an educator, and a progressive one at that, I should know and recognize when I’m deeply immersed in the product of some design thinking undertaking. But it wasn’t until the end of the first day that I truly awoke to the successful experiment that had been built around my park experience; an experiment that at the same time had to benefit each and every other park-goer.
Let’s flash back for a moment to my own teendom. Growing up in Stone Mountain, GA, I frequented Six Flags several times over any summer. And I can vividly, and somewhat embarrassedly, recall having made—how should I put this—flirtatious overtures to a similarly-aged female attendee who I kept passing in the corals of the Great American Scream Machine. Alas, said overtures we’re not well received and I found myself having to pass this young lady what seemed like an exceptional number of additional times as the infinite switchback to the ride continued.
What’s my point? As I was—back in modern days—waiting to board Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, it occurred to me that in 30 minutes of waiting, I’d rarely seen the same person twice. The line had been configured in a series of short and long switchbacks, some running north-south, some east-west, some wrapping around fictitious train schedules or faux steam vents. I don’t imagine that the line designers were trying to solve the problem of teenage angst, but were at least tackling the simply boredom that comes with having to see the same combination of nuclear families over and over again. They’ve tapped into the sublime beauty of people watching.
If there were one ride that I think best employed a design-thinking based empathetic approach to waiting, it was Expedition Everest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. While snaking one’s way toward the actual coaster, the rider is presented with a story—presented through museum artifacts, Sherpa biographies, and fake advertisements for canned food—about what it takes to hike Everest, what obstacles one might face—including the potential of a Yeti attack—on such a journey. As much as this is designed to elongate the riding experience; as a father, it also provided me with the opportunity to have long, engaged conversations with my sons about why people undertake dangerous challenges, the basis of cultural myths (like Yeti, Bigfoot, and Chupacabra), what to make of the creative combination of fiction and nonfiction, and—given the timing—the devastation that the recent Nepalese earthquake has had upon the region. I had taken my sons out of school for the week—something I myself wrestled with. But, and I’m not being trivial, the waiting experience at Expedition Everest solidified for me that there are as many opportunities for learning outside of school as there are inside. We may not have traveled to Katmandu, but my seven-year-old was genuinely intrigued by the information being shared while waiting as he was exhilarated by the coaster itself.
This is a long way of getting to the point that—as we’ll expound through Traverse—the future of learning won’t be happening in school, but rather will be happening anywhere one chooses to see the teaching and learning moment. And master educators, whether they be practitioners or theme-park designers, will recognize blank space as the canvas for exploration that it truly is. This notion is not only at the core of Traverse, but also the organization that I work with. Big Picture Learning believes that all learning opportunities should not only be built around students’ interests, but that they should take place in equal parts the classroom and the real world. This is not “real-world learning” insomuch as students are presented with scenarios that look and feel like the real-world. It’s real-world learning insomuch as students literally leave the school two days of every week to work and learn alongside masters of craft. This is the notion of Elliot Washor’s (Co-Founder of Big Picture Learning) Leaving to Learn.
We already know that many students are already leaving the classroom, the school, to learn. For some, it’s because they’ve already mastered all that a traditional education can afford them. For others, it’s because obstacles in life force them to make difficult choices. For most, it’s simply because there’s a lack of engagement in the learning process. Traditionally, our job as educators has been to try and mitigate the leaving to learn (or: drop-out) effect. But perhaps its high time we empathize with what causes students (and adults) to leave to learn, and adapt accordingly.
This is what Traverse is all about. While the beautiful Watershed school will, in many respects, serve as our anchor, we will—quite quickly—leave the school environment to learn what the off-campus world has to offer. It just so happens we’ll have the exceptional sandbox of Boulder, Colorado, to play in.
But as beautiful as Boulder is, it too is not without its lines. To get the next microbrew or coffee. To drive out of town on a Friday evening. To run up the Flatirons’ single-track on a particularly glorious Colorado summer afternoon. But once we realize that the line itself can be part of the experience, we better understand the opportunity for learning that surrounds us, at all times, in infinite directions.
Traverse IDEAS are curated by members of the Traverse community: featured speakers, expedition guides, partners, and attendees passionate about preparing a new generation of innovators and problem-solvers.
Traverse 16 is for innovative educators. Happening in Boulder June 6-8, 2016, participants will connect, explore, and experience new ways of teaching and learning firsthand.