Almanac

Schools - April 24, 2013

Innovative thinking to take center stage at Hillview Middle School

by Renee Batti

Hillview Middle School Principal Erik Burmeister is a true believer in "design thinking" — a process that emphasizes innovation, experimentation and collaboration to learn and to create. He believes so firmly in it that he used the process to redesign Hillview's educational program in a way that he says will help students develop "high-order thinking skills" and an openness to learning.

The specifics of the redesigned program — what the first-year principal is calling "Hillview 3.0" — will be unveiled at presentations on April 24 and 25 in the Menlo Park school's performing arts center.

Although he's waiting until that time to provide details of changes, which will be launched next school year, Mr. Burmeister said the new approach to the educational program would involve longer teaching and learning periods in which students would be immersed in "hands-on, project-based, design-thinking learning opportunities."

At an April 18 program at which the PBS documentary "Extreme by Design" was screened, Mr. Burmeister told the audience that design thinking in the classroom gives kids "permission to think creatively," which means they must also be given permission to make mistakes. "We program them to avoid failing," he said, but without the risk of making mistakes, "they can't imagine what can be."

Mr. Burmeister and other Menlo Park City School District administrators partnered with the Stanford design school, which developed design thinking, to study ways that the concepts can be incorporated into the local schools' programs. At Encinal School, kindergarteners and third-graders are using the process to enhance reading programs, and teachers in all district schools have begun to learn about design-thinking concepts, according to the district.

At the middle school, a team of 18 people — including students, staff and parents — gathered to "imagine what could be" for Hillview. Mr. Burmeister said they called on design-thinking practices, which begin with "empathy" to understand the perspectives and experiences of others.

The next steps in the process are to define the problem or goal, to come up with many possible solutions (ideate, in design-thinking parlance), to create and test prototypes of a solution or program, then to finalize the solution based on feedback. Mr. Burmeister told the Almanac that the team came up with two prototypes, one of which was then chosen for Hillview.

"Beginning in August, it's going to be who we are, what we do, how our curriculum and courses we offer are going to change," he said.

As the team was working on creating prototypes for the program, some Hillview eighth-graders explored design thinking in their flex classes, according to a district statement. "Students tackled wide-ranging projects including 'Designing a Learning Classroom,' 'Wallet Project' and 'Artistic Statistics.'

"The students used the design process to go beyond linear thinking and develop plans and ideas that were new and, as they discovered, challenging to implement. From creating visuals to demonstrate the obesity rates in different countries to creating wallets designed for unique users, the kids tried, failed and tried again."

In the documentary "Extreme by Design," produced and co-directed by Ralph King of Hawkview Pictures, with Kikim Media of Menlo Park, students of the Stanford design school are followed as they work on challenging projects to improve the lives of impoverished people in other parts of the world. One student team struggled with creating a medical device that would give babies in Bangladesh a fighting chance of surviving pneumonia — a common problem in that country.

The students are part of a class called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, which uses design-thinking concepts to collaborate and create solutions.

(Go to extremebydesignmovie.com to see the film trailer.)

The April 24 presentation to unveil Hillview's redesigned program begins at 10 a.m. The April 25 program is set for 6:30 p.m.

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