Pickle Hives and Design Thinking

“Babe, I was eating a pickle and it made my feet break out in hives!”

Not quite the greeting I was looking for after an exhausting 14 hour day of work, evening teaching, and traffic, but that’s what welcomed me at home. And sure enough there were giant welts all over his feet.

“Pickles did not give you hives. That’s crazy. You sure you didn’t get bit by an army of baby spiders or something?”

And so it began… the back and forth over the cause, and solution, for the sudden hives.

But I’ll get back to that story in a minute. Because this post is actually about problems. And HMW (How Might We) questions. And goals.

Our leadership team has been digging into culture, and the purpose of school, for a couple years now. Last year was the official first year of our five year plan to transform from a 20th century model of knowledge delivery and compliance to an extraordinary school experience that values the student and his/her inner genius. It was a year filled with first attempts, discoveries, and questions. All of those brought learnings and wonders and even more questions. And through those experiences, we developed a common vision and understanding of the WHY of our five year plan.

While setting the stage for this school year with the superintendent and assistant superintendent, we realized that, in order for the leadership team to dig deeper into the WHAT and the HOW of the plan, the 20th century model of setting goals and yearlong action plans in August wasn’t going to work. That model is based on the premise that the person setting the goals knows the path that needs to be taken, has an understanding of how to reach the destination, and can do so by an arbitrary deadline. Instead, our goal setting process needed to support our learning journey.

After reflecting on the vision of our plan, the purpose of setting goals, and the monumental work that lay ahead of us, we realized this year’s goals needed to center around identifying, understanding, and addressing a problem that was impeding the district vision.

So together, our leadership team identified problems. Some were instructional in nature, while others identified outdated or cumbersome systems and structures that stifled innovative actions.

Once everyone articulated a problem connected to their site and/or department, time was spent developing a HMW statement to begin understanding the problem more deeply. We shared our articulations with each other for feedback, pushback, and refinement.

And then some of us started identifying a problem with our problems.

Turns out, our HMWs had personal hunches embedded within them which was inadvertently skewing them into solution questions instead of problem probing questions. Here’s an example*:

Problem: Lack of student engagement during writing instruction.

HMW: How might teachers provide students with personalized topic choices so as to increase student engagement during writing instruction?

See the hunch?  How do we know personalization is the key to increase the engagement of these identified students? We don’t. It’s a hunch. And that hunch can take us down a road of creating solutions to the wrong problem. Because in reality, personalized topic choices are a potential solution. They could show up on a post-it while ideating. But they shouldn’t have a home in our question.

Once we realized our preconceived solutions sneaking into the problem statement, we pushed more on the problem and the HMW and a second version emerged:

Problem: The Principal has observed a lack of student engagement during writing instruction for a group of 4th grade students.

HMW:How might 4th grade teachers create engaging learning opportunities within the teaching of writing so as to increase students’ active involvement in the writing process?

Now we’re getting somewhere. This question requires empathy-building with the end-user, aka 4th grade students, so as to figure out what may be causing their disengagement. Boredom? Too hard? Too easy? Language barriers? Personal issues? Something else? This version is not based on a hunch, but on a desire to understand and respond accordingly.

This goal-setting approach models a learning-centered culture. One not built on hunches. But on a design thinking mindset, which is pretty darn exciting!


As for John, we learned, after doing some good ol’ Google research, there actually IS such a thing as pickle hives, although it’s technically an allergy to a preservative used in some pickling methods. So maybe his hunch was correct after all. And maybe I should have stayed in the problem space with him a bit instead of jumping to my own conclusion.

(Although I have to say, I think an army of baby spiders is a much cooler end to his story than 2 Benadryls and some calamine lotion…)

*Not a real problem shared during our collaboration, but used here to illustrate what I was trying to say.

You know what’d make me happy? If you shared the link to this post with two friends. I’d be super happy if one of those two subscribed to my posts. Learning together is way more fun than learning on my own.

One Comment on “Pickle Hives and Design Thinking

  1. Great blog post, Laura! I love how John’s experience illustrates the human instinct to find an answer, before we really analyze the right question.


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