Bringing the Invention Cycle to Design Thinking

Imagination leads to creativity.
Creativity leads to innovation.
Innovation leads to entrepreneurship.
~ Tina Seelig

Engaging in the Design Thinking process is a human-centered approach to creative problem solving. Regardless of what you call the stages of the process, or how you draw the progression, at its core is a belief that people can make the(ir) world a better place by engaging in divergent thinking practices. What is sometimes missing in the implementation of design thinking, especially in the classroom, is an understanding of how ideas develop and take shape. Enter Stanford University Professor Tina Seelig, who teaches a creativity course at Stanford, and her book Creativity Rules. 

1_pVd4Ieg64ETU6a_xzR5lNASeelig’s book focuses on the four components of the Invention Cycle: imagination, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Imagination is envisioning things that do not exist. It requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives. Creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge. Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address a challenge. Innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions through focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions. And Entrepreneurship, which requires persistence and the ability to inspire others, is applying innovation, scaling ideas, and thereby inspiring others’ imagination.

When considering the Invention Cycle, it’s important to understand how the four components build upon each other. As Seelig explains, imagination requires curiosity, engagement, and the ability to conceive of ideas in your mind. Creativity then fills a specific need and are manifest in the world. With creativity, new ideas only need to be new to the creator, and not the world. However, with innovation, the ideas are new to the world, not just the inventor. Therefore, the world must be looked at from a fresh perspective by challenging assumptions, reframing situations, and connecting ideas from disparate disciplines. Once the innovative idea is developed, it is entrepreneurship that brings the unique ideas to scale.

Because Design Thinking is focused on problem solving, and not selling a new product, entrepreneurship is not called out as part of the process, although it does fit in the test/feedback stage. Spencer and Juliani noted in Launch that marketing skills help students learn how to share their work with an authentic audience. Building on that principle. then, entrepreneurial skills teach students how to go beyond simply sharing the work and actually bring an idea to fruition. Seelig explains:

It’s a crime not to teach people to be entrepreneurial. We’re each responsible for building our own lives and for repairing the broader problems of the world. Skills related to innovation and entrepreneurship are the keys to seeing and seizing those opportunities. People should emerge from school with agency, feeling empowered to address the opportunities and challenges that await them.

According to thought leaders, the advances in technology are moving us towards an  imagination economy. This economy is defined as one in which “intuitive and creative thinking create economic value, after logical and rational thinking has been outsourced to other economies.” Looking at the Invention Cycle as a transparent layer atop the Design Thinking process, it becomes even more evident that we do our students a huge disservice if we do not provide meaningful ways for them to develop their imaginative, creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial skills. Like all soft (but critical!) skills, these can be developed and are critical to students (and their teachers), regardless of their career paths.

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Launching into Design Thinking

I read Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student when it first came out, but at the time, it wasn’t as relevant to the work I was doing as Director of Educational Technology. In that role, I was not able to fully immerse myself in transforming classroom learning practices.  However, in my new role, Design Thinking plays a huge role in bringing our core principles of student agency, collaboration, personalization, and cultural intelligence to life. Therefore, I decided to crack the book open one more time and look for nuggets of wisdom I could share with teachers partaking in the revolution to making learning relevant, meaningful, and deep.

From “Getting Started with Design Thinking in the Classroom” blog post by John Spencer

“Creativity is a process that requires structure. The word structure gets a bad rap as being part of some sort of rigid process that takes away from authentic and creative learning. That’s simply not the case” (p. 23).
For teachers new to Design Thinking, they often jump to connecting it to makerspaces, which may then trigger images of students building cardboard arcades and toilet paper roll robots. For others, it triggers anxiety around loss of time management, or no academic instruction. But when design thinking is used with intention, structures such as thinking routines, time constraints, and feedback loops support students through the process.

“Too many educators believe they lost their creativity – or that they were never creative in the first place. Maybe they stopped creating because they didn’t think they had the time, energy, or mental capacity for new ideas. We don’t buy it. Not creating is a choice – and a poor choice at that. And in truth, every time you come up with a new idea for a lesson, you are creating. Every time you think of a way to handle that super-challenging student, you are creating. Every time you collaborate with a colleague, design your classroom, set up the desks in a new way, or do something different – you are creating!” (p. 31)
Honestly, I think this is the most important paragraph in the book. We often talk about the need to empower students with the soft skills needed for success, and creativity is one of those skills. But what we neglect to consider is that, for many teachers, creativity was stifled under No Child Left Behind, Program Improvement, and other high stakes accountability system. They lost their mojo, so to speak. So as we encourage them to open the doors to new experiences for students, we need to also remind them of the creative nature they already posses and find ways to nurture their innate abilities.

“Creative classrooms are the ones where students are able to question answers as often as they answer questions” (p. 100). And along those lines, “You cannot empower students to be self-directed, responsible, critical-thinking people if they can’t ask their own questions. At that point, you’re teaching compliance rather than responsibility” (p. 106).
In a previous district, we spent three years of instructional rounds looking for effective questioning strategies. This focus meant that a lot of our energy was spent watching for teacher moves that provided opportunities for multiple student voices; observing DOK levels of the questions asked; and watching for a variety of ways in which students respond to the questions. What was missing from this entire dialogue was the opportunity for students to feel empowered to ask their own questions, to dig into meaning that was relevant to them.

Other items I appreciated in the book:

John and AJ discuss how empathy is not always about a specific audience. Sometimes, industry designers base their work on awareness, which can involve empathy, but may also include “a personal awareness of a process, a system, or a phenomenon. [It] can be scientific or artistic, social or economic, human centered or systems centered” (p. 69). Opening empathy up to a broader context helps teachers and students better identify the purpose for engaging in the design thinking process.

When I attended Harvard’s Project Zero last summer, I was fortunate to meet and learn from Edward Clapp, a Project Zero Project Director. Clapp discusses the biography of an idea, which John and AJ mention in their book as well. They quote Clapp:

“What if instead of telling the biographies of individuals who are widely seen as creative geniuses, we tell the biography of the ideas that they are most known for? For example, what if instead of telling the biography of Albert Einstein, we told the biography of the Special Theory of Relativity? We would tell the biography of that idea, highlighting all the different players who have historically participated in the development of that idea, the different roles those individuals have played, and the different twists and turns that idea has taken as it has wended its way to the world” (p. 147-8).

“Seven Reasons Why Kids Should Learn Marketing” is something I had not considered. Sure, we do elevator pitches with students and talk about audience awareness, but John and AJ write that students who learn marketing from a marketer’s perspective “grow as critical consumers while learning what it means to share their work with an authentic audience” (p.197). Their reasons why, which include learning about rejection and growing in creative confidence, also support the soft skill acquisition students need to succeed in the world.


For the teacher who is dabbling in design thinking, or PBL, or genius hour, this book provides strategies and examples that will build teacher confidence in the process while engaging students in meaningful work. I appreciate the website connection which provides tangible projects, structures, and questions to guide teachers through design thinking. It’s a nice gateway before digging into the world of IDEO, Stanford, and others.

Learn more about the work we are doing with Design Thinking on our website:

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote book jacketI have to admit, part of the reason I picked up this book at the library was to joke with my daughter. One of the things she will tell you about me is that I am anything but overly peppy or bubbly. It’s not that I am negative, or a “Debbie Downer.” I consider myself more of a realist who likes to look at all potential outcomes of a situation. So when I saw this book displayed on the bookshelf, I thought it’d be a great kick off to my 2018 reading list.

And it truly was. Burkeman, a journalist and author, sets out in this book to explore the negative path to happiness. Motivational seminars and self-help positive affirmation books can actually lead to less happiness. Through his research of various psychologists, philosophers, and religions “…it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”

You know, maybe I should just let this video explain it:

Some specific quotes that jumped out at me:

“The effort to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

“Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle, negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”

“Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All to often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best.”

“A person who has resolved to ‘think positive’ must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts – there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation – yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.”

“But sometimes you simply can’t make yourself feel like acting. And in those situations, motivational advice risks making things worse, by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal. The subtext is that if you can’t make yourself feel excited and pleased about getting down to work, then you can’t get down to work.”

“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

What it means to me

IMG_8773.jpgI just keep thinking about the anxiety levels of my daughter leading in to her high school final exams. She was a miserable human being. I saw more tears in a 7 day span than I had probably seen the past year. And I wonder if it’s because our current society focuses so much on positive thinking and goals and “you can do it.” Her fear of not doing “it” was crippling her. Had she been exposed to negative thinking, she would have been able to see that the worst-case scenario (failing the test) would have resulted in maybe a B in a class. And truly, in the grander scheme of things, is that B worth the anxiety she put herself through? (She passed, by the way, and maintained her straight A record…)

Are we teaching students resilience? Are we teaching them how to cope with failure? Or are we just piling on the gold stars for everything they do? Embracing a growth mindset does not mean ceaseless optimism. It means wiping the dirt off our knees when we fall and looking for a plan B… or C.. or maybe even a Plan W.  But does it also mean asking students to consider what’s the worst that could happen if it doesn’t work out? Are we helping students to see that their life is NOW or are we always talking to them about “one day” and “in [next grade/school/etc] you’ll need to know this…” When we talk about goal setting, how do we frame it? “There’s a real benefit to finding ways to loosen our grip as goal driven people. When you look at successful entrepreneurs…you find they don’t follow this stereotype.” Instead, Burkeman says, we should remain ready to adapt where we are heading and embrace the uncertainty that scares us.

Maybe that should be added to my one word 2018… can I commit to uncertainty? What are your thoughts on this?

A full review of the book via The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman – review | Books | The Guardian

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