Asking Big Questions: Applying Design Thinking to Working with Teens



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We are asking big questions in Boston and we are inviting, encouraging and supporting our teens to ask them with us. This spring a group of teens asked, “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” This was not a question that was handed to them on a piece of paper; this was a question that evolved out of some very meaningful work in the Design Lab pilot.

The Design Lab is an innovative model of teen engagement that is a partnership between the URJ, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Brandeis University Office of High School Programs with partial funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation. It is a wonderful new example of collaboration as we all work together to engage a larger group of teens to delve more deeply into Judaism, and to support and enable them to engage their friends and be co-creators of their own meaningful Jewish experiences. It is an experiment in bringing the principles of Design Thinking to our work with teens. Design Thinking was first articulated and developed by a Silicon Valley design Firm, IDEO, as a framework to design physical objects. However, its applications are growing, and it is now being used in a number of settings as a way to design experiences of all sorts.

Design Thinking is a mode of problem solving that has several steps, including:

  1. Empathize/Understand/Immerse
  2. Frame/Define
  3. Ideate/Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Our belief is that by teaching teens design thinking, and providing them time, space and support, they can and will engage their peers and develop experiences for change in their communities.

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For the pilot this spring we worked with consultants from Upstart Bay Area to help us in our thinking and learning. Our pilot group included teen cohorts from Temple Shir Tikva. Wayland and Temple Emanuel. Newton – two communities who enthusiastically experimented with us. Although the time framework for our pilot did not allow the 18 teen participants to fully answer the question that evolved  – “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” – it did allow time and space for a substantial amount of reflection and learning from one another using the principles and stages of Design Thinking.   Design thinking by nature is often ambiguous, and learning to live with that ambiguity, without a known result, was an important learning for all.  The process is a winding and weaving road, not necessarily visible from the start.  It is a continuous looping through the stages.

Each step of our process was taught and experienced through design “sprints” as well as through deep questioning, exploring and testing of our assumptions. One of the primary tenets of Design Thinking involves developing empathy and understanding (of the “user”) and connecting that empathy and understanding to the design of objects and experiences. In our first meeting we designed wallets. Designing a wallet might sound simple, but as we reflected on our needs for a wallet, then shared our thoughts with a partner and listened to how they used their wallet, the ways in which their wallet could be improved and what their wallet meant to them (many were gifts and had meaning beyond what one could imagine), we were struck by the simplicity with which we had first seen the issue. After deeply exploring the many issues, we began to imagine a new wallet for our partners that truly reflected what we had learned about them.

We followed up by making wallet prototypes for our partners using play dough, pipe cleaners, feathers, glue sticks, yarn, construction paper, duct tap, etc. Very few of the prototypes looked anything like what we had initially assumed a wallet should be. Some had multiple slots, some had places for keys and/or phones to attach, one was built into a pocket of a pair of pants, one had modules that could be taken apart.  That exercise began to truly expand and change the way many in the room viewed designed objects and experiences.

Throughout the five sessions we continued to link back to the issue of spirituality and what that meant to each individual. Participants began to reflect on times, spaces and experiences that felt spiritual and began expanding their thinking about what it means to come of age. The participants filled the room with photos and post-it notes of all colors with thoughts, questions, ideas and musings that related to spirituality.

We also learned a lot about words.  We focused on the concept of “and” rather than “but.” “And” is additive while “but” can be restrictive. In many ways, this related to our learning that it is possible to expand on someone’s idea, rather than to narrow or eliminate it if we thought we had a better idea. We used words like “might” as in “how might we create an experience?” By using the word “might” we did not have to be constrained by practicalities.

The energy, enthusiasm and variety of ideas generated through these exercises were extraordinary. We spent time thinking about ways to create interfaith meals and dialogues into our communities, we expanded our thinking about youth group activities and ultimately focused on an idea called Torah Trek. This is a concept that brings nature and physical movement, among other things, into each Torah portion and ultimately to the B’nai Mitzvah experience.

Although the five sessions allotted and committed to by the participants did not allow enough time to fully flesh out this idea, follow-up to the pilot is an important piece of our model. We are hopeful that a group of these teens will continue to work together with us to apply design thinking to their communities and to continue to develop ideas. We still have many unanswered questions about the best ways to refine and grow this model. However, in keeping with Design Thinking we are OK with that. We know that by continuing to listen, learn, immerse, frame, imagine, prototype and test we will enhance our toolbox in Boston and have an opportunity to greatly impact the community. We are excited about our continuing to work with this group, while simultaneously cultivating a new cohort of teens and communities to work with us, and continuing to ask big questions.

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Margie Bogdanow

About Margie Bogdanow

Margie Bogdanow, L ICSW, serves as a Senior Engagement Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement. In addition, she is a coach, educational consultant and parent educator in the Greater Boston area working with Combined Jewish Philanthropies on a variety of projects involving supplemental education, teen engagement and professional development. In addition, Margie is a member of the Hebrew College Adult Learning Faculty, teaching "Parenting your Teen Through a Jewish Lens".

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