Inspired by ISTE to Use Student Voices in Design Thinking

| By Rivke Pianko

This summer, the DigitalJLearning Network enjoyed the distinct pleasure of taking 16 educators, from 16 different schools, to the 2014 ISTE Conference in Atlanta, GA. We asked each participant to share what they learned with you, our readers, here on our blog. Rivke Pianko (@rivkepianko), a Judaic Studies Teacher and Technology Coordinator at Westchester Hebrew High School and a Jewish Ed Project Young Pioneer winner in 2012, shares her reflections in this seventh installment of our blog series. 

One of my favorite toys growing up was a Mr. Potato Head doll. So when Chris Walsh, in the session on The Power of Do at the 2014 ISTE conference, asked for volunteers to play with the original Mr. Potato Head, my hand quickly shot up. Even though I was not one of the volunteers selected, the activity that he demonstrated has stayed with me since I left the conference.  Instead of the traditional round plastic toy with openings placed in strategic parts of the frame for the various body parts, Chris handed the volunteers an actual potato along with cut up vegetables and instructed volunteers to imagine their own version of a Mr. Potato Head beyond what the toy companies set as the fixed model. Chris’s message was clear: Learning by doing is the only learning that sticks. Throughout the session, Chris encouraged us to imagine what our school would look like if it were modeled after a start-up company. Over and over again he implored us to think of ways to encourage our students to DO learning. In essence, Chris challenged us to change the culture of our schools by utilizing the modes and mindsets set out in design thinking.

The methodology of design thinking is something I am very familiar with due to my participation in the Day School Collaborative Network (DSCN) this past year. My school, Westchester Hebrew High School (WHHS), was one of ten schools invited to participate in the network, where we spent the year learning about the process of design thinking from Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Maya Bernstein and the experts at Upstart Bay Area. We also had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the process by using design principles to work on a project for our schools. Our project focused on redesigning our teachers' lounge to address the need to make teaching a less lonely profession. We successfully utilized the principles of design thinking to create a culture of collaboration and camaraderie among the teachers and the administration at WHHS. 

Therefore, what excited me most about Chris’s session was the inspiration to take design thinking to the next level and introduce the principles to our students. How might we use design thinking when creating and implementing blended learning programs at WHHS?  How might we create a culture where our students can be partners in the process of designing educational programs alongside our faculty and administration? In any blended learning project we work on, we must create a collaborative space and encourage our students to be a part of the process with us. We need to make sure that we are allowing room for their voices and not just encouraging them to adhere to the fixed model we establish for them.

After spending the year immersed in design thinking, I could not help but notice the mindset of design thinking was all around me at the ISTE Conference. Here are a few examples I encountered:

Be Experimental:

“A solution is just a solution” is one of the mantras repeated over and over again during the imagining and prototyping stages of design thinking. Never has this idea felt as real to me as it did while I was walking around the expo center at the ISTE conference. There were so many vendors,  many selling incredibly similar variants of a device, app, or grade management system. Each booth employed its own gimmicks and gave its own reasons as to why its product would revolutionize your school. All I kept thinking was “a solution is just a solution"; there are multiple solutions and they all are good, but they are just solutions.

This point was also repeated at the evening discussion group for the cohort of 16 educators, myself included, brought to the conference by the DigitalJLearning Network (DJLN) with the generous sponsorship of the AVI CHAI Foundation. Gary Hartstein, director of DJLN, explained that successfully incorporating technology into schools is not about buying tools, rather using the tools to meet the goals of your class, students, or school. A solution is just a solution, and it is our job to understand the essential needs of our students and to experiment with various solutions in order to figure out which solution best fits our goals. In order to truly understand the essential needs of our students, we must find a way to include our students in the design process with us.

Be Collaborative:

“Yes, and…” is another mantra found in all of the stages of design thinking. This short statement encourages a culture of collaboration by allowing all ideas to be heard and validated without fear of rejection from another team member. “Yes, and…” also promotes a team mentality, where a diverse group of people are encouraged to work together and not go at the process alone. Throughout my journey in design thinking this year, this was perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned from the experience. The ability to work with a team and count on the strengths of the entire faculty at WHHS was a main factor that contributed to the success of our project.

The concept of “Yes, and…” was evident throughout the conference through the sharing of material and resources from the various conference attendees. For example, DJLN set up a shared Google doc where participants were asked to post resources that they found useful during the conference. Tzvi Pittinsky, the Director of Educational technology at Frisch, set up a shared Google doc and encouraged all participants at the conference to post their notes from various sessions so that everyone could learn from the sessions, even if they were not able to attend. 

Another example of “Yes, and…” took place at the session Two Tablets are Better Than One: Technology and Jewish Education, moderated by Asher Yablok. Jewish educators from schools all over the country were given the time to meet and discuss how they were using technology in their schools. At this session, I was really able to hear about the best practices taking place at other schools, and I had the opportunity to discuss ways that our schools could join forces and work together on similar projects. Similarly, at the DJLN networking dinners and post-dinner conversations, I was able to meet and connect with a variety of teachers. I was fortunate to eat dinner sitting next to Rahel Grebler, a veteran first grade teacher at Yavneh Academy, who shared with me her YouTube channel and videos that she produced for her Hebrew classes. Listening to the passion and excitement in her voice when she described all of the ways she was using technology in her classes to help her students learn was one of the highlights of the conference for me. A culture of “Yes, and…” was clearly visible at the ISTE conference and in the new direction of Jewish education. From my experiences and conversations, it seems we are moving towards a culture of openness and collaboration, and away from each school working alone in a silo.

Be Visceral:

“Show, don’t tell” is an important mantra found in the prototyping stage of design thinking. When looking to obtain buy-in from the various stakeholders involved in a project, it is important to think of ways to show the usefulness of the product. If the product is good, it should speak for itself! This point was highlighted to me by Sabrina Bernath, the chair of the math department at The Frisch School, at the session on Two Tablets are Better Than One: Technology and Jewish Education. When discussing various ways to motivate veteran teachers who are apprehensive about incorporating technology in their classes, Sabrina explained a practice she uses with her faculty. Instead of just telling her faculty the various reasons why an app would be beneficial for student learning, Sabrina invites a student to the department meeting and has the student show the teachers how the app has helped him/her perform better in math class. The teachers do not have to sit and listen to a list of reasons to use the app; instead, they experience the effectiveness of the app directly from one of their own students. They are shown it instead of told about it.

Sabrina’s practice also serves as one solution to the question: how might we create a culture where our students can be partners in the process of designing the programs alongside the faculty and administration? Let’s invite our students to take part in the professional development of the teachers.

Be Human Centered:

“Start with the people” is a mantra found in the immersion stage of design thinking. Dan Coleman, our design thinking coach at WHHS, best describes the immersion stage of design thinking as acting as though we’re aliens in the room who have never experienced the culture of our school before. The immersion stage is all about observing the environment: listening to what the people in the environment are sharing with you, finding ways to empathize with them, and most importantly searching for ways to connect with the people you are trying to help. In my experience this past year, I have found that design thinking is not really about the final product, but it is about the process and the connections that you make with people as you go through the process.

The importance of connecting with people as you go through the process was brought to light at the ISTE Conference when I was participating in the Google for Education Playground session. I received a news alert from the NYTimes informing me that the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar were discovered in Hebron, ending an 18 day search for the missing teenagers. After reading the notification, I looked up and searched the room for someone else with tears in their eyes, but all I saw were enthusiastic teachers interested in learning more about Google apps. As my Facebook feed filled up with stories and messages about the situation in Israel and I received texts from my family living in Israel, I never felt so alone.

Later on in the day I went to the session on Two Tablets are Better Than One: Technology and Jewish Education and walked into a room of near-silence, where a sense of sadness and graveness filled the space. One of the first people I saw in the room was Mrs. Helen Spirn, the Head of School at Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls, my high school alma mater. I went up to her and gave her a hug and just spent a few minutes sitting next to her in silence. It was those few minutes that helped ground me and offered me some comfort after feeling so alone with the news. Even though I graduated high school over 13 years ago, it was that connection with her that helped me when I was dealing with the various emotions of the day.


Perhaps the most important lesson I will take away from the ISTE conference is that technology in education needs to be used as a means to foster connections between people and as a way to promote connections for our students. In order to create these connections, it is imperative that we invite our students to be a part of the design process with us.

I encourage all to take that potato and its parts and use the mindsets of design thinking go out and DO Jewish education.

Related School: