Education Opinion

An “Extraordinary” Approach to Bringing Design into Any Classroom

By Beth Holland — September 22, 2016 3 min read
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In his 2009 book, Catching Up or Leading the Way, author Yong Zhao argues that students need to engage in creative problem solving across the curriculum to develop the skills required for success in a global economy. However, most curriculum primarily focuses on student acquisition of content knowledge and then assesses them based on their ability to reproduce a single response -- a practice which does little to encourage creativity and problem solving. Johns Hopkins University researchers, Gregory, Hardiman, Yarmolinskaya, and Limb (2013) insist that creativity needs to be explicitly taught in schools. By asking students to provide multiple, varied responses to questions; encouraging idea generation and brainstorming; making students justify their solutions and provide alternative rationales; and providing collaborative opportunities, teachers can foster students’ creativity, divergent thinking, and adaptive expertise (Gregory et al., 2013).

While this can sound great in theory, what does it look like in practice? If both students, and teachers, need prior mental models on which to base new knowledge and understanding, or scaffolds to support their thinking (Gregory et al., 2013), how are they supposed to gain this initial experience? In many ways, the recent rise in Design Thinking and Project Based Learning could be attributed to these questions.

A few months ago, John Umekubo - Director of Technology at St. Matthew’s Parish School in California - introduced me to an “extraordinary” solution to this challenge. Both teachers and students could gain that valuable initial experience through the Extraordinaire’s Design Studio. This tool encourages participants to deeply understand a character, seek out a problem, brainstorm, and then design a unique solution. Each design kit includes a series of cards: characters, inventions, gadgets, and think-cards. When used in the classroom, it creates a self-contained activity that serves as a catalyst for beginning the design process. Sabba Quidwai provides an excellent overview of both the game as well as how it supports the Design Thinking process in the video below.

By using the Extraordinaire’s Design Studio, teachers can focus on the processes of engaging in creative problem solving and design without having to focus explicitly on their curriculum. The kit provides guidance and instruction as well as the tools to spark student curiosity and scaffold interdisciplinary projects. In fact, the new Extraordinaire’s Education site provides additional teacher resources, activities, and articles to bring play and design into any curriculum.

In his 2013 book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao further calls for a paradigm shift in schools, “from one that prepares employees to one that cultivates innovative entrepreneurs so creative entrepreneurs are not simply an accidental outcome but the result of deliberate design.” Bringing the Extraordinaires into the classroom could represent one small step in this shift as students assume an active role in the key elements of creative problem solving: problem identification, information searching, solution generation, and idea evaluation (Carmeli, Sheaffer, Binyamin, Reiter-Palmon, & Shimoni, 2013).


Carmeli, A., Sheaffer, Z., Binyamin, G., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Shimoni, T. (2013). Transformational leadership and creative problem-solving: The mediating role of psychological safety and reflexivity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 48(2), 115-135. doi:10.1002/jocb.43

Gregory, E., Hardiman, M., Yarmolinskaya, J., Rinne, L., & Limb, C. (2013). Building creative thinking in the classroom: From research to practice. International Journal of Educational Research, 62, 43-50. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2013.06.003

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