Creative Coffee Morning


My in-person creative coffee morning (“CCM”) meeting ended in 5 minutes as friends rushed off to their kids weekend activities, so the assignment became an exercise in creative connections.  I relied on LinkedIn and made connections through keyword searches (e.g. “ design thinking”  ” designing learning spaces”) and group membership (e.g. Designing Thinking Group).

I posed this question to new connections:   How can schools create learning spaces to foster creativity and innovation, and allow for productive collaboration?


Kevin Tumlinson

First, it has to start with a fundamental shift in how students are taught. There needs to be an evolution toward discovery education, rather than content-oriented education. The best way to look at this is as a difference between pedagogy and andragogy.

Both are methods of educating people, but as their Greek routes indicate, pedagogy is the method of educating children and andragogy is the method of education adults. There are fundamental differences in how we approach each, but the gist is that when you’re teaching adults, you have to teach them the “why” of what they’re learning, or it won’t stick. If an adult takes an auto mechanics class, for example, you would have to teach them why it’s necessary to put oil in an engine, rather than just give them the facts (the content). Saying “oil goes in the engine” isn’t enough. You have to tell an adult why.

We don’t use that method with children, at present. We give students facts about what they’re studying, and then require them to memorize those facts and repeat them at a later date. There’s vastly more to our education system than this, obviously, but at its core, that’s what we’ve built. Our current public school system was created in response to the Industrial Age, when it was important to get people prepare for factory jobs. Knowing “why” something had to happen was less important than knowing how to do something in precise and repeatable order.

So to foster design thinking in the classroom, we have to start first with implementing an andragogy approach to teaching. We have to start encouraging students to ask “why,” and we have to start supplying them with the means and methods of figuring out the “why” for themselves.

Second step—we have to create a space where it’s not only ok for students to make mistakes and messes, it’s encouraged.
Setting up a learning space that fosters creativity and innovation is going to necessarily start with getting students to put their hands on things, to try something new and untested, and to have all the materials and tools on hand to do so. The perfect environment for this is going to be a large, open space that’s supplied with materials, tools, safety equipment, and knowledgable staff who can answer questions and encourage progress.

I’m a fan of “maker spaces” or “hacker spaces.” These are essentially workshops and labs, usually pulled together by people who like to tinker and build and learn. Back in the early days of microcomputers, these spaces were part of the home-brew computer movement. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates all came from this environment, where a bunch of people got together and contributed parts and materials, as well as knowledge and experience, so that everyone could collaborate and experiment together.

Colossal, huge, epic failures come out of these spaces. And those are IMPORTANT. In fact, it’s more important for students to fail at their experiments than to succeed, because that’s where they actually start learning things. The staff is there to encourage them by getting them to ask, “Why didn’t that work? Why did I get that result?”
These spaces also have to be highly collaborative. Students have to be given a chance to teach what THEY know to other students. The fastest way to learn something and cement it in your brain is to teach it to someone else. So encouraging students to teach others what they’re learning through their experiments and successes and failures is a force multiplier for growth. Innovation comes as students realize what they’ve built, why it worked or didn’t work, and how they can improve it.

This all applies to “softer” topics as well. Writing labs, in which students can write something collaboratively, sharing and shaping their work together, are highly effective for improving communication skills. Getting instant and immediate feedback as you write is a dream for almost every writer I know (myself included!). It’s like having a sharpening stone handy at all times, helping you hone a razor’s edge on your skills.

The short and sweet answer to how to build a learning space: Create an environment that provides lots of materials, give basic guidance, and let students make as many mistakes as possible.

Design Thinking really boils down to synthesizing ideas and concepts from the world around you. It starts with a “what if,” like “What if I could write on this piece of paper and the words would show up on my smartphone?”

The next step is rapid prototyping. The student would take that idea and build something that they can use to show what they mean by it. This is the rudimentary stuff, not the final product. So they could have a notepad and a pen with a photo of their work on the screen of a smartphone, and that would serve.

Then they move to research. What’s out there that does this sort of thing already? How does it work? Can that be boiled down into something simple and replicable?

Then they build a more advanced prototype, maybe even a working model.

And this may seem counter intuitive, but the best possible result is that they fail at what they’re trying. The goal should be to fail as often as possible, because every iteration is a new way to think about it, and something new to learn. They’ll pick up ideas and skills and knowledge that may or may not help them with THIS project, but could very well help them innovate on the next. “I tried this on my last project and it didn’t work. But it might help here.”

And that’s it. That’s how companies like IDEO churn out brilliant ideas and concepts for their clients. They collaborate, they dream, they prototype, they research, they build. Repeat.

Michael Manoogian—

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) never “taught” me a thing. The professors knew how to bring out of you whatever creativity you did have. They did a good job. You could always go to a “trade school” and learn that red and yellow make orange. Or you could experiment yourself and see what wonders you could create. That way you’ll learn that not only do red and yellow make orange but look at ALL the shades of orange they can also make. You apply that kind of thinking to any areas of design and you may just create the next “wheel.” And just by wondering out loud and exploring and experimenting. Sometimes it comes as a happy surprise when you hit it. But you also have to recognize IT when you do hit it. It’s the old story of the monkey that types out E=mc squared. It’s meaningless because he doesn’t recognize it as anything important.


1)  Create an environment that provides lots of materials, give basic guidance, and let students make as many mistakes as possible (e.g. Maker Spaces / Hacker Spaces / Writing Labs)

2)  Colossal, huge, epic failures are IMPORTANT

3)  The space should help bring out of you whatever creativity you have inside of you.



1)  Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” from IDEO

2)  Creative Problem Solving MOOC on Coursera


1) Join the Creative Coffee Morning Group in Chicago and attend the October meeting (as the group isn’t meeting in September) .

2) Try another local meeting with teachers and librarians





  1. Hi James, Like me you came up with a creative solution. The two people whose responses you have cited provide interesting and thought provoking material. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to check out the Linked In creative conversations you suggested to me via Linked In but I certainly intend to do so as soon as I get a minute to breathe!
    The IDEO toolkit is one of the literature pieces I used for my critique. Free download and a clearly spelt out process. I am also enjoying reading Dan Brown’s book: Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Collins. It covers lots of different case studies and there are heaps of short sections that give me ah ha moments

  2. Jim – that’s creative – using your LinkedIn connections. Your first, Kevin, is a fan of Maker spaces. I tinker in that area in my library space, and I agree with Kevin’s comments about creating the environment. [My library space needs some serious design thinking – that’s in action now.].

    Look forward to hearing of your attendance at the Chicago creative Coffee Morning…

  3. Love it James – great use of Linked In – I too had to use a social media type appropriate to my audience (Facebook), I agree a lot with Kevin – as I am in the business of educating adults also. I see the opposite crossover – teaching a technical subject requires a more pedagogy approach – heres a bunch of information but no ‘why’
    is apparent – funnily enough the ‘why’ becomes a dissemination of their network DESIGN – there’s that word again -cropping up everywhere!

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