Making Meaning Out of Empathy & Anything

By: Dan Ryder
This piece was originally posted on See more on design thinking, critical creativity, and evolving education at or contact Dan on Twitter & Instagram or by visiting

This intense Saturday of thinking, learning and creating took place not in a classroom or conference center, not in a library nor a makerspace.

No, these students transformed a Dave and Buster’s function room into a lean start-up, rapid-fire prototype, design sprint incubator by employing growth mindsets, the power of imagination and copious amounts of candy and chicken nuggets.

For this introduction to design thinking, we had provided the students with Post-Its and index cards, manila folders and paper clips, markers and tape, pen and paper — little else. A forty-minute flashlab — how might we bring another joy with a manila folder and four paper clips? — yielded all manner of games and cards, toys and tributes.

However, what truly opened up new pathways and possibilities was the culminating design challenge: hmw design a process/system for students to have more voice in education innovation in our schools? They interviewed one another, learning what matters to one another, asking questions to provoke storytelling and to fuel their own empathy.

And then we told them the materials they could use: anything in the room. Any of the paper and makers and tape and folders, certainly. But more importantly the Smarties and Laffy Taffy, lollipops and suckers strewn across the tables, the pigs in a blanket and sliders, drinking straws and macaroni from the lunch buffet were fare game as well.

A very quick explanation of how a candy wrapper tied to another could represent one student sharing an idea with another was all it took to ignite an hour of incredible making with intention.

  • A chicken nugget car, driven by candied admin with sugary students in the back was fueled by a lollipopped-pentagon, each color representing a stakeholder or key concept to the model.
  • A miniature school built around the stories of others, indicated by doodled faces on candy affixed to manila folder walls, given context by sketchnoted index cards.
  • A system of social media delivery, icons drawn on line-ruled tents, arranged to show a means for all students to have a voice in an accessible, searchable archive of perspectives.
  • And a broader system map, showing how student voices will be aired, carried inside a cocktail weiner toward administrators by a protective, flaky crust, cushioning the ideas against the sharper edge of hamburger policies.

empathyempathyempathyThese were the students ideas made tangible by the stuff around them. Their surroundings became a playground for metaphors and analogy, their critical thinking and deeper understanding senses peaking at the end of a long mid-day Saturday.

“This was tight,” was the greatest bit of feedback I could have heard that day and it let me know something important happened in that barcade turned design lab.

We can fill our spaces with maker carts and art supplies, replenish our bins with recyclable materials and LEGO bricks. And this is fantastic. I do it as well and keep adding Little Bits here and Makey Makeys there.

And sometimes, we can just look around and see powerful understanding half-eaten on a dinner plate, half-forgotten in a backpack.


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