I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

How some “playful and joyous” experiments could spur creative thinking.

Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the “d.school” at Stanford University, opens her new book on sparking innovation with an offbeat suggestion: Many of us, she writes, could benefit now and then from “welcoming a little oddness” into our midst.

In 295 colorfully illustrated pages, Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways offers up dozens of ways to do just that. Many of the examples — culled from the 16 years of experiences that the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design has offered to students, visiting fellows, and others — show the whimsical aura that is part of the school’s identity: Before starting a project, create a “secret handshake” with your new collaborator. Communicate ideas by drawing stick figures along with your words. Get better at giving feedback by practicing first with colleagues, using something inconsequential like a draft vacation itinerary or a haiku you wrote. You get the idea.

After a year and a half of managing from one crisis to the next, college leaders and faculty members may feel too depleted to entertain the sorts of playful approaches Stein Greenberg describes in this book, a collection of essays and exercises with a bit of a workbook vibe mixed in. I can sympathize. After seeing just a glimpse of the d.school’s methods on a personal tour two summers ago, and taking in the deeper exposure my colleague Lee Gardner described four years ago, I confess I still flinch a little when I hear “design thinking.”

And yet. Considering the pain of the last 18 months and the obstacles ahead, I also can’t imagine a more important time for more-creative approaches to higher ed’s challenges. As Stein Greenberg put it, the changes wrought by the pandemic — among them, greater flexibility in teaching techniques, greater adoption of a distributed work environment, and greater empathy for the needs of students — have left colleges at a precipice. Those adaptations create conditions “extremely ripe” for innovation, she said. “We have to seize that right now.”

Stein Greenberg also makes a compelling case for the “playful and joyous” approaches the d.school has been championing, like the secret handshake or building several prototypes of an ideal chair using tools like cardboard, pipe cleaners, and chewing gum and toothpicks. After so many months of loss and social deprivation, she told me last week, “those elements are more important than ever.”

Creative Acts is a fun and thought-provoking read and, as designed, a low-cost and user-friendly way to introduce the d.school philosophy to many more people than could possibly take its classes in person (It’s one of a series of a dozen books the school is producing). As I’ve been reading, I find myself wondering which design-thinking approaches might be particularly useful to higher-ed leaders right now — and why they’d be relevant. I asked Stein Greenberg about that, and here’s some of what she told me:

If you wonder what skills or creative “muscles” are most crucial for this moment ... Top line, Stein Greenberg said, is “being able to solve problems you haven’t seen before.”

One way to do that, she said, is to hone “the art and skill of noticing what’s around you.” (For that she recommended the “Expert Eyes” exercise, which involves observing a neighborhood at first by yourself and then several more times with different “experts,” to note how the observations differ.) Another is to quickly explore many potential far-reaching solutions. For that, Stein Greenberg suggested “prototyping in parallel,” modeling a series of different versions of ideas while inviting outsiders’ feedback. “In a time of great change,” she said, it’s important to test ideas in today’s world. And to have the greatest success in that, she added: “You need to get out of your own head.”

If you’re rebounding from what we missed during so much social isolation ... Some of the greatest losses, Stein Greenberg said, came from “fewer opportunities for creative accidents.” So many personal and professional interactions could take place only by plan, and, as she noted, “it’s hard to schedule serendipity.”

We can’t necessarily recover those missed chances at unexpected exposures and stimulation those can offer. But even some of the simplest techniques — like the d.school’s pandemic-era practice of starting virtual staff meetings by randomly assigning people to small breakout rooms for short icebreakers — offer some semblance of that casual connection.

Do you want to build on some of the benefits of quarantine? For many, due to job and personal demands, the last 18 months weren’t a period of withdrawal. Yet for millions of people, that was their experience, and during that time, Stein Greenberg noted, “a lot of people really took stock.” She hopes they continue to remember how good it felt “when they had more time to think.”

Even when we feel like we have less time again (for her, that will be when she has to fully resume her two-hour commute), she hopes more thinking becomes a habit. It’s “the kind of reflection you should be doing in any creative work,” she said.

Not sure how to square “playful” exercises — or the whole philosophy — with the urgent needs of the times? With financial and political pressures closing in, it’s easy to imagine higher-ed leaders finding these d.school ideas more of a distraction than a help. That could be shortsighted, Stein Greenberg said. “If what you’re looking for is innovation, that does take time,” she told me. When you’re developing an idea without the exploratory stage, “it’s actually very unlikely to be innovative.”

Many of the d.school exercises are tactile: building models out of cardboard (at the school’s home digs in Palo Alto, cardboard is strongly preferred over 3D printers and other high-tech tools) or illustrating a process with index cards paper clipped to a length of string. Those things might seem silly to a college president (or a reporter). But Stein Greenberg said “the act of physicalizing” triggers a different response than just hearing or reading about something.

Key to all, she said, is finding ways to “let your brain relax.”

Intrigued? I hope you can plug in next month online for the three-day Chronicle Festival: The Ideas Shaping Higher Ed, where on November 18, I’ll be exploring some of these approaches with Stein Greenberg and an alum of the d.school’s Innovation Fellows program, Dean Chang, an associate vice president at the University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

To prepare myself, I’ll be trying out a “Micro-Mindfulness” exercise Stein Greenberg recommended as a brain relaxer: for one morning, pausing each time I enter a doorway to take a breath and notice the transition from one space to another — and later writing what I discovered. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Be a contestant in our special festival “shark tank”?

As part of the Chronicle Festival, on Day 2 (November 17), we’re inviting you to put your student-success ideas to the test in a special, Shark Tank-style panel.

This will be a variation on the Shark Tank: Edu Edition we’ve traditionally hosted at SXSW EDU (typically in person but virtually the last time we did it). Next month, my fellow sharks will be Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, and Greg Fowler, president of University of Maryland Global Campus.

Got an idea — proven or theoretical — for a better way for colleges to support students to graduation? Ready to showcase it before our panel of “sharks”? Send a short email proposal to ci@chronicle.com to be considered with “Shark Tank” in the subject line.

Recommended reading.

Here are some education stories from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to spend $2 billion over the next decade to accelerate inclusion and equity efforts throughout the academic-science pipeline — from programs at community colleges to supports to enhance researchers in the professoriate. As one scientist said in an analysis in STAT News, “This could make a dent in things.”
  • In an op-ed in The Hill, student-aid scholar Beth Akers argues that instead of reforming the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, policy makers should kill it altogether. “Just pay these critical professions more,” she wrote, “either through heightened wages for public employees or tax credits for those in the private sector.”
  • An overhaul of state student-aid programs in Mississippi will result in more grants to more students, but advocates for low-income and Black students told Mississippi Today that the changes will result in “a massive transfer of resources from non-white students to white students.”

Please join me this Thursday for a virtual forum on “College to Career, Post-Pandemic.”

Colleges are rethinking how to help students get relevant experience to prepare for life after graduation. With an expert panel, I’ll be exploring how the college-to-career path is changing as higher ed and the economy continue to recover — and taking your questions. The panelists are Kelly Harper, manager of the Career Center at Cincinnati State; Marcie Kirk Holland, executive director of the Internship & Career Center at the University of California at Davis; Bill H. Means, director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Florida A&M University; and Jeffrey Moss, founder and chief executive at Parker Dewey. Sign up here to take part live at 2 p.m. Eastern time, or watch later on demand.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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