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International Service Learning Trips are Good Things, Right? - Laura Labb

International Service Learning Trips are Good Things, Right? - Laura Labb

Statistics tell us that 80% of Notre Dame students participate in some sort of service learning during their time at the university. In our class on “International Development and Design Thinking”, the number would be 100%.  We could all relate to the topic of service learning, especially in an international context, and how service opportunities can be analyzed for their sustainability as well as their accountability to the communities they serve. 

However,  controversy arose when we tried to quantify the change being made by these service trips. We intentionally provoked students to think critically about service learning through readings and videos that challenged the idealization of international volunteering, suggesting that there are scenarios in which more harm is being done than good. For instance, imagine a scenario in which volunteers distribute vitamins to malnourished children. 

At first glance, this seems to be a good, even a great, thing. However, follow-up with these communities may reveal that children ate all of the vitamins in one sitting and became constipated because of lack of instruction. Or, parents will choose to purchase vitamins in the future instead of other medications, which could have been more beneficial. The hidden “side effects” of these service trips are very rarely discussed, so we took this opportunity to ask students to consider their own experiences. Drawing on their own reflections, we then asked students how different aspects of their own service experiences could fit into three general models in the form of a stop sign:

Red: service made them stop and think if what they were doing was “right”
Yellow: service may have been sustainable, but unclear/ don’t know
Green: service brought long term change
We inspired conversations about how service can be beneficial, and what to beware of in the future when doing service. However, our imperfect analogy of the stoplight forced restrictions onto a topic that is by no means black and white. The blurred lines that exist between the red, yellow, and green muddled our ability to reduce projects to be totally good or totally bad. For instance, a classmate noted that while she had experience working with organizations that served vulnerable children, it was difficult to pinpoint what exact aspects of these organizations made some better than others.

 It is important to consider different components of the same project individually, and to analyze them separately in terms of impact. Additionally, the sustainability of a project is difficult to define. If you have created a meaningful relationship with one person while there, does that count as having a sustainable impact, even if it is only one person? How many people do you need to impact to “make a difference”? Additionally, what is even considered short-term for service trips? A week? A month? A year? 

I believe that my biggest take-away from planning and executing this class is the importance of considering the assumptions and the restrictions of certain topics. For instance, when we introduced the activity, we assumed that the class knew what we meant by a “green” scenario, when in reality we had not even begun to discuss the parameters of sustainable change. Additionally, we learned that certain aspects of service could not be restricted to just a red, yellow, or green, but that there existed a sliding scale of impact in which service can create both positive and negative change at the same time. 

With this in mind, if we were to continue our conversation from class, I would begin by first discussing what we considered sustainable change and how to determine if service has a positive impact. Then, I would tweak our stoplight model to reflect the blurred lines and eliminate binds to “good” and “bad” labels. From here, I would hope to be able to develop our own ideas about what aspects of service lead to sustainable change. This would generate a mindset for our classmates when entering a service learning project that is conscious of the impact of their work.

 If students are more mindful and critical of service, then contributions to sustainable change are possible e through the service learning model.


“Facing the Fear of Failure”: Practicing What You Teach - Emily Pohl

“Facing the Fear of Failure”: Practicing What You Teach - Emily Pohl

I’ve had my share of failures:bad tests, cringe-worthy interviews, and failing to overcome hurdles (literally, as I plummeted to the ground face-first not once, but twice in my first hurdle race). While many focus on the topic of avoiding or learning from “failure,” what is often overlooked is the paralyzing  effects of the fear of failure itself.

Learning to translate failures to success is critical but to begin, one must first overcome the barrier of fear by daring to fail.When my group and I were asked to “co-create” and teach a class on a “design-thinking” topic, we looked to the problem-solving process for inspiration and realized that the common thread that united all challenges was this fear to failure. Using this concept, our presentation took shape around two key questions:

1.     Why and how should one dare to fail?

2.     How can one evolve from failure towards success?

We looked at failure through a new lens: viewing the doubt and anxiety attached to the “fear of failure” as powerful motivators rather than inhibitions. After reframing failure as a foundation for change and preface for success, we encouraged our classmates to approach failure unconventionally—looking at it not as an outcome, but as skill to be practiced and developed.

We challenged our classmates to test this method and asked them to attempt to complete a set of 10 “rejection therapy” cards, each detailing a small task or action that essentially setting them up to “practice failure”:

  1. Ask your roommate to pick out your outfit for a day

  2. Ask the Starbucks barista to let you make a drink  

  3. Ask NDSP, the campus police force, for a ride to class

  4. Ask someone on a lunch date or friendship date

  5. Ask 5 strangers to tie your shoes

  6. Ask (anybody) to give you a tour of The Huddle (the small campus grocery store)

  7. Go to a club meeting that you’ve never been to before-challenge yourself to participate (even if you have no idea what’s going on)

  8. Ask to audit a class with a topic you’re interested in or know nothing about

  9. Ask to stay for free at the Morris Inn

  10. Try to arrange a meeting with the University President—Fr. John Jenkins, CSC

Co-teaching on a topic as salient as failure naturally led to an intriguing and interactive class discussion in which I saw my own topic from new angles. However, the challenge remained: could I practice what I preached?—Could I constrain my fear of failure through the process of actively failing and could I draw insights from this process?  

Challenge #1: To start my journey into failure, I chose the task that I knew would spark an eager and ruthless response—ask your roommate to pick out your outfit for a day. The result was as follows:

While my outfit did prompt some questioning and concerned stares, the “failure” of my pink dinosaur onesie to fit within social norms had the unexpected benefit of instigating conversations around the fear of failure. As my outfit prompted many “why’s” throughout the day, I was given a platform to expand on the discussion that had started in my co-taught class, gauging my peers’ opinions on the validity of “practicing failure” in an environment where there is little margin for error.

Challenge #2: Daring to fail requires vulnerability—a feeling I experienced first-hand as a long-line of customers tuned in as I, still dressed in my pink onesie, asked the Starbucks barista if I could “make my own drink.” As expected, my request prompted a series of negotiations where I proceeded to acknowledge the abnormality of my question and attempted to appease the barista’s apprehensions by offering to make the simplest drink possible. I then asked to talk to the manager who ultimately shot down my request.

My immediate reaction was the all-too-familiar sinking feeling—the one you get when you open a rejection email or realize you’ve slept through your alarm. However, as I reflected on the absurdity of my request, the sinking feeling was replaced with a sense of amusement as I began to brainstorm what I could’ve tried or accounted for in order to turn the “no” into a “yes.” Perhaps I could’ve succeeded if I’d visited Starbucks right before they closed or maybe I could’ve painted a clearer picture of the simplicity of my request by naming a specific easy-to-make drink like an “ice water.” I also began to notice that requesting a service from a stranger is much harder to swing than from a friend and realized that if I re-designed the process of trying to make my own drink such as trying to do so at a local coffee shop, I potentially could have a greater impact. Even though I approached the challenge with the intention of avoiding failure, I could not have drawn the same insights without poignantly experiencing the failure myself.

Challenge #3: After developing some inertia from the Starbucks challenge, I resolved to tackle another intimidating task—asking NDSP for a ride to class. However, my approach was something I should have learned not to do by now: I tried to take the path of least resistance. I decided to go with a simple backstory, that I had walked on my ankle weird, and a simple request, a ride to the University health center. Little did I know that 1. The health center was closed and 2. Apparently NDSP must send a whole medical team when someone reports an injury. After practicing my fake limp for an embarrassingly long amount of time and rehearsing the phone call, everything was derailed when the NDSP officer announced a medical team would come assist me shortly and I had to quite awkwardly apologize as I was unfortunately locked into my story.

Despite the uncomfortable encounter, I gained a valuable takeaway: you can’t plan for everything and telling the truth from the start is the only way to position yourself to be able to adjust to setbacks or rejections. I also realized that underneath my retreat to the “path of least resistance” was ironically the fear of failure I was working to overcome. The fear of failure not only manifests itself through inaction but can inadvertently influence people to take trivial or adverse actions that fail to attack the root of problems. Subconsciously, my desire to “complete” the task had overshadowed the underlying intention of “practicing failure” well by negotiating my way to a success.

Challenge #4: After surviving the rigor of the first few challenges, I decided to ramp up the stakes of my next one—asking someone on a friendship date. First, I challenged myself to ask a friend I knew on a surface level but wanted to get to know further. Second, I designed and sent my friend, Frankie, a formal “Evite” in an effort to deviate as far as I could from the norm of lunch invitations.


Luckily, Frankie happily obliged and the “weirdness” of my Evite naturally directed our lunch conversation towards the culture around failure and how we, as students, could encourage “practicing failure” or daring to fail outside of the high-stakes context of tests or responsibilities.

We realized that on top of practicing this vulnerability of failure, doing so in a collaborative manner that engages the community around us will help shape a culture of generative failure—where people feel free to voice their fears but simultaneously are challenged to use these fears of failure in a constructive way that informs the process of how one reaches a goal. In attempts to create a sustainable method of practicing failure, I passed my “rejection therapy” card along to Frankie and challenged him to complete the task and keep the conversation going.

Taking a step back to reflect on my trial run of “rejection therapy” as a whole, I realized I could group the challenges into two categories. The first were more micro-level challenges that required me to request something of an independent individual—my roommate or classmate. The second were macro-level challenges that pushed me to request something of an unknown individual, tied to a larger organization—a Starbucks barista and NDSP officer.

While I found myself more afraid of failure during the macro-level challenges, the practice of failing actually led me to draw more insights than when I “succeeded.” The act of failing can be discouraging, but when you openly address the possibility of failure and transcend this fear through action, it suddenly becomes an exciting starting point; failure triggers unexpected insights and can even introduce a new angle from which to view the problem.

Overall, practicing failure was a generative and arguably contagious process. Each challenge I undertook sparked discussions which translated into new ideas which informed the process of how I approached the next challenge. This idea of continual growth connects back to the nature of the fluid, interpersonal, and ongoing learning process of “co-teaching.” The insights I drew from practicing failure may be radically different than someone else who completes a parallel task. My hope is that the process of learning from failure itself will inspire others to do the same—extracting their own insights from their journey.


How to Leverage your Superpowers - Casey Kennedy

How to Leverage your Superpowers - Casey Kennedy

“Group project”: two of my least favorite words to read on a syllabus or hear a professor say. When I reflect on past group projects, positive experiences don’t usually come to mind. It always seems that at least one person free rides or that the group has to spend more time making the separate parts cohesive than it would take me to complete the project individually. So when my partner and I had to select a topic to teach a class on in our International Development and Design Thinking course, I was a little skeptical when we landed on high-functioning teams. How could I teach a class on high-functioning teams when I could only thinking of one or two that I had ever worked on? Yet, as we really dove into the topic I became intrigued by the literature around creating high-functioning teams.  
My partner and I focused on one aspect of high-functioning teams for our class, though there are many considerations when creating them. We looked at how understanding your strengths and weakness, your personal inventory, and your teammates’ personal inventories can lead to a more conscientious and productive team. We employed a tool created by consulting firm SYPartners, called Superpowers and Shadow Sides to depict this. Superpowers and Shadow Sides is an exercise for teammates to identify their individual strengths and learn how to activate their team’s strengths. The framework classifies 21 superpowers ranging from grit to systems thinking and empathy. All are strengths and all have descriptions denoting how someone with each Superpower works best. Furthermore, each Superpower also has a Shadow Side, the weakness that come with the strength, as well as examples of how to activate the Superpower and reduce the shadow side in group work. The idea behind SYPartners’ Superpowers and Shadow Sides is that when individuals are aware of their own strengths, and subsequently teams are aware of their team members’ strengths, the team can best learn how to activate those strengths to create more effective group work.


In our session on Superpowers and Shadow Sides, we had our classmates sit with their Development Advisory Team (DAT) members for a set of activities and discussion to determine their own Superpowers. In determining your own personal inventory, we hoped DATs could then come together to understand their team inventory. This session was really valuable for teams identifying how they work together and allowed my DAT to create concrete steps as we move forward with our project. If you’re interested in executing these activities, here are the steps to set them up:

  • Download the Superpowers and Shadow Side app

  1. You can use the app to later take the quiz on your phone or you can print out the 21 cards on the app

In class:

  • Have each member of the team spend time individually reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses

  • Have each member of the team consider how their strength could also act as a weakness and how their weakness could also act as a strength

  • Have the teams discuss their reflections on this exercise

  • Pass out the 21 Superpower cards and spread them out at each team’s table

  • Have each team member identify the Superpowers their previous strengths aligned with

  • Use post-it notes to identify the Superpower each member has

  • Discuss which Superpowers each team possesses and which ones the team may be lacking

  • Have each team create steps for how to activate their team’s Superpowers and how to be cognizant of the ones they are lacking

The identification of personal inventory and team inventory was incredibly beneficial for my  Development Advisory Team. During the session, we were able to identify Superpowers we were strong in like two of my Superpowers, grit and cultural compass, as well as others like systems thinking and pattern mapping. This identification let us think concretely about how to use these Superpowers moving forward. For example, in being aware of the cultural compass skills our team had we thought more consciously about our client organization’s culture and how our project could be shaped to emphasize that. While it was really helpful to understand our Superpowers, it was equally as beneficial to visualize the Superpowers our team lacked like decision making. The visual absence of a post-it note on certain Superpowers made us realize where our team was stuck. We had done a lot of leg work and had strong avenues to move forward with, but we hadn’t made the decisions to narrow this process down.

Since this class session, our DAT has met to complete the tasks that aren’t our natural Superpowers--to make the necessary decisions. Since this process of co-teaching, I have become a lot more enthusiastic about group work. Not only has identifying my Superpower helped me to understand how I work in a group, but knowing my team members’ Superpowers has helped us activate our strengths. Most importantly, knowing the absence of Superpowers for our team has positioned us to actively engage the strengths that are less natural to us.

The Beauty of Design - King Fok

The Beauty of Design - King Fok

Co-creation, ideation, growth-mindset, design-thinking... Are we speaking the same language here?

Before taking the International Development and Design Thinking course, I only had a marginal idea of what these words meant. I will admit it was a little embarrassing for me, as I was a senior coming into my last international development course and having spent two summers conducting field research in Ghana, so I wasn’t sure what I expected from the course and what I hoped to learn. Little did I know that these same words and concepts would give me a framework to talk about how I view the world and a foundation to “design” my life going forward.

By taking this course, which has proven itself to be one of the most hands-on and practical classes I have taken so far at the University of Notre Dame, it has allowed me to understand how everyone can apply design-thinking concepts to not only global, societal development topics but also in the mundane, routine aspects of our daily lives.

When I first joined the course and looked at the syllabus, I felt a little lost in the design-based jargon. I didn’t know how I could engage in the conversation given that I have never done this type of work before nor felt that I was a creative person. However, as the class progressed,  I quickly realized that the core principles which guided the design-thinking class were the same principles that I’ve used throughout my life to view and interact with the world. I have always approached challenges and topics from an angle of curiosity and bewilderment, and I embraced failures and shortcomings as insightful learning opportunities to how I can improve. I just didn’t know there was a word for this same perspective until we did the class called Growth Mindset: a mindset that views our skills and talents as dynamic, and that they can be ever-improved upon through hard work, feedback and input from others, and from our personal experiences of failures and successes.

This spirit of peer mentorship, continuous feedback to refine our skills, and mutual growth was embodied in the relationships in the course between my classmates and also with my mentor, Jenna Ahn, who has previously taken the course four years ago. On our first meeting, I told Jenna about I am learning things about myself that I never really thought about or revisited since I was a child in elementary school. How can I learn and view challenges in life? How I can be creative and express my creativity?  How can I work well and communicate with others?

These were all topics which shape my daily interactions and worldview, yet I haven’t really studied these topics in an academic manner such as exploring Tom and David Kelley's Creative Confidence to nurture our innate creativity or  Chip and Dan Health's anecdotes on how to work with others to find solutions to complex problems.

Jenna and I joked that these were “academic-adult works” which essentially engaged with childhood topics that everyone knew about growing up. As opposed to the calculus or organic chemistry courses I took as a pre-medical student, this class does not require prior knowledge because it draws on the universal aspects of our humanity. It asks questions that are rooted in our everyday experiences as a human being, which is why this topic so approachable to everyone.

And that is the beauty of this course. It allows people to interact with these principles whether they are from different disciplines, ages, and cultures because it revisits topics that are universal. The inviting nature of it has allowed me to find the relevance of how “design” can fit into my own life. I’ve found my experience in the course to allude to the bigger message of the potential of development: the underlying, transcending ability to unite all human beings regardless of geo-political and social distinctions.

How Do We Co-Teach? - Catherine Edmonds

How Do We Co-Teach? - Catherine Edmonds

How could you take a concrete idea through the process of design thinking? How would I be able to follow a creative experience, with an idea so fundamental as teaching? When first presented with the idea of creating a teaching experience I was at a loss of words. How would I create an experience that is engaging and encourages students to interact outside of the normal lecture? As these thoughts whirled through my head, I started thinking about past experiences I had facilitated. One particular experience I thought about was mind-mapping a team building experience. There are concrete details that go into this, but team building automatically sets the idea of engagement into the mind. I began by starting with the problem in the middle of the window. Then, expanded on how we could approach this problem with solutions that engage the mind beyond to the unexpected. As you see below here is a picture of me doing it on a window. Eventually, I took these ideas and started creating a linear timeline that could incorporate the best ideas resolving the problem in the middle.



After this reflection, Josh and I started in on the design thinking process for a classroom experience. As we began this process, we started with the theme in the middle: communication and prototyping. The ideation phase was great as we had many ways we could take these topics.The hardest part was focusing our ideas on a few themes. We were hesitant to prototype our ideas, and find the best way to convey them in a way that would stick with the students. The hesitation came from the fear of failure. What if our great ideas couldn’t be combined? What if this flopped right on its face? The hesitation was overcome by putting something on the page, and just going with the ideas. I started by creating blank slides on a piece of paper and got messy with it.



As you can see above, we began to prototype, what co-teaching about communication and prototyping might look like. This is how we started to see our ideas come together under an overarching theme of communicating. It was easier to understand how prototyping fit in, when we framed as a way to communicate our ideas to the clients. During this prototyping we were able to see a clear linear progression of the solution.

The opportunity to facilitate class discussion was amazing. I enjoy facilitating activities and creating ways to connect back to a bigger theme. During our class we were able to engage in a few different activities that would connect the reading materials that we had assigned to their DAT projects. The common feedback we received from our teaching is that it provided groups with tangible tools they can use. It also helped groups understand the importance of engaging the client throughout the process to provide the best and most useful deliverable. One thing I learned from co-teaching is to check the assumptions you have regarding the material you are teaching. Reading the feedback I realized I should have provided more concrete examples on what a minimum viable product is. I will take this feedback, and use it for the next iteration as the design thinking process is a constant cycle of testing.

The teaching experience provided me with a new perspective. I realize that any message I want to convey to a large group, I need the message to be simple enough that an 8th grader would understand. If the message passses this test, then it is simple and concrete enough for any customer to understand. This experience of teaching was great as it provided me the opportunity to further engage with the design thinking process and test my strengths in the classroom. All at the same time engaging with the students in a unique way.


My quest for the golden key - Kyersten Siebenaler

My quest for the golden key - Kyersten Siebenaler

As soon as my partner Caroline and I decided to co-teach our class on growth mindset, I became excited about growth mindset as the solution to a myriad of global challenges. 
Someone with a growth mindset believes that their intelligence is not fixed, but instead can be improved with time and practice. Hence, people with growth mindsets do not shy away from a challenge and take constructive criticism very well. They are able to bounce back from setbacks and realize that failures do not define their worth as a person. Resilience and grit are both great byproducts of a growth mindset.

After researching growth mindset, I quickly became swept up in the idea that the concept could conquer all! I soon began to investigate its many applications. How can growth mindset be applied in development work? How can we apply growth mindset to our daily lives? How can I share growth mindset with my family and friends?

In my mind, growth mindset quickly became the golden key to conquering failure, maximizing potential, and even mitigating the negative effects of poverty on academic achievement (as found by a study done in Chile)!

While much of this might be  true, only when we were in front of the class teaching did I realize that we hadn’t asked ourselves several practical questions about growth mindset. All at once, we were being asked:

  • What if someone does not improve after putting in time and effort?”

  • “If someone is just really not talented at something, like singing or doing advanced calculus, are they supposed to keep trying?”

  • “ When does the assumed value of persistence become a waste of time?” 

  • “Can you even teach growth mindset to someone? Or can you simply teach someone about growth mindset and hope for the best?” 

Hmm… All good questions, right? Without having reflected enough on the limitations of our topic, I felt that I was suddenly unprepared to navigate these questions around growth mindset while I was teaching the class. However, questioning the limitations and challenges of growth mindset is crucial to understanding how the concept can fit into our lives and our work.

Upon further reflection of my lack of knowledge in these areas, I realized that acknowledging the downsides of a certain solution actually gives the idea, and the presenter, for that matter, more credibility. It allows us to find holes in our suggested solutions and proposed theories, and then find ways to understand and correct for them. 

While I remain an enthusiastic proponent of growth mindset, in the days and weeks after my teaching session,I have been able to more fully understand its strengths, weaknesses, and realistic applications. Perhaps if I had started out my quest to teach growth mindset with a better question I would have been more effective in understanding my concept and teaching it to others.

Instead of thinking: “Growth mindset is great and very applicable to our lives and our work. How many different ways can I show the class how awesome it is?” 
I could have thought: “Growth mindset is great, and I think it is very applicable to our lives and our work. When will growth mindset shine, and when is it limited?” 

This way, I don’t lose any of my enthusiasm; in both scenarios, I believe that growth mindset is great and applicable! However, in the second question, I am diving deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of the concept instead of simply thinking about (and teaching) it as a “one size fits all” solution. 

In fact, the importance of thinking about concepts critically fits very well with one of the larger takeaways from the practice of design thinking: the importance of reframing the problem. Reframing the problems that we wish to solve includes thinking about them in radically different ways, which can be done by changing our assumptions and altering our perspectives. 

Whether it be to increase personal preparation and understand limits, build credibility, or improve self-awareness, questioning and rethinking concepts is a critical step to achieving a deeper understanding of the concepts that we learn about and discuss. 

I have seen over the course of the semester that as you increase the number of angles from which you address a problem, your solution only becomes better. Perhaps, in recognizing the importance of critical thinking and exploring the nuanced nature of each concept, I have found a golden key after all.

Drinking From a Fire Hose: Becoming an Active Learner - Joshua Pine

Drinking From a Fire Hose: Becoming an Active Learner - Joshua Pine

My first year at Notre Dame could easily be described as trying to drink from a fire hose. The constant flow of new information was overwhelming, to say the least, as I sought to adjust to college academic coursework, dorm life and culture shock having spent my childhood in China. The challenge of balancing all my commitments was only exacerbated as I continually added more and more to my plate. In order to survive, I was quickly forced to adopt “efficient” reading habits which often times involved skimming over the abstract and conclusion to deduce the primary thesis of an article. As I reflect back, I see that I had adopted the posture of a passive learner.

This is not the way things used to be. Growing up in China, my parents decided to home school me all the way through high school. During my early years of school my parents taught me all that I needed to know: English, Math, Science, etc. However, as I got older, my parents granted me the flexibility to pursue my interests by designing my own classes through finding the necessary learning materials either through online coursework, relevant textbooks and/or connecting with local universities. This transition from a passive recipient of knowledge to an active seeker of information was truly transformative as I explored the political system of Nigeria, the mathematical underpinnings of game theory and the role of China in global affairs.

Participating in this class has helped me to experience anew this transition in college from being a passive learner to becoming an active seeker. Rather than being handed a fully developed syllabus, this class has forced me to consider what it is that I truly want to learn and finding the resources to gain that knowledge. One specific avenue which facilitates this process of active learning is the opportunity each of us have to co-teach a class with a fellow student. One particular area that I was interested in learning more about and then also sharing with the class was the topic of communication. A foundational piece of our everyday lives, communicating effectively is an essential skill set in whatever future setting we find ourselves.

Participating in this class has helped me to be more aware of pedagogical approaches to education and learning more broadly. This awareness and active engagement has spilled over into other areas of my life where I seek to shape the way in which I learn. In my other classes, I am now considering the relevance of the information and asking questions in order to take real responsibility and ownership over not only what I learn but also the way in which I go about learning it. As I undergo yet another transition next year starting the Keough School of Global Affair's new masters program I hope to continually embrace my identity as a life-long active learner.

“Wait . . . You’re Telling Me Brainstorming Isn’t As Effective As I Thought?” - Claire Danes

“Wait . . . You’re Telling Me Brainstorming Isn’t As Effective As I Thought?” - Claire Danes

As I  researched for my “co-created” class on brainstorming, where a classmate and I developed and taught an interactive instructional session together, I came across articles claiming that brainstorming is not the panacea that many think. This argument shocked me.  Brainstorming is so ingrained in group work across industries and in our education system, I had never questioned the effectiveness of brainstorming. Before preparing for my co-created class, my understanding of brainstorming was that groups are supposed to generate as many ideas as possible in a designated period of time. In addition, I thought that brainstorming in a group was a more productive way of coming up with creative solutions than brainstorming individually. 

Brainstorming was first coined in the 1950s as atechnique by advertising executive Alex Osborn. Because of how popular brainstorming is today, I was surprised it was introduced relatively recently. In a series of books, Osborn outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. His most important principle was group members should withhold criticism when brainstorming, as ideas should not be evaluated until after generation is complete. 

Similarly, in my experiences group members were instructed to focus on the quantity of ideas and to defer judgement, although in my experience I have found this to be difficult. Based on Osborn’s rules, brainstorming seems like an ideal way to boost productivity. However, as I became aware, brainstorming does not always work as advertised. Since his books were published, Osborn’s brainstorming technique has been tested numerous times. The results of these studies demonstrate that “brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas (Sawyer, 60).” If the motivation behind brainstorming is coming up with as many ideas as possible, then this finding begs the question - what is causing the  “productivity loss” of brainstorming groups -- that is less output than a similar number of people working individually? 

There are several possible reasons explaining why brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than individuals, according to researchers. The first is production blocking, or the tendency for a group member to inhibit others from offering their ideas. Another cause of productivity loss is social inhibition, which occurs when a group member holds back an idea out of fear of what others might think. Social loafing is a third cause for productivity loss. When people are working in a group, they do not feel as accountable as when they are working alone. 

These reasons for productivity loss in brainstorming resonated with me, as I have experienced them all in my group projects to some extent. If brainstorming in groups is less productive than brainstorming individually, as the research demonstrates, then why does its popularity still persist? Groupthink. 

Many academics attribute groupthink as the reason behind the lack of success of brainstorming. Groupthink describes situations in which  a group makes a faulty decision because of pressure to maintain consensus. When group members place too much value on cohesiveness, they tend to follow the word of the leader and not to raise issues or alternative solutions. 

Fortunately, there are ways to reconcile the studies of brainstorming and groupthink with the research showing the power of collaboration. For example, groups should not be used for tasks that people can do separately and then summed up, such as coming up with a list of ideas or solutions. For those who might be doubting whether there are any benefits of group brainstorming at this point, have no fear - groups undoubtedly provide some value.

 Groups are effective in discussing, improving, and evaluating ideas, especially when members have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspective. From this awareness of the potential dark side to collaboration, I am more conscientious about how to structure group and individual work to generate more creative and innovative ideas. After this co-created teaching experience, I developed a better understanding of brainstorming, including a recognition of its drawbacks and processes to mitigate them.  

“From Groupthink to Group Genius.” Group Genius: the Creative Power of Collaboration, by Keith Sawyer, Basic Books, 2017. 

Bridging the gap: a fresh approach in International  Development - Kristin Andrejko

Bridging the gap: a fresh approach in International Development - Kristin Andrejko

How often are students provided the opportunity to collaborate with a client on a real life challenge? In my experience, the answer is not often, and perhaps this deficiency contributes to the common inability of students to translate classroom knowledge into tangible business practices. However, Prof. Reifenberg’s class flips the traditional classroom model upside down by presenting students with a unique platform to collaborate with an international development partner on a specific project.

I have spent the last two months working with Partners In Health (PIH), and my team has been tasked with the goal of strengthening the organization-wide understanding of their value of “accompaniment.” This is a value that stresses “walking with” patients, colleagues and clients during periods of adversity. For many PIH employees, accompaniment is an elastic term with a wide range of applications in their daily work. To others, accompaniment is a more murky concept because they fail to see its applications in their work. Despite some commonalities in the definition of accompaniment across staff members, there is no general or universal agreement. We have been provided the unique opportunity to work with PIH to develop and implement training tools on the concept accompaniment for both the Boston and Sierra Leone PIH sites.

I had the opportunity to travel to Boston with Caroline, one of my teammates, to meet employees at the Boston PIH office. Our goal was to expand our understanding of accompaniment at PIH and to discern how our team might create a concrete, easy to use deliverable for our client. During our time in Boston, Caroline and I interviewed employees across the organization -- from Supply Chain to IT Management.

In every conversation, Caroline and I learned that each employee had a slightly different touch point with accompaniment. While some employees learned about accompaniment through conventional means like readings and videos, others simply grew to understand the concept through informal conversations with senior leadership. One employee remarked how a “weird and wonderful dialect” around accompaniment pervades the non-profit’s organizational culture.  For example, the adage “you always have to give the ‘H of G’ (the hermeneutic of generosity)” when working with your colleagues is shared by employees at PIH. This common language unifies employees at PIH and serves as an informal means to spread the organization’s values. These nuanced expressions of accompaniment both demonstrate how the value of accompaniment is instilled in PIH’s organizational cultures in unforeseen ways, and also epitomizes how meeting with a client face-to-face elicits productive discoveries.

In an increasingly digital world, I forgot the added value of face-to-face interactions with clients. Not only did our in-person interactions in Boston allow us to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with our client, but we were also able to exponentially increase our contact network at PIH. Through networking with employees at PIH, we have discovered the invested champions on the ground who will actually implement our strategic recommendations. Thus, developing relationships with the various accompaniment champions at PIH has allowed me to deeply understand how an accompaniment training might be best implemented in both Boston and Sierra Leone.

I have learned an incredible amount in my two short months as a consultant for Partners In Health, but the most poignant lesson I have taken away from this experience is the power of listening. Up to this point in the arc of our journey, we have spent almost all of our time understanding the opportunity statement PIH initially presented to us. Through listening deeply, we have learned about the various ways accompaniment is operalizationzed across the organization. At the tail end of this experience, we are just now at the point where we are developing our strategic recommendations for PIH. Yet despite the fact that our due date is just weeks away, I do not feel as if we are behind. If anything, due to the amount and quality of contacts we have engaged with at PIH surrounding the topic of accompaniment, I feel incredibly confident that our end product will ultimately be something that is implemented at PIH.


The Gift of Failure - Irla Atanda

The Gift of Failure - Irla Atanda

Failure. Nobody wants to talk about it, but I had to.

Before applying to Steve Reifenberg’s International Development and Design Thinking course, I had no idea what to expect. In fact, I was scared of being rejected from this class. Admittedly, I was scared of failing before even getting the opportunity to fail. Still, I knew that I wanted to apply because the risk of rejection was outweighed by the intriguing opportunity for the collaborative learning that the class offered.

One of the collaborative learning opportunities that I was assigned to this semester was to prepare and teach a class on failure with two other students. I had a difficult time with this assignment. I constantly found myself frustrated throughout the preparation process. I didn’t really understand why I found myself being overcome by these emotions, but looking back now, I realized that I was being crippled by the fear of failure:
Scared that the readings we picked for the class discussion would not resonate with our classmates and that the class discussion would not be fulfilling.
Scared that our presentation would not flow smoothly and would not be timely.
Scared that people would be hesitant in completing the assignment we assigned them: completing a failure resume- a resume that consists of academic failures, personal failures, relationship failures, etc. Nobody wants to write out their failures so I figured we would receive some negative reactions towards this assignment. 
Scared that we would not be able to execute our planned activity well: having each Development Advisory Teams (DAT) proptype or think of ways that their team could fail in achieving their end goals.  

I had to address these thoughts and fears before being able to teach our class. By acknowledging these fears, I was set free from them. I came to a peaceful state of knowing that whatever happens will happen and that these outcomes are great learning opportunities.

Furthermore, another fear that I was able to address with my DAT group during our class discussion was the fear of failing in our DAT project. My DAT team has been tasked with the opportunity to collaborate with Notre Dame International in establishing and expanding Notre Dame’s presence in India as a part of the Asia Initiatives. For this project, we decided to focus on mapping the range of faculty, staff, students, and alumni engagements in India (we called this “relationship mapping”) and exploring the different possibilities in creating a more robust set of partnerships in India (we called this “vision mapping”). This task sometimes feels so big and daunting that often I feel as if my team (myself included) is stuck. Stuck in the fact that we’re not administrators making Notre Dame’s final decision. Stuck in the fear that our relationship and vision mappings won’t be useful for our clients. Stuck in the fact that we don’t feel a sense of urgency in meeting with faculty involved in India or in creating our final deliverable. 

These feelings of failure and hesitation came to light when we were tasked with prototyping failure, or envisioning the ways our final presentation could go wrong, in our DAT. We discussed how we fear the deliverables we present will look great, but will not be sustainable: 

  • For the relationship mapping, we created a webpage mock-up that highlights faculty, students, programs, etc. Although we believed that this idea could be useful in bringing to light Notre Dame’s connections in India, we worried that the website manager for NDI would not be able to keep the webpage updated. 

  • For the vision mapping, we dreamed big in terms of the programs that we could suggest that students would find interesting, but I think we often got stumped on the question: how big is too big? The fact that we’re not administrators definitely hindered our progress in thinking of these opportunities, but realized that our role as students is just as important. These administrators create programs that serve the students interests and values. 

I am still unclear as to how our deliverable will come together, it was liberating to be able to address these and move forward with the final push.

I am grateful that I took the chance in applying for this class. The valuable lessons that I have learned through teaching the class on failure, participating in the classes led by other co-creators, and hearing from Prof. Reifenberg’s experiences are lessons that I will take when I enter the field of human-centered development. Ana-Dionne Lanier, my mentor for this class, recently told me that everything in life is all about “taking steps towards an end goal.” My end goal is to create human-centered solutions and these solutions are best learned with empathy, but cannot be learned without transcending the fear of failure. This class has provided me with the skills and knowledge to work towards this end goal.