Designing a workshop

The 21st Century Schools workshop day was an intensive, full-day experience held on April 26 and attended by over 50 parents, teachers, students and administrators from the San Mateo iZone and other organizations. The workshop was part of d.fellow Kim Jacobson's larger innovation in education project, and written/taught by fellows Kim Jacobson and Caitria O'Neill. They were joined by Frederick Pferdt, the head of innovation and creativity programs at Google. 21CS

A workshop is an opportunity. You, the facilitator, have a group of diverse people that you're trying to engage with information, design techniques, and other participants. Unfortunately, the process of getting from idea to workshop is generally opaque. I've broken down the process using a recent workshop as an example.


Who is your participant? Why are they here? What should they leave with? Kim, Frederick and I met at Google two days before the workshop to align around goals for the workshop and begin sketching out the day's plan.

Our participants were students, teachers, administrators and parents from schools across San Mateo County. Prior to the workshop, they had formed design teams and submitted challenges.

Here is a rough list of our goals for our defined participant:

  • introduction to design thinking methodology
  • understanding of how design thinking can be applied to school problems
  • meet other people/schools trying to innovate in education
  • work on real-world problems
  • take home tools and information that can help them solve their own challenges

Decisions about the format of the day became much more clear based on the above criteria. For example, we decided to have design teams from different schools pair up and trade challenges in order to reduce the 'stakes' and free up each team to concentrate on the method.


At the, a minute-to-minute workshop plan is lovingly referred to as a tick-tock. Kim, Frederick and I walked through the presentation, thinking about how to incorporate things such as time for physical transitions. Here is a starter list of workshop design considerations:

      • set-up and briefing for the coaches
      • warm-up activity
      • time to split the group into teams and assign them coaches
      • short lectures on each step in the design-thinking process (when you're working with inexperienced coaches, it is best to present the material to the whole group. If your coaches are rockstars, you can delegate things such as 'teaching the section on empathy' to them and avoid transitions)
      • time for physical transitions through the space
      • lunch
      • time for share-outs and team feedback
      • what visuals or handouts are you providing for each of the steps?

Once Kim, Frederick and I were aligned on the general components of the day, I went home and created this tick-tock for our workshop. If it looks tight, it is because it is obscenely tight.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 9.03.32 AM


Slides aren't strictly necessary. You can demonstrate an entire design sprint on a whiteboard for your group, or you can go to the other extreme and fill a deck with detailed bullet points. I use slides because they are massive visual reminders of what people (including myself) should be doing.

I put specific instructions and tips into the slides as a reference guide. This definitely helps when you're teaching a large group or uncertain if the coaches are familiar with specific techniques.

You can use the slides and lecture portions of a workshop to model correct behavior, because your participants may not know the difference between a good point of view and a bad one, etc. For example, I made my own POV here and then used the example to explain design concepts.

I met: persona

I was surprised to learn: insight

It would be game changing to: HMW/Design challenge

Our workshop had a lot of physical transitions in a big space. Having visual instructions projected on the wall can help keep a big group organized and on task.


The final frontier for a workshop is the transition back into a participant's daily life and challenges. Each group went home at the end of this particular workshop with a solution to their own school's 'challenge' that another group had prototyped for them.

We created a field sheet and an e-mail address for teams to send in future work. We did this to create the expectation that the experiment continue, and to guide that effort. We did not receive many field sheets, despite our own effort. In the future, the instructions/expectations would have to be modified. I've had success with fieldwork and form deliverables with other groups and imagine this is a matter of striking the right chord with the participant.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 9.36.22 PM



Coaches are God's gift to the terminally busy. The 21st Century School workshop ended up having just about one coach per group with a few coaches straddling two. Giving up your entire Saturday to manage a group of 4-15 people is not a gentle ask.

Knowing that our coaches did not all have the same level of exposure to design thinking, I arranged a 30-min. prep session before the workshop started. We did a blisteringly fast walkthrough of the tick-tock, discussed each of the steps of design thinking and accompanying logistics. This wasn't enough time - if you are planning ahead you might consider moving a prep-session into another day.


Workshops are a fantastic opportunity to get to know your 'users of interest' better. Who grasps it? Who is a natural facilitator? Who absolutely refuses to loosen their tie and use post-its? More importantly, if you could do it again, how would you change things?

I feel that, at the, we have not yet mastered the art of sharing workshop secret sauce. We share decks, we share stories, but we rarely share specifics on what didn't work when it comes to workshops. I suggest you take a few moments after a workshop and have each of the leaders debrief quickly on the challenges and potential changes.

For example, here are a few of our learnings from 21st Century Schools:

  • Groups with access to chairs kept sitting in them throughout the whole program, lowering energy significantly.
  • Spatial transitions were hard on a few of our participants.
  • Our method for splitting up the groups was a good idea but a mess during implementation. Next time, we'd probably figure out team/coach/space assignments in advance of the event.
  • Having a few people walking around and keeping all of the coaches on time was a godsend. Our group assignment put us 30 mins. behind schedule, but the time was made up by lunch.
  • Share outs and interaction in the large/lecture group helped boost energy during lectures.

'Have any tips, suggestions or questions about workshop design? 'Have any materials you'd like to share? Please let us know in the comments!

Caitria O'Neill is a fellow and lecturer at the You can follow her on Twitter @CaitriaONeill.

K12 travels! Reflections from SXSWedu

k12labOver on the K12 Lab Network blog, Program Manager Katie Krummeck writes: Members of the progressive education community gathered last week in Austin, Texas for SXSWedu, a conference showcasing the leading edge in K12 and higher education. Folks from the K12 Lab Network were in attendance, including Susie Wise and Juliette LaMontagne, who led a workshop on understanding and catalyzing liminal learning experiences. Along with Gabrielle Santa-Donato, (who Skyped in from Chile) Susie and Juliette shared their learnings from leading The Future of Stuff Challenge in Detroit in 2013, and then called on the audience to chart their own course and map their ecosystem for leading a community-based learning experience back at home.

Continue reading on the K12 Lab Network.