Design Thinking

Why I Turned My Dissertation into a Documentary. An Invitation to the Live Launch

In 2018 I began the Global Executive EdD program at the University of Southern California. In many ways it was the greatest empathy experiment I’ve carried out. After having spent a decade talking with leaders across the globe about what school should be like for learners, such as design thinking, I was curious to see what it was like to be a learner utilizing the very strategies I shared. From digital note-taking with Notability, to being mobile with my iPad, learning anytime or anywhere, to creating for an authentic audience, I experimented with everything.


I turned my dissertation into a documentary and you can click here to reserve your complimentary ticket to the live launch. It’s a story about Design39 Campus who created a culture of trust, autonomy, and safety where teachers are seen as learning experience designers. It examines how design thinking can be used as one approach in K12 education to define and design a new grammar of school, providing students with the knowledge, skills and mindsets to innovate, create new products, services and business models so that they can thrive in future workplaces and as global citizens. 

Why I Turned My Dissertation into a Documentary
Click here to reserve your complimentary ticket to the live launch

Why I Turned My Dissertation into a Documentary. An Invitation to the Live Launch

2007 – The Last Time I Was In School

The last time I was a learner in a formal school setting was in 2007. It was when I was doing my Masters and teaching credential at the University of California, Irvine. In, “Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration,” Friedman calls 2007 an inflection point. 

Most remember it as the year the iPhone came out. However it’s also the year that many emerging technologies became mainstream. Companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and AirBnB were launching, IBM began creating Watson, and so much more. 

While I had heard of, and was even using these emerging technologies, I was the quintessential example of the digital native myth.

This was while I was familiar with these technologies. Also, how to use them in a personal context, I had not thought about or had experience with applying them as a professional. My learning experiences thus far, were preparing me for a world that I had grown up in. It wasn’t preparing me for the world that I was about to enter. 

I often wonder how none of my professors thought to discuss any of these emerging technologies. Also, the impact they would have on the future of work for me as a new graduate. I vividly remember the one technology class in the credential program being mostly about how to build slideshows in Microsoft PowerPoint. 

The one thing I am incredibly grateful for is the evidence-based approach that was taken in the program. In learning how to design learning using the Understanding by Design model by Wiggins and McTighe, I felt confident in my ability to navigate change. The pieces didn’t fall into place. However, until I understood my strengths and my unique skills. I then brought these to the table, and more importantly, how to market them to create opportunities. 

Returning In 2018: I Had Changed. School Had Not.

A decade later when returning to school, I was the opposite of who I had been in 2007. In 2007 I was naive to the opportunities in the world. Also, how to access them, and how to position myself for them. In 2018 I was at the forefront of recognizing and creating opportunities. Then, helping others design learning so that students would not graduate feeling unprepared. 

I was curious how school would be different now that I had a strong social  media presence, and an acute understanding of existing and emerging technologies. While I came in as a different learner than the one I had been in 2007, school unfortunately was the same. Quite honestly I’m shocked that anyone would invest in a degree and not pair it with an online presence and portfolio where they document and share their work with an authentic audience. I’m even more shocked that two decades into the 21st Century this isn’t an integrated part of the learning experience for everyone. 

Reflection: What if as learners we didn’t wait for school to evolve. What if we had the self awareness to know how we learn best, what our goals are and how to actualize them through documenting and sharing our work online. So, what if professors were mentors, who could guide us in asking the right questions, challenging our ideas, and extending our thinking. 

What Is Design Thinking

The first time I was introduced to design thinking was at EdCamp San Diego in 2015. I was attending a session with Stacey Lamb and Kelley Eveleth, two first grade teachers. They taught at Design 39 Campus. If you’ve heard of design thinking perhaps the first image that comes to mind are the five hexagons that share the different stages – empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Let’s pause.

Design thinking is more than just moving through the hexagons. It’s about engaging in practices that enhance and nurture your mindset to navigate change. 

At its core design thinking is a mindset. IDEO breaks these down into seven different areas

  • Empathy
  • Creative confidence
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • Making 
  • Iterating
  • Optimism
  • Learning from failure

You can learn more about design thinking and how it can be applied in K12 education here

After the session with Stacey and Kelley, I was in awe of two things:

  • The design thinking framework could be used to modify existing curriculum to be learner-centered. To do this, we integrate questions and integrating the empathy lens
  • Why did more schools not have a team teaching model 

Ever since 2015 I’ve continued to follow the journey of the learning experience designers at Design39. Most places have pockets of innovation, yet here was an entire campus that had shifted the way their teachers learn and work. I knew this was a story I wanted to learn more about. On the outside it looks like collaboration. Yet, as you begin to uncover the layers you see the intentionality of former Principal Joe Erpelding and his commitment to leading with vulnerability to create a culture of trust, and psychological safety for this team. 

This culture of collaboration, built on vulnerability, trust and safety gave the learning experience designers the autonomy. Also, while giving mastery and purpose to challenge the traditional grammar of school. From eradicating learning in silos, to modifying the schedule. 

From Dissertation to Documentary

I knew very few people would read the dissertation. It’s prescriptive format paired with the length is not designed for today’s attention economy. While this was not a requirement, because I came in with a clear goal of the research I wanted to do, the story I wanted to tell, and with the knowledge of the tools accessible to me, I turned my dissertation into a documentary. 

The question explored in the research study is how design thinking can be used as one approach in K12 education. Moreover, to define and design a new grammar of school, providing students with t

The knowledge, skills and mindsets to innovate. Also, to create new products, services and business models so that they can thrive in future workplaces and as global citizens. The research story focuses on teachers and what they need to effectively design these learning experiences.

Your Invitation to the Live Launch – Design Thinking

With great enthusiasm, I invite you to the live launch of the trailer on February 3rd at 4pm PST. During our time together, I’ll share the background and results from the research study. Also, I’ll launch the trailer live and we’ll watch it together. Then, we’ll have an open discussion panel with Joe Erpelding, the learning experience designers, and the parents from Design 39 Campus. Bring your questions and ideas and together let’s advocate for creating schools that elevate educators.

I’m Sabba.

I believe that the future should be designed. Not left to chance.

Over the past decade, using design thinking practices I've helped schools and businesses create a culture of innovation where everyone is empowered to move from idea to impact, to address complex challenges and discover opportunities. 

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