Ode to “dark nights of the soul”: What I learned in T-550

Below, current HGSE student Cecelia DeKorne reflects on her experience in T-550: Designing for Learning by Creating.

Have you ever had that moment in a project where you see yourself, as if from above, and realize what a mess you’re in? Maybe the room is strewn with shreds of poster board, you’ve been breathing hot glue gun fumes for hours, and you can’t get the pieces of your structure to fit together. Maybe the mess is more figurative;  you realize that the genius, never-thought-of-before idea you were preparing to research is impossible or redundant. In T-550, Professor Karen Brennan calls these moments “dark nights of the soul.” Over the past semester, I have learned that these dark nights of the soul are not only inevitable in the process of creating–they are a vitally important ingredient. T-550 taught me to embrace dark nights of the soul, a process that has evolved since September.

In September, I was a huge advocate for effort. I believed that if something wasn’t working, then I should try harder with my eyes steadily fixed on the end goal. When I met a roadblock, I would push through with pure force, often resulting in inelegant output and little joy. Now, nourished by a semester of playful T-550 classes and a carefully curated reading list of brilliant, insightful thinkers, I advocate instead for iteration, feedback, playfulness, and collaboration. I realize that learning can be a delightful process, regardless of the output.

In this case, my semester-long project was a set of stackable, writeable blocks that I have dubbed Brainstorming Blocks. Brainstorming Blocks are designed to encourage individuals and teams to play, tinker, and collaborate through the brainstorming process. Brainstorming Blocks offer an alternative to the traditional board room brainstorming session. Instead of team members kicked back in chairs, arms folded, half-heartedly throwing out ideas, I imagine a team up and out of their chairs, leaning over the table, physically writing on the 6 sides of the reusable blocks. As they note their ideas, teammates can either build their own tower(s) of ideas or collaboratively stack and sort blocks into joint towers.

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Brainstorming Blocks in action

As I created Brainstorming Blocks and faced several dark nights of the soul, my thinking, process, and output all changed. I was inspired by Mitchel Resnick’s Creative Learning Spiral, (a never-ending progression of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting), Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, (emphasizing the importance of re-framing success, trying new strategies, and seeking input), and Frank Smith’s theory of learning (“anything that stimulates our imagination and promotes our enjoyment of an activity is a green light for learning”). Slowly, throughout the course, I re-calibrated my goals. Success was not a perfect set of identical blocks; success was a process of learning through trying new materials, seeking feedback, exploring options, having fun, collaborating, and ultimately creating a set of imperfect but delightful Brainstorming Blocks.

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Last day of T-550

Blog post and photos provided by Cecelia DeKorne

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Cecelia DeKorne is a master’s student in the Human Development and Psychology program. She is interested in organizational learning, team dynamics, and creating great workplaces. She works part-time at the HGSE Admissions Office and at Project Zero’s Learning Innovations Laboratory.

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