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An invitation to reimagine the world

Summer School debuts creativity partnership with Stanford.

Nicole Pellaton
October 27, 2014


"Getting students to see that they can manufacture their world would be great." — John BartonThis summer, John Barton ’78, director of Stanford University’s Architectural Design Program, and two Stanford colleagues—Amy Larimer, lecturer in the Architectural Design Program, and Jonathan Edelman, director of interdisciplinary design at Stanford’s Product Realization Lab— taught a three-course cluster in the Summer School called The Process of Creativity. Thirteen students from around the world attended the cluster, the first of its type in the high school program, with courses focused on design, architecture and the history of creativity.

The impetus for the Exeter/Stanford partnership was curiosity. At his May 2013 reunion, Barton spoke with Principal Tom Hassan about the interdisciplinary graduate architecture program he and his colleagues were developing at Stanford. ”I wanted to learn more about how Harkness could have an impact,” Barton says. A couple of weeks later, Barton, Hassan and Summer School Director Ethan Shapiro were discussing the concept for a course that would launch in Summer School the following year.

Their five weeks at PEA was eye-opening for Barton—a second-generation Exonian whose father, John Barton ’54, was recruited by Hammy Bissell—and his colleagues. A Q&A follows.

How does the creativity cluster differ from your classes at Stanford?

Jonathan Edelman: As we were beginning to work on the classes, John said to me, ”Don’t dumb down the conceptual work because we don’t have time to get them up to speed technically.” I’m not giving them fire hoses full of information, but I’m giving them the same essential information that I give to graduate students at Stanford.

John Barton: I’m treating these students as though they’re college students. We don’t have time to teach technical skills but I’m coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. If by the end of the semester they have some process, and some self-actualization and self-evaluation, that’s great.


Now that you’ve experienced teaching with the Harkness method, how does it fit into design teaching?

Amy Larimer: When I’m doing my job well—as a designer or architect or artist—I’m listening to the client or the site or the material or the light or whatever it may be. The synthesis of this process of listening and understanding and knowing, and communication with all of these things, that’s what Harkness feels like to me.

JB: Amy and I have been going to the Harkness discussions that Nita Pettigrew [emerita English instructor and Summer School teacher] leads. Nita was unhappy with our description. We said the teacher is there to help students resolve a problem. Nita responded, the teacher is there to resolve an unknown. This goes right to design. Design is a discussion—between head and hand, and between people. I tell students, ”If you’re designing a bottle for Coke and you know exactly what it is from the start, then it’s not a design problem.” Design is starting from nothing to build something that is unknowable at the start. And the process helps you learn what it is. That’s what happens with the conversation at the Harkness table.


What are your thoughts on the table?

JE: Here’s the design question: What is the table achieving? It’s about having a common platform. The physical table is horizontally organized. But the platform might be the pinup where we put stuff on the walls, or a whiteboard or blackboard. It can be the act of experimenting, drawing, building something in cardboard. People start saying, ”Oh, look at this. Oh, look at that. It could be this...” Those are the exciting moments.

AL: These discussions don’t always happen around the table.

JB: The table occurs elsewhere. We discovered that a Harkness table doesn’t really work for architecture—there’s not enough room for drawings and laying things out. So, we worked around that problem. But you could design a Harkness table for an architecture studio or a design studio. Jonathan and I were imagining a table with holes, or something like a closet, where you pull out a tool. I could even imagine a really big table that’s hollow in the middle, where students could work across from each other, or an instructor could come in and work individually and also see what’s happening—a doughnut version of the table.

AL: The relationship between overall collaboration to individual space is important, especially in working and making.


"Design is a conversation that happens accross time and culture" — Jonathan Edelman

What have been the biggest surprises?

JB: It’s hard to teach at the Harkness table. It takes a lot of patience. And listening. I’m still learning. But once the students get it, you say, ”Wow.”

AL: It’s electric when it lands. There’s so much synthesis happening. There’s a level of accountability and presence that’s requested of them every day. It’s beautiful, this invitation to really show up to the table, to be aware of your peers and be present to them and to the material. It’s asking a lot and the learning potential is...

JB: Astronomical.

AL: Yes, astronomical.

JB: You spend a lot of time talking about teaching and learning here. We do a lot at Stanford by comparison to other universities, but we’ve met more as faculty in the last four weeks at Exeter than we did all of last year at Stanford. And there isn’t a teacher here who isn’t passionate about what they do.

AL: It’s gone by so fast—first thinking about what it could be, and then being here.

JB: And then changing everything once we got here. I change every week.

AL: Every day! There’s a real need to be responsive to what’s happening day-to-day here.

JB: I had drafted up a big Excel spreadsheet with everything we were going to cover.

AL: Have you used it?

JB: No. It became much looser, and better, in the end.


What were the challenges of adapting to the Harkness method?

JB: I thought it would be easier to switch from being a student to an instructor than it was. I’ve had a hard time tolerating the silences. But I found that answering questions when students have them on a need-be basis works. They’ve gotten used to my vague answers: ”Can I do this?” ”I don’t know, can you?”

AL: Before coming here, I thought, ”I already do that.” NO. I do some of it, for sure. Harkness sounds simple but it’s so complex an experience. And so subtle. The theory is one thing. Experiencing it is very transformative.

JB: The students have wildly divergent educational models. We have 13 kids and only four of them are from the United States, and even they’re from all over the place: Miami, New York, South Dakota and Alaska. One of our students sits in the same chair for every subject back at home, and there’s nothing on the wall in his classroom. None of them have anything close to the Harkness system.

JE: There’s a big challenge here: We’re teaching a subject they haven’t done before, and Harkness, which is new to them.

JB: They’ve never been asked their opinion in the classroom.

JE: Especially in the depth we’re asking. You need to get data in order to design. If you’re redesigning a camera, part of the data is: What kind of pictures do you take? Why do you take them? Oh, you like to feel professional? What does that look like? How does it feel? What does it do for your family and your life? You try to get very deep questions. That’s part of what they’re being trained to do. And they’re learning to ask each other.


If you could use another word to represent everything that we call Harkness, what would it be?

JB: Design. Respect. Participation. Democracy.

AL: Innovation. Self. Voice. Community. Collaboration. Presence. Authenticity.

JB: Invitation.


What are you trying to get the students to achieve or experience in these five weeks?

"It's electric when it lands. There is so much synthesis happening." — Amy Larimer

AL: It would be a huge success if they walked out of this with their eyes open to new ways of seeing: how stuff goes together, how it feels, why it’s there, what the experiences are. So many of them expressed that the relationships they’re building are important. The human impact of that on design and creativity is enormous.

JE: Design is a conversation that happens across time, space and culture. If we just got the opening of the eyes, it would be a huge success. But if we can flip them from being people who think that the world is delivered up in this way, to people who say, ”I’m someone who can change this world,” that’s a monumental success.

AL: Last night in the dorm, one of the students said, ”Being here has been the most amazing time of my life.” Blowing open their sense of what the world is—and what they can look at and how they can learn— that’s a huge thing.


Stanford is famous for innovation. What are the key factors needed for innovation, and how do they translate to Exeter?

JB: Some of it is the maker culture, which Stanford embedded in engineering 20 years ago. Some is the allure of going to work for Google. A lot of it is the product design program, the architecture design program, the bioengineering program. All these semicross-disciplinary programs are really attractive to students. If Exeter’s already extraordinary pedagogy were to extend to making and engineering, it would be phenomenal. It’s a direct extension of what happens at the Harkness table in English and math. There’s something really powerful about making something that didn’t exist, and all the problem solving that goes into it.


When you talk about a maker culture at Exeter, are you thinking about a lab?

JB: If I were to dream what it would look like here, it would be an all-glass building. It would be a place where you store stuff, where you could safely work, where there would be classes. You’d start as a freshman, and by the time you were a senior you’d be a proctor teaching other students how to solve problems. It could reference the architecture program, bioengineering, physics, robotics, music. You could build your instrument. It could reference chemistry. You could build models. Getting students to see that they can manufacture their world would be great.


Will your Exeter experience have an impact on your teaching back at Stanford?

JB: Absolutely. The power of bringing diverse voices to bear on a problem or an unknown as a way of teaching. The key ideas of the new graduate program we’re working on are basically cribbing the Harkness table: working in groups, diversity, democratic voices, developing the curriculum when students need it, letting them take it where it needs to go.


The three Stanford faculty members are already planning improvements for next summer. They hope to have a maker lab for the cluster, and are developing a curriculum that can serve as a springboard for classes during the academic school year.

Students work on experience maps (top right), which graphically represent the emotions of an activity— purchasing a drink or ice cream in downtown Exeter—as the basis for improving the consumer experience. The drawings map emotions against the geographical backdrop of the shopping location.

The redesign yourself project (center right)—based on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, which surrounds The Beatles with important influencers— was popular with students, shown here working on layout. One imagined her redesigned self as a monk— ”an enlightened person with a lot of knowledge,” in her words—surrounded by Elon Musk, I.M. Pei, Queen Elizabeth II and others.

The five-week design a dorm project (lower right) started with a thorough reconceptualization of what a dorm is. Working in small groups, students shared ideas and sketches frequently, seeking input that helped further design development. One model included an indoor playing field, useful during harsh New England winters; another, based on the central core concept of Exeter’s Louis Kahn–designed library, had a glass roof extension to allow more light into bedrooms.