Designing a Change

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Although not as much of a rockstar in the ed reform headlines as STEM or maker, the concept of “design thinking” is beginning to seep into the top ten. Like STEM, maker, and PBL, it’s touted by advocates as a new idea that could revolutionize learning. Also like those other terms, few people can agree on what it is and how it might fit into the classroom.

But don’t worry, even the experts are not sure how to concisely explain design thinking.

Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

Which means it fits right in with STEM and those other vague educational concepts: “a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term”. Ambiguity and misunderstanding probably describes all of them and more.

I like the idea of design thinking being applied in the classroom since the concept of design incorporates many of the skills we say we want students to learn during their time in K12 (creativity, collaborative, critical thinking, etc.). From my experience, it offers students and teachers an organized process for creating solutions to problems in just about any subject area.

At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Ultimately, design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure.

However, there’s just one big problem with trying to incorporate design thinking into our current learning model: the concept does not fit with the curriculum, pedagogy, and objectives used in most American schools.

Simply inserting a few “design” activities into the school year when time allows (aka after the spring tests) does not help students become creative, to learn to think in new ways. The same is true when we try to graft STEM, or maker, or PBL, or any of the many other buzz concepts onto what is already being done in the classroom.

If design thinking is really important (or STEM, or maker, or <insert your favorite curriculum idea>) – if it is really a process students should learn and use – then make it part of everyday school instead of a special activity. Rewrite the curriculum around design principles, help teachers revise their pedagogy to make it work, and completely reimagine how to assess student progress.

Without a complete redesign of what school is, we simply have our 1950’s expectations with a few modern talking points.

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