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.

The Case Against STEM

Listen to an education reformer for more than five minutes and you’re likely to hear about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Students, we are told, must study more of these topics, otherwise they will be unable to compete in the world and our economy is doomed. Or something like that.

However, a columnist for the Washington Post says that our obsession with STEM education is not only based on a “fundamental misreading of the facts”, it “puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future”.

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

The current overemphasis on STEM is largely related to standardized tests, the core of most ed reform efforts. US students generally score behind many other countries on one particular international testing program, “trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia”. STEM advocates declare that our students must be immersed in math and science in order to return the country to the top of the world heap, where we belong.

Except that the US has never been at the top of that particular world heap.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Then there’s the matter that even the companies and organizations considered most innovative want their employees to come with “skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum”.

Finally, the writer makes the case that a broad-based, liberal education – one that includes science and math in balance – would be better for both students and the country.

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers, the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out – yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

The Salvation of STEM

Speaking of STEM, this Post article from a month ago illustrates one big disconnect in our current push for kids to take more STEM classes.

Although a recent study found that almost 75 percent of those who have science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) bachelor’s degrees have jobs in other fields, policymakers, advocates and executives continue to push STEM education as a way to close achievement gaps and produce U.S. innovation.

The bulk of the article is about the college-level fight over STEM with equal weight given to the professor who says “says there is no compelling evidence to support claims of worker shortages” in STEM fields, and the mathematician providing anecdotal proof of the value by observing that students in his field “get jobs before they graduate because of the need for talented workers in fields such as information technology”.

However, don’t bother reading the whole thing. The writer arrives at the real issue behind the emphasis on STEM in K12 education by the second paragraph – and it has nothing to do with jobs.

Officials point to 12 countries that have higher test scores in science and 17 with higher scores in math.

Everything comes back to scores on standardized tests. And if you can mix in something about how US students compare (poorly) to kids in other countries, especially Finland or China, all the better.

But never fear, STEM will save us. Or is it STEAM? Or SSTREEAM?2

The Appearance of Digital Literacy

The title of a recent Wired article claims that Digital Literacy is the “key to the future” – even if we have no idea what that phrase means.

Here in the overly-large school district we talk a lot about “digital” literacy (with it’s interchangeable companion “digital learning”), although few of those using the phrase can offer a coherent definition for it, and often two people will have very different interpretations.

This particular story is based on discussions among “representatives of the tech industry… and academia” that took place at GitHub, one of the geekier places in Silicon Valley and the web. As you might expect, learning to code is a central tenet in this community, but even that idea is vaguely defined.

But “learning to code” is an exceedingly broad concept, and one which without more specifics risks oversimplifying conversations about what digital literacy really means. And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.

Let’s ignore the lame and outdated “digital natives” reference, and assume that we really do want our students, during their time in K12, to develop programming skills to help them define their “future of technology”. Where does that fit in our current concept of “school”? Or, to channel the thoughts of many students, will this be on the test?

Coding is one of those skills that are also puréed into STEM/STEAM/Maker, more ill-defined instructional concepts that in our schools are almost always welded on as before/after school, lunchtime, or pull-out enrichment activities, but rarely included as part of the “regular” curriculum. They are treated as events, rather than as an environment.

If STEAM is so important – and more than one school reformer has declared it to be vital to our national economic future – why isn’t it part of the core curriculum? Instead of a nice extra activity, great for photo ops, offered to a small segment of students, the ones we know will have no trouble passing the spring standardized tests?

As with the tendency to dump computers and other “high-tech” devices (tablets, “smart” boards, etc.) into classrooms with little or no change in instructional practice2, adding STEM and/or coding activities also provides schools – and district administrators, school board members, and other politicians – with “the appearance of teaching digital literacy without providing the actual substance”.

And without having to decide what in the hell “digital literacy” really means.