Making Education More Like Real Life Through Design Thinking

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While I wrote about educational trauma and how it negatively impacts schools, consumers, and producers of education, I also indicated there is some good news. Indeed there is! Creative and innovative educators across the nation are embracing Design thinking as one strategy to increase relevancy and promote learning across disciplines.

Design thinking asks students to become investigators in their world, attempt to solve problems, bridge gaps of knowledge independently, collaboratively, and resourcefully. These are skills that are highly relevant in today's job market. When I think of Design thinking, I think of Steve Jobs. He's a great character to illustrate a variety of ideas, innovations in particular. For one, he applied principles of graphic design to the world of personal computing to bring us the smartphone and tablet. Jobs revolutionized our lives by integrating different innovations into a single device. There is great value in the ability to synthesize, create, and invent. So how are we going about imparting these skills to our students?

Mary Cantwell, Design Thinking Coordinator and IT Faculty Support at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (MVPS) in Atlanta GA has greatly influenced my thinking about design thinking (DT). A coach at Stanford's D school program, she created DEEP: Discover, Explore, Experiment, and Produce as her DT platform at MVPS. Design thinking involves immersing students in what she calls situations for discovery. Situations for discovery encourage a wide range of relevant and active learning. In them, students are prompted to consider the community, areas of need, the environment, or challenges they face. DT gives students ownership of their work, which is a hallmark in igniting the love of learning.

Modern education relies on a variety of different sources of information for discovery and drawing conclusions. Among the sources are mixed media such as videos, podcasts or text. Experts in the community can also be sought to convey information to students. In DT, students learn more about the problem they are trying to solve. They do this by going on field trips or visit an expert in a lab, workshop, or studio, for example.

In DT, the teacher becomes a facilitator of learning, and students become active learners. As active learners, information retention and skill development are not only higher, but faster too.

Cantwell's DEEP method of DT has four modes. The modes are Discover, Empathize, Experiment, and Produce. Active learning is a part of the Discover phase where students immerse themselves in observing and asking questions. In Cantwell's Empathize mode of DT, students begin trying to understand the user by gaining insight into their situation and needs. They collect their feelings, gain insight and a point of view about the areas being explored. The actual task of study is identified at end of the Empathize mode. They consider the user or beneficiary of their solution, and what would work best for them. In reality, this level of empathy is deeply needed for humanity to survive and for individuals to be successful in modern society. Being able to expose our youth to these skills at any age represents a huge innovation in our time.

In the Experiment mode of Cantwell's DEEP, students ideate possible strategies to solve the problem. Using brainstorming and active investigation approaches, they imagine solutions to problems that adult brains may overlook. They even begin taking the ideas to the physical plane with prototyping occurring in this stage. This is where 3D printers become a must-have in schools serious about preparing their students for the future. Unique to this approach, the students have time limits on their prototyping efforts. This promotes mental flexibility and keeps them from becoming attached to their ideas. A key flexibility needed in the 21st century, is the ability to take feedback and failure as learning experiences, rather than setbacks. Time limited prototyping is an exercise for developing this skill.

When John Hunter offered this level of control and freedom to 4th grade students in the form of the Peace Game, they solved global problems. His TED talk illustrates this achievement.

Finally, students test their strategies in the Produce mode of DEEP. Not only an opportunity to learn first hand about what worked and what didn't, but the Produce mode is also a time to practice giving and receiving feedback. Design thinking teaches students a host of important skills, all packed into one approach that can be applied to a variety of subjects. Moreover, it causes students to explore many different areas of study, increasing relevance.

While this model increases appeal to students, as well as the range of ideas they explore, it is also a major game changer for teachers. Teachers have no preconceived idea about the direction DT projects will take. This model shifts the teacher’s role considerably, as the outcome and how students will reach it, are unknown at the outset. In DT, gone are the days when teachers have a plan of how it should all go. In my opinion, this represents a great shift in pedagogy. It allows for greater creativity and relevancy for our students. They will not have a road map in the future, why should education teach them that life goes that way?