New Buzz word in education—"design thinking." Good to read in tandem with this piece: "Design Thinking Basics: Five Simple Steps," that consists of the following steps:
- Empathize: Learn about the audience for whom you are designing
- Define: Construct a point of view based on user needs and insights
- Ideate: Conduct an expansive brainstorm to come up with creative solutions
- Prototype: Build representations of idea(s) to show to users
- Test: Return to original user to test for feedback and iteration
It connects well to Ethnic Studies which involves students taking on social justice research projects, producing analyses and data with results that are actionable.
The trendy concept is in high demand among educators, but its specifics are vague.
At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources.
The teachers in the audience were enchanted by the details of the project; and if the photographs in the presentation were any indication, the students who participated in the lesson enjoyed it, too. The presenting teachers were bubbling over with enthusiasm for what they saw as the potential inherent in teaching design thinking.
Many of the teachers in attendance were flummoxed, however. As we filed out of the room and headed toward our next sessions, I overheard one woman remark to another that while the urban-design project looked like something she’d like to try in her own classroom, “I think I missed something. I still don’t understand what design thinking is. Do you?” The other teacher shook her head and said, “I think it’s a curriculum, but I’m not really sure.”
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.”
While Stevenson spent plenty of time talking around a definition—explaining mindsets, the nature of creativity, and the evolution of design—even convincing him to offer a brief definition proved difficult. Finally, Stevenson outlined what he sees as the foundational aspects of design thinking as it relates to educators:
First, he emphasized, design thinking starts with empathy. When designing anything meant to be used by another person—whether that’s a lesson, curriculum, classroom layout, or an imaginary city—the designer must understand what that person (an “end-user,” in design lingo) needs. In the case of the urban-design project, for example, the students can’t just design a pretty building; they must think about the needs of the people who will live there, as well as the available resources, the budget, and the impact that building will have on the surrounding landscape. “The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user,” Stevenson explained.
Once the student designers have gathered all their research together, they must organize and make sense of it all. Again, in the case of the urban-planning project, after the students have gathered interviews and research about the needs of their city’s future residents, students must figure out what to do with all that information. If, for example, the future residents’ top priorities include affordability and opulence, the student designer is going to have to find a way to integrate the residents’ conflicting needs.
In other words, the lack of a clear definition makes explaining, evaluating, and studying design thinking a challenge. And some teachers at that conference in Virginia—myself included—were skeptical, and attended the design-thinking session to better understand whether the concept is actually an effective learning strategy or simply another education trend gone viral despite scant objective data regarding its effectiveness for learning.
When executed with a clear understanding of its purpose as a method for fostering empathy, creativity, and innovation, design thinking can be a powerful tool for learning and change. If it is hastily and inexpertly implemented by educators with a weak or incomplete understanding of its principles, however, it is likely to be a waste of energy and precious classroom time.
While there is not a lot of data to support any particular brand of design thinking as an effective teaching or learning strategy, the key elements of design thinking will be familiar to any teacher well-versed in the basics of effective teaching: start with empathy, move ego to the side, and support students in the process of failing often and early on their way to learning.
Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English teacher. She writes “The Parent-Teacher Conference” column at The New York Times, is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and is the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.