When you encounter an especially messy challenge, at work, school, or even at home, what is your first instinct? If you're like most of us, you act quickly to come up with a fix and then put your solution into action. But a trending new "social technology" promises to radically change how we tackle problems.
In many businesses, universities, and schools, those who want to promote innovation and engagement are turning to a process known as design thinking. Design thinking rests on the premise that the methods and principles professional designers use can be powerful tools in the hands of non-designers too. People who engineer cell phones, city parks, and school buildings for a living typically use a fairly methodical process to imagine, develop, and test their ideas. Proponents of design thinking believe such strategy can be effective in other contexts too, including the K-12 classroom.
In light of all the buzz design thinking is getting, the Central Oregon STEM Hub recently invited educators across the region to a workshop on the topic. I was among those who attended the first of three sessions in the series, which was facilitated by staff from the Construct Foundation in Portland and hosted here on the Cascades Academy campus. Nearly forty educators from local schools packed our IDEA lab to learn how to incorporate design thinking into teaching and learning.
For me, one of the most important instructional takeaways is that design thinking has a bias toward action and toward failing "early and often." As we learned, the five step process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—is the embodiment of Oregon-born chemist Linus Pauling's assertion that "you aren't going to have good ideas, unless you have lots of ideas." Design thinkers generate and test possibilities at a lively pace. The energy of the process mitigates self-doubt, overthinking, and other obstacles to invention.
Design thinking has a natural connection to STEM subjects, but how can it be utilized in a high school humanities class? Imagine a design thinking challenge in which students are asked to arrive at a deeper understanding of the Columbia River's natural resource use. During the empathy step, students would choose a "user" and imagine the needs of that person or group (a fisherman, an environmental advocate, a tribal land manager, for instance); next they would define a problem (how to sustain healthy salmon populations); then they would enter a process of unfettered ideation and prototyping, drumming up as many creative solutions as possible to their chosen user's problem (modern fish ladders, sustainable fishing systems). Using simple, inexpensive supplies, students would create sketches or 3D model prototypes of their solutions, and eventually test those ideas before their peers, teachers, and ideally real river stakeholders. Based on feedback, they might realize a need to return to any one of the five steps in the process to refine their solutions.
How will this so-called social technology benefit students? First and foremost, I see it as a tool for teaching creativity. One of the most celebrated of the "twenty-first century skills," creativity is also one of the most daunting skills to teach and assess, in my experience. As humanities teachers, we can model creativity, we can celebrate examples of originality in literature and art, and we can reward students for novel thinking and writing when we see it. Yet research tells us that we most effectively teach creativity when we ask students to explore, experiment, and apply knowledge in realistic situations, essentially the latter three steps in design thinking. As one of our facilitators put it, when design thinking works, it can empower students to see themselves as change makers able to create value in the world.
Yet the process is not without its critics. Last September, the Harvard Business Review ran two essays on design thinking. One celebrated the power of design thinking to "unleash people's full creative energies" and "garner a broad commitment to change." By contrast, the other argued that design thinking falls short when it comes to addressing especially thorny challenges like, for instance, climate change, "limiting the scope for truly innovative ideas, and making it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty."
Potential limitations notwithstanding, the popularity of design thinking today suggests it's a concept with which educators ought to feel familiar. Given the incredible momentum building around the process, our students are likely to encounter it in future schooling or in the workplace. In our classrooms today, we can give them a chance to test it out and determine for themselves its relative merits and shortcomings.