“This process—which has been called design thinking—draws on methods from engineering and design, and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world.” Stanford University’s dschool webpage
No doubt readers are familiar with the term Design Thinking. The concept of Design Thinking has yet to reach levels of MOOC mania, however it’s a movement in its own right. The recent surge of design-thinking-as-a-method coverage by various newsletters and journals is due to its success in the business sector, mostly with consumer and technology companies. The shift to the customer-in-the center of the process is one factor that has motivated companies and now education institutions [with its own shift to the student-focused model] to implement the Design Thinking approach.
“… it is the evolution of design into Design (with or without the “Thinking” term) to redesign large-scale social systems in business and civic society that has folks moving to embrace it. In this era of melting models and flaming careers, of economic uncertainty and social volatility, Design has a set of tools and methods that can guide people to new solutions.” (Nussbaum, 2009)
As I’ve been working on my book Course Design for a Digital Age, I’ve encountered the Design Thinking concept time and again in the context of education. Though I determined that Design Thinking is relevant to instructional design, I do question the merit of implementing Design Thinking into school curriculum, which I found in several instances. In this post I’ll describe Design Thinking and examine why and how it is relevant to educators. It’s worth examining, not only because Design Thinking is ‘in’ right now, but because educators may benefit from knowing the principles of Design Thinking and its applicability to education environments.
History of Design Thinking
Design Thinking as a concept is vague. There are numerous definitions, some that contradict. However it’s safe to say that it’s a way of thinking; thinking that follows a loose framework where insights are collected from a variety of sources that ultimately guide activities toward a solution.
Peter Rowe, professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University first introduced the concept in his book Design Thinking (1987). Rowe describes Design Thinking in the context of architecture and urban planning challenges. The book includes detailed observations of designers in action, past and present, to frameworks that shape design theory and inform Design Thinking. Rowe describes Design Thinking as a process and a method, which has been applied to various disciplines including education since the book was first published in 1987. The following paragraph in Rowe’s book provides some insight into this way of thinking:
“Quite often references are made to objects already within the domain of architecture. On other occasions, however, an analogy is made with objects and organizational concepts that are farther afield and outside of architecture. Sometimes these analogies serve a designer’s purpose for more than a single project and thus become incorporated as a central part of that individual’s design thinking”. (Rowe, 1987)
When Design Thinking isn’t Applicable
However, I am not convinced that Design Thinking is applicable to all sectors as we are led to believe, particularly in K-12 education. Design Thinking requires a breadth of knowledge and experience from various disciplines, which is not present in most K-12 students given the stage of their cognitive development and education background. It requires one to think of a problem from unconventional, even unlikely perspectives, that lead to a collection of insights—insights that will ultimately produce a unique solution. Design Thinking has also been described as using a “close, almost anthropological observation of people to gain insight into problems that may not be articulated yet” (Korn & Silverman, 2012). Do K-12 students really have the education background to engage in Design Thinking? I suggest that teaching this process to K-12 students is not only unfeasible, but unnecessary and limiting. Rather than spending time teaching a structured, cookie-cutter problem-solving process, time might be better spent teaching, and facilitating learning in a breadth of subjects. Rather than give students more structure, they may benefit from less, yet more learning. To think outside of the box, to have multiple perspectives, students require an education grounded in the humanities.
Yet Design Thinking is alive and well in K-12 education, even in higher education. Two design firms, frog Design with its open source Collective Action Toolkit, and IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators, created resources for educators, packaging up the concept into a step-by-step framework. However, there is two different approaches. One that encourages educators to use the Design Thinking process themselves to address challenges in the classroom, and the other to teach students how to use Design Thinking as a problem solving process.
Design Thinking reinforces why an education that includes a breadth and depth of subjects is essential. And, not only in K-12, but in higher education—not just science for the engineers, but art history, world literature and philosophy. Conversely, students of art history will benefit from studying, biology, mathematics and physics. It is educated, mature students that will be ready to apply Design Thinking—to develop insights from multiple perspectives and solve real-world problems with critical thinking and analytical skills. Thinking carefully and critically about the applicability of Design Thinking is time well spent.
Update: A very good counter-argument to this post, Why You Should Use Design Thinking Approaches in Education on the blog, Unexpect.
Design Thinking Curriculum
- Seven Ways of Design Thinking, A Teacher’s Resource, IDESIGN
- Frog Creates an Open-Source Guide to Design Thinking, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
- Want to Help Kids Solve Problems? Have them Design Their Own Solutions, Dave Sherwin, Co.Design
- Design Thinking for Educators, IDEO’s Toolkit
- Hacking the Classroom: Beyond Designer Thinking, User Generated Education [Blog]
- Design Thinking Overview, The Nueva School
- Design Thinking in Education, Emanuel Krantz, MISC
- Welcome to the Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking, dschool.stanford.edu
Design Thinking in the News
- New to UX Design?, Anthony J. Davies, User Experience Designer
- Design Thinking Battle–Managers Embrace Design Thinking, Designers Reject It, (2009), Bruce Nussbaum
- Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment, So What’s Next, Bruce Nussbaum