Design Thinking: A Learning Process for Tomorrow’s World

On Thursday, April 4th, more than 140 people attended a presentation and mixer at Main Street Landing. What brought people together from fields as varied as education, city planning, scientific research, performance art, civil engineering, policy-making, and finance? The draw was something both focused and expansive, both particular and universal, both conceptual and applicable: Design-Thinking.

Our facilitator was Jessica Munro, a Stanford alumna and former IDEO designer. Jess has both infused human-centered design principles into her work with the private sector, and integrated the process of “design thinking” into educational settings. This varied background made her a wonderful tour-guide, as we entered this new landscape. (To see the Burlington Free Press profile of Jess, click here.)

An earlier post, entitled “What is Design-Thinking?” serves as a basic primer to this approach. What follows is a conversation with a few individuals who attended a day-long workshop with Jess Munro on Friday, April 5th. On that day, 16 teachers and 10 community-partners experienced a deep immersion in the design-thinking process, made connections to their own workplaces, and used this unique platform to develop new partnerships between school and community.

Contributors include WHS Technology Integrationist, Drew Blanchard;  Shelburne Farms-Education for Sustainability Partnership Coordinator, Sarah Kadden; BHS Science teacher, Molly Heath; and BHS Social Studies teacher, Nadya Bech-Conger.


Nadya in an unfiltered moment of "Yes, and..." ideation!


What struck you most about Design-Thinking? 

Drew: Design Thinking closely mirrors the way I taught in my own classrooms.  I’ve used the Design Thinking process while working in other industries, too, and always thought it was a bit odd it hasn’t made inroads in our educational systems. I’m not a fan of imposing artificial protocols on conversations (I find them to be distracting and stifling) but I DO see the merits of using the Design Thinking process in our work.

Sarah: The thoughtfulness in being explicit and intentional in each step really allows for both creative freedom and a sense of forward momentum.  I think so often we skip steps or head directly to “problem solving” without clarity about what the problem actually is, or without having a clear sense of the systems the “problem” is connected to.  This methodology also allows for totally unexpected insights that can illuminate other patterns at play in our lives and work.

Molly:  One thing learning about Design Thinking made me realize is how often we try to go immediately from problems to solutions. When a problem appears in teaching or in life, I want to find a solution. Design Thinking showed me the value of taking the time to observe the problem, gather information about it, and distill the critical element or elements before working toward solutions.

Nadya: I was stuck by the way that getting ideas out there fast–before they are ‘polished’–is good for my teaching practice and for my students’ learning.

What about the PROCESS or APPROACH seems particularly interesting, valuable, or applicable? 

Drew: Students relate well to, and are excited by, projects with real merit and value.  Design Thinking provides a process in which students can work steadily toward their goal – provided they have properly scaffolded supports, and they feel encouraged/empowered to safely make mistakes.

Sarah:  An intentional, somewhat prescribed approach can feel limiting to those of us who feel more comfortable with less structure (I know this from my work with Critical Friends Group protocols), but having some clarity in process really allows for more authentic collaboration.  Its impossible, in this approach, not to day-light issues you weren’t aware of at the beginning.  It also allows for more authentic, and I think, equitable, collaboration.  You really need multiple perspectives to move forward, and this process not only allows for, but requires it.

Molly:  Within the process itself, there are several pieces that stood out to me as highly applicable in the classroom and in the field of teaching. One was rapid prototyping. We tend to want to perfect ideas before sharing them with others, perhaps because we are concerned about being judged on the basis of those ideas. However, the more time you invest in perfecting your idea, the less willing you will be to accept critical feedback on that idea. Rapid prototyping allows you to receive feedback at the time it is most useful, while your ideas are still forming, and you are open to incorporating new perspectives. I see potential to apply this technique in a variety of ways within classroom instruction. What if students created a rapid prototype, perhaps a story board, before writing the first draft of an essay? They could get immediate feedback on their rough ideas before writing a single word. This could lead to a much more focused first draft that was easier for students to write and probably of better quality. Rapid prototyping could also be used to help students design an experiment in science. Again, after receiving feedback on a quick prototype of their experimental design, students will be able to refine their idea before presenting it to the teacher. This could potentially save time, because, as all teachers know, low quality work takes much more time to assess than high quality work does. It also allows for deeper discussion between students and a chance for them to learn from each other.

Can you envision a way that this process–or parts of this process–might shift how you approach your work? 

Drew: The idea of “rapid prototyping” is the most foreign and uncomfortable aspect of the Design Thinking process, but, arguably, the most important.  It’s also the area in which most teachers and students will need support.  As a society, we’re trained to wait until our work is “good enough” before presenting it – fostering inhibitions and discouraging innovation.   Design Thinking’s concept of rapid prototyping is actually a return to a more natural way of solving problems – one which very young students and children inherently understand (but which adult society discourages).

Sarah: It’s already given me insight into working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders, into really taking time to think big–and even to “think silly”–and to be true to processes.  I believe strongly that everyone has expertise, and this is a process that seems to recognize that.  I also think the rapid prototyping is really powerful.  In education, everything feels incredibly high stakes, and the culture around mistakes isn’t always healthy.  But mistakes are how we learn.  I’m going to try and build more rapid prototying into my work with teachers and with students. There’s so much we can learn from just trying.

Molly: One piece of the Design Thinking process I know I will apply within the classroom and in my professional life is around brainstorming. Brainstorming is an important process for idea generation, but we often approach it with an inappropriate or limiting attitude. I would like to teach the “Yes, and…” mindset for brainstorming to both my students and colleagues. It was amazing to me how this simple phrase, “Yes, and…,” could transform the cohesiveness of a group and allow for the generation of ideas that were far more interesting and creative.

NadyaYes. It already has. I am using pieces of this process with 9th graders. Currently, they are creating an educational video debunking myths and stereotypes about Islam. We used the “Yes, and…” brainstorm mindset to build ideas. Later in the process, students received feedback on their “rapid prototypes.” Receiving feedback early in the process allowed them to make revisions with an end-user in mind, which helped reinforce perspective-taking.

Are the skills and dispositions nurtured by Design Thinking important for students, employees, and citizens? 

Sarah: I think its vital for everyone, regardless of the role they play in the community, to undertand, and deeply believe in their own capacity to create change.  Because Design Thinking is fundamentally collaborative, and fundamentally about possibilities, it changes the paradigm of who holds knolwedge and authority.  Using this with students, with employees and with citizens–who don’t always feel like they have power (and quite frankly, often don’t)–seems tremendously important and vital if we are going to build truly just and sustainable communities.

Nadya:  YES. The idea-generation–going for quantity rather than quality–is something many of our students have a hard time with. They try one idea, one strategy, rather than multiple. This process is also GREAT for heterogeneous grouping, because it provides a way for every learner to have a point-of-entry, and a voice.

Do you have any additional thoughts? 

Drew: What’s usually missing with children’s’ “rapid prototyping” experiments is the feedback and self reflection critical for success.  This, again, is a societal issue – our lack of “stick-to-it-iveness” means rapid prototyping/quick failure often leads to abandoning the project.  Self reflection is an area in which I see many students struggling.  However, I’m concerned their lack of self reflection often comes from the fact they’re working on “artificial” projects and tasks.  Design Thinking won’t solve this bigger problem, but it may be a way to encourage teachers (and students) to seek more inherently valuable and interesting (and self-selected) projects — and this is where the self-reflection and feedback will pay dividends.


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