Why use Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the second in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

So if we’ve established a bit of a common understanding of what Design Thinking really is, and remember the ‘sound bite’ from last week was: “Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving…” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4let’s now turn our attention to why we might embrace a design thinking approach to teaching and learning. What might it offer our learners?

Perhaps the place to start is with the idea of ‘21st century’ skills, a phrase which is a bit amorphous, but is often used as an umbrella term for the kinds of skills that educationalists, researchers and future thinkers regard as being key for our current (and future) learners in order for them to be active and aware citizens. These 21st century skills are sometimes alliteratively grouped as three or four Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

framework_for_21st_century_learning
Image Source

As a group works through a design thinking process using the design thinking mindsets, they cannot help but hit all four of these Cs in a meaningful way. There will be the collaboration of the group itself as they work iteratively through the framework. Many proponents of design thinking actively encourage diverse groupings in order to encompass a variety of voices and of perspectives. Collaboration cannot be done without communication. Additionally, there will be communication with the users, the people for whom the design solution is being sought. Empathy building will require some kind of interview, survey, research – or all three – to be conducted. This also draws on critical thinking, particularly as the group moves from an immersion to an ideation phase. Synthesising a wealth of information requires a hugely critical eye. Finally, one of the reasons I personally feel drawn to design thinking is the way it provides a semi-structured way to develop creativity. The ideation phase in particular targets this. But creativity will also be fostered in imagining ways to communicate effectively and deeply with users, creating prototypes, pitching an idea for feedback.

In New Zealand, our ‘21st century skills’ are really the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum:

  • Thinking
  • Relating to others
  • Using language, symbols and text
  • Managing self
  • Participating and Contributing.

Hopefully even with only a cursory glance at this list, we can see that again design thinking will hit meaningfully on these too.

As notosh says: “Design Thinking can be a powerful vehicle for deeper learning of content, more divergent thinking and building the thinking skills capacity of learners. Key to the process’s success in learning, is that it provides the platform for learners to become problem finders.” I’d like now to consider a further this idea of problem solving and problem finding. It might seem a little odd, but let’s not consider these two things as separate from one another.

You may recall from the previous blogpost, that Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) looked at tracing the origins of this phrase ‘design thinking’ and in the process of doing so, focused on ‘thinking about design’. In his article, he makes a salient point about problem finding by quoting Horst Rittel: “formulating the problem is the problem.” Rittel uses the phrase ‘wicked’ to discuss design problems, as, among other aspects, “Every problem can be seen as a symptom of another and problems cannot be separated into disciplines.” (Protzen, 2010, p. 6)

‘Wicked’ problems are not just limited to problems of design (in a narrow sense of the word). Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert (et al, 2012) discuss these in an educational context in their superb “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”. They define wicked problems as those that “cannot be solved using straightforward puzzle-solving or mathematical solutions. They span multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral…” For example: climate change, poverty, drug trafficking. “It is argued that education for the 21st century needs to support learners…to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.” (Bolstad and Gilbert et al, 2012, p. 12)

I believe that design thinking offers one way to begin to tackle wicked problems. Working in a cross-curricular, trans-disciplinary, collaborative manner to hear the voices of those ‘on the ground’ seems to me to be a way to bring highly complex challenges from the abstract to the concrete and thus begin to find workable, realistic solutions; finding the problem in order to work towards solving it. Thus I believe design thinking fosters active, agentic, empathetic citizenship. More than developing and nurturing 21st century skills, design thinking offers hope that things can change for the better.

Sources:

Bolstad, Rachel and Gilbert Jane (et al). (2012). “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, Retrieved from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications/supporting-future-oriented-learning-and-teaching-new-zealand-perspective

Kwek, Swee Hong. (2011). “Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning”, (Master’s thesis) Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/redlab/cgi-bin/materials/Kwek-Innovation%20In%20The%20Classroom.pdf

McIntosh, Ewan. (2014). “The Design Thinking School”, Retrieved from http://notosh.com/what-we-do/the-design-thinking-school/

Protzen, Jean-Pierre. (2010). “Design Thinking: What is That?”, Retrieved from http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/downloads/pubs/faculty/protzen_2010_design-thinking-what-is-that.pdf

But Why?

[Using the idea of asking ‘why’ five times, I have an imaginary conversation with a hypothetical teacher about the need to do things differently.]

I’m a good teacher. I don’t have behaviour management issues in my classroom, and my students get good results. Why do I need to shift my practice to this ‘future learning’ thing?

  • Can we start with the assumption that good teaching = good results and therefore = good learning? I think we can all easily fall into the trap of thinking that when our students get good results in their assessments that is because we are good teachers, but when students don’t do so well, then that’s because they experience some kind of barrier to their learning. I think that if we’re being honest we can admit that sometimes our students learn despite us.
  • I also worry about the equation of assessment results with learning. I think at times we’ve all decried the ‘credit-accumulation’ mindset of our students; that they don’t seem to want to learn for a love of learning’s sake. I worry that assessment, like we have here in NZ with NCEA, whereby discrete content areas or skill sets are assessed in an oftentimes fragmented way, doesn’t actually allow for the kind of learning and skill development that we’d like to see in our learners.

Why? What kind of learning do we need our students to have?

  • As we know, we have moved out of the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age. Wikipedia knows more than it is possible for one teacher to know. The pace of change has increased with a corresponding increase in knowledge. It is no longer really possible to define what we need to know, and it is no longer necessary to store knowledge in our heads in case we need it later on. If we need it, then we’ll Google it. Therefore a different model of education is needed.
  • There are different ways of looking at the future. One of these ways is to discuss so-called ‘wicked problems’. These are problems that are complex and interconnected, such as climate change, food security, the ethics of biotechnology, poverty, etc. These require solutions, but the nature of them is such that they are not easily solved, and in fact implementing a solution for one facet of a problem may well even exacerbate other facets.
  • Therefore we need learners who are capable of dealing with these problems. There have been many attempts to define the skills needed, such as this framework. I also like the ‘4Cs’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. The change here is an emphasis is on skills, rather than content.

OK, I can accept that the world looks different today than it did when I was growing up. But why does my classroom practice needs to be different when I can cover the 4Cs within my subject area?

  • I agree that traditional, siloed education can cover the 4Cs, and the NZC’s Key Competencies, but we know more about the way the brain learns these days, and we know that a diet of only traditional, factory-style lecture from the front of the room isn’t it.
  • Just like wicked problems are interconnected and complex, we need to offer our learner the means by which they can learn to apply their understanding in interconnected and complex ways if they are going to make an impact on society. To do this authentically will require a shift away from a subject-siloed approach.

What role does technology play in all of this? Why do I have to be a teacher of technology as well as my subject area?

  • Luckily, you don’t. Technology is an enabler. We’ve already acknowledged that Google knows more than a teacher can possibly know, but the search results are massive. We need to teach learners skills to deal with information, how to be critical and discerning with information, how to apply information, and how to make new information.
  • Rather than looking for cool new apps, we should ensure that we use the right tools for the task. But the tasks themselves may well need to shift in order to focus on the skill building we’ve been discussing.
  • Models like SAMR and the eLPF suggest that technology allows us to offer more authentic and genuine learning experiences than have before been possible.
  • Redefined tasks that focus on skill development within an authentic, problem- or inquiry-based context also helps young people to learn how to tackle wicked problems.

If it’s all online, why do my students even need me anymore?

  • I’ve been thinking about timetables. I’ve decided that a timetable can be both a literal and a figurative structure. It is the schedule that organises a school day, but it has become a mindset. As adults we know that the world, and even our brains, don’t work in perfectly scheduled 55 minute slots. I believe we do a disservice to our 21st Century learners when we offer than a 19th or even a 20th Century-style education model like this.
  • So, if the emphasis shifts from content to skills, what else can you offer your students? A positive learning-based relationship, encouragement and motivation, learning opportunities, an expert network to tap into, access to you; the most experienced learner in the room. You know, all the stuff that does make you a good teacher – which is where we started. You are absolutely a good teacher. Now, what steps are you going to take in order to be even better?

(Need some ideas of where to start? Start by getting connected and learning:)

Marsden Professional Learning Session 12

The theme for today was critical thinking, and it was mostly about having two staff members highlight activities they have used to encourage critical thinking in their students.

Here is a copy of the wrap-around presentation I used:

I enjoyed talking about thinking, particularly the opportunity to share how I feel I have been guilty of having quite a shallow understanding of the ‘thinking’ Key Competency specifically, but all the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum more generally. When I put the slide up of points about what ‘Thinking’ entails from Bolstad et al’s book ‘Key Competencies for the Future‘ (2014) there was quite a buzz that suggests to me that I was not alone in treating the competencies lightly. We need to ensure that we don’t play lip service to thinking, but are offering explicit strategies to our learners, and to highlight to them times when they are thinking to build this awareness.

It was fantastic to hear from a PE/Health teacher and a Science teacher about their practice. The staff were impressed by the health advertisements some Year 9 students had produced. It was great to see Health content, English and Performance Media skills coming together. A challenge would be to do this in a more explicit way for cross-curricula links to be forged. I also loved how the teacher spoke thoughtfully and honestly about worrying that her students would ask her for technical support and she wouldn’t be able to offer this. She learned over the course of her unit that it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t have all the answers. Powerful stuff.

A Science teacher spoke about the collaboration I have blogged about here – whereby we teach the same Year 8 class and the girls used their forensics knowledge from Science to write ‘whodunit’ plays in English. I appreciated that she highlighted the usefulness of Google tools such as Docs and Slides to allow the students to more easily move across the learning areas and tasks. She also commented that she thought the task was a challenging one, but the students showed resilience and critical thinking in having to interweave the skills and content needed. I’m pleased that she’s keen to use the unit again next year!

My workshop was one offered previously on Edmodo, and the helpsheet for this is available here.

Redundant Adjectives

This post is my contribution to a collaborative project initiated by Sonya Van Schaijik that aimed to unpack and question the various ‘buzzwords’ currently in use in education. This collaborative book was launched at the end of Connected Educator Month. I am proud to have taken part in this challenge, and am grateful to and appreciative of the warm but demanding support of Kathy Scott who was my critical friend.

Redundant Adjectives: Pedagogy’s built-in understanding of being future-focused

To all intents and purposes, the New Zealand Curriculum’s opening words are those of the overarching vision for the document: “Young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.” Note the use of the future tense. This verb tense continues over the page where the stated vision is fleshed out into five bullet points including: “Our vision is for young people who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising”. Thus, the intention of the curriculum document is to “set the direction for student learning” and that direction is one pointing firmly into the future.

A further way that the New Zealand Curriculum explicitly sets its direction as being future-focused is through its principles which, “embody beliefs about what is important and desirable in school curriculum – nationally and locally.” One of these principles is that, “the curriculum encourages students to look to the future by exploring such future-focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation.” It is clear then that the New Zealand Curriculum is an aspirational document and one which seeks to address the future needs of Kiwi kids.

Pedagogy, while a separate concept to ‘curriculum’, is similarly forward-facing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as, “The art, occupation, or practice of teaching. Also: the theory or principles of education; a method of teaching based on such a theory.” If you like, curriculum is the ‘what’ of teaching, and pedagogy is the ‘how’. Generally speaking, the meeting point of the two is schools and the main medium for delivery is teachers. Therefore, while not synonymous, the two concepts have the same basis of intention: to shape young people into the kind of adults a society deems desirable.

Thus, in my opinion, the phrase ‘future-focused pedagogy’ is redundant because the future is already inherently implied and understood in the use of the word ‘pedagogy’: schools and teachers are naturally focused on developing students’ capacities and capabilities. And these are the capacities and capabilities that will best serve them as adults and future citizens in society. Needless to say there are considerable value-laden assumptions behind what kind of adults and future citizens are seen to be necessary by curriculum writers and the research they draw upon. But all of this, in my opinion, begs an important question to explore: what kind of future is implied by our pedagogy?

One of these visions for the future is an industrial, production-based model. Most recently Sugata Mitra has argued that our current school system was designed with elegant efficiency by the Victorians who wanted to produce future workers for their industrial age factories. Students in this era experienced a factory-style pedagogy appropriate for molding factory-style workers. Young people were viewed as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge they would require when they needed it. Curricula prescribed the knowledge that young people ought to know, and, to some degree, ought to be able to do with that knowledge. All students learnt the same thing in the same way for the same kind of future.

But we are no longer in the Industrial Age. We are now in the Knowledge Age where “knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth”. This change also signals a shift in what ‘knowledge’ is. We also understand a lot more about how learning occurs. Students no longer need a sole diet of ‘just in case’ learning but rather need ‘just in time’ learning: knowing how to learn when learning is required; how to critically navigate a glut of information. This is an entirely different vision of the future. Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert talk about knowledge as having metaphorically shifted from a noun to a verb: “as a resource to do things with, not an object to be mastered.” Students need to know how to interact with, and build knowledge. And the pedagogy needed to empower this capacity in students is fundamentally different.

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum document reflects this difference. While, as already noted, curriculum is not pedagogy as it is not a description or formula for how to teach, there is substantial overlap between the two. The focus in the New Zealand Curriculum on the five Key Competencies of managing self, understanding language, symbols and text, participating and contributing, relating to others, and thinking, implicitly requires a different pedagogy from that operating in an Industrial Age model. I urge New Zealand educators to concentrate their focus on this ‘front half’ of the document as a signal to shift attention away from content and instead onto skills and dispositions.

But let us now return to the question posed at the beginning: What kind of future is implied by our pedagogy? While the very nature of the future is that it is definitively unknowable until it is the present, we tell stories of what the future is ‘likely’ to be all the time: hover cars, robot overlords, post-apocalyptic wasteland, living on Mars under a great glass dome… Keri Facer, in her important book Learning Futures, explores some of these potential futures ahead of us. In doing so, she emphasises that these stories of potential futures are precisely that: narratives. And the nature of narratives is that they can be manipulated and changed, that they are not set in concrete. The future is the consequence of a whole series of decisions that are made right now. As Facer says, “The future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene.”

Pedagogy, with its in-built understanding of being future-focused, is one of those intervention methods. We don’t know what kind of future lies ahead of us, but we are pretty sure of what it isn’t likely to be: a Victorian manufacturing plant. Therefore we must ensure that our pedagogy is future building, a term that, “implies we have power and agency to create the future we want.” Certainly the intention behind the New Zealand Curriculum, and its Key Competencies in particular, reflects this.

I believe that teaching is an expression of hope for the future. That our learners not only become “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners”, but adopt this vision as part of their current identity. That our learners do not become citizens, but see themselves as citizens already. Thus, while the adjectival phrase ‘future-focused’ is indeed redundant to qualify the noun ‘pedagogy’, we must make sure that our pedagogy is an expression of this hope. Bibliography (To access a version of this blogpost with footnotes, please click here.)

  • Claire Amos, “Futures Thinking and the Future of Education.” Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert et al, “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, NZCER, 2012
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future, NZCER, 2008
  • Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change, Routledge, 2011
  • Rosemary Hipkins, Rachel Bolstad, Sally Boyd, and Sue McDowall, Key Competencies for the Future, NZCER, 2014
  • The New Zealand Curriculum, Ministry of Education, 2007. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Sugata Mitra, “We Need Schools…Not Factories“. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • OED, Accessed online 20/9/14

Want to read more? The other chapters of the collaborative book are here: