Over the past twenty years, design thinking has been infiltrating school and college curriculums around the world – but there’s still a lot of confusion about what it is and how it can be taught. Should schools be doing more? And, if so, what?
Design thinking is all about taking a creative and iterative approach to solving difficult challenges. And, let’s face it, the world has plenty of those at the moment.
What’s more, as an increasing proportion of daily work tasks are digitalised and automated, the value-add that a company’s human workforce can bring lies in the creativity and soft skills that they bring to bear on a problem or activity.
Design thinking shows that creativity can be summoned and that anyone can be a creative problem-solver. That’s why design thinking matters: because it’s a skillset that we will all need to develop to succeed in the future world.
Much of educators’ current preoccupation with design thinking emerged from the work of the Hasso Platner Institute of Design at Stanford University and of IDEO in Chicago.
Essentially, the term refers to an iterative, non-linear design process which incorporates approaches such as problem framing, solution-focused thinking, ideation, solution generating and sorting, prototyping and evaluating.
Neil Stevenson, executive portfolio director at IDEO, admits that the concept is a little nebulous. He told The Atlantic magazine that “design thinking isn’t one thing, but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”
Design thinking is a challenge for educators because its very nature is at odds with much of the way the current school curriculum is disseminated, taught and assessed.
As interest in the concept of design thinking has grown amongst educators, there have necessarily been attempts to explain how to teach it. But, by characterising design thinking as a series of executable steps that can be followed or taught in a classroom, educators risk oversimplifying the process – or mischaracterising its very essence.
Furthermore, rubrics for grading student achievement can be even harder to create and share successfully. The very heart of design thinking is in taking a non-linear, collaborative, empathetic and creative approach to solving a problem. And this doesn’t fit neatly within a standard marking scheme.
IDEO’s Neil Stevenson emphasises a number of key mindsets that teachers and students need to master if design thinking is to be successful.
First is empathy. When designing anything, the designer must first understand what the person using it needs. Which unmet rational and emotional needs of the user are being met?
Empathetic design goes beyond ergonomic design to include not only the physical requirements of the user, but also the physiological and emotional needs of the user.
Second, students and teachers must be comfortable with failure. Design thinking requires them to generate a lot of ideas and potential solutions, to sort through those ideas and to prototype them. Trialling lots of ideas at the same time, iterating and developing them necessarily involves an acceptance of which ones are working and which are not as well as a willingness to learn from design mistakes.
Teachers and students need also to recognise that the value of the design thinking adventure does not lie solely in the final product or solution produced. Rather, the value for the student – and teacher – lies in the learning that happens throughout the process.