Design Thinking

An interesting article on “Design Thinking,” a relevant concept for STEM/STEAM work, and in encouraging collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving and innovation.  Design thinking also helps create an environment where failure is expected and accepted.


An Experience of “Yes”

Independent schools begin to explore and exploit the power of design thinking
Peter Gow
Spring 2012

The inkling was there all along. Back in 2005, in A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink included design — “utility enhanced by significance” — as an essential aptitude for the 21st-century learner.

As Pink’s work began to achieve general currency among educators, related threads from the realm of business also converged. The successes of companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter have intensified the aura around “innovation.” Truly novel ideas with social utility attract dazzling talent as well as vast quantities of attention and capital. In the purely aesthetic realm, Apple under Steve Jobs built a peerless reputation for beautiful functionality — while open-source and “maker” devotees work within an equally compelling aesthetic of functionality as a kind of beauty in itself. With innovative products and services aggressively pursued and richly rewarded, there is growing focus on environments and approaches — think Google’s storied workplace culture — that seem to foster authentically new ideas and new solutions in any field.

Some attentive independent school educators began looking around. If forward-thinking independent schools are to produce new minds, they maintained, “design” — the proposition that an aesthetic process matters — must be part of the learning experience they offer.

Enter, then, “design thinking.” A concept as challenging to define as it is to implement, design thinking focuses on a process long familiar to students and teachers in schools of art and architecture: the posing of a problem, perhaps elegantly framed but more likely ill-structured or open-ended — and with some constraints. Working within the constraints, problem solvers work through possible solutions and create workable models for critique, testing, retesting, and redesigning until a breakthrough is achieved. Design thinking is above all an iterative process, with constant improvement — experimenting with and then scrapping Plan A and moving onto Plan B — as a central tenet. In its educational incarnation, says Cathy Van Lancker, visual arts chair and developer of a pioneering course in design thinking at Moses Brown School (Rhode Island), the method also involves near-continual assessment to “measure process — daily feedback, ongoing practice, observations, summaries, reviews, rubrics.” Kim Saxe, director of the Innovation Lab, or I-Lab, at Nueva School (California), sees this iterative prototyping as helping students develop “a totally different attitude about failure. When kids see that failure is giving them important information, they don’t give up — they incorporate the information.”

Design thinking was given a name and life 20 years ago through the work of Rolfe Fast and David M. Kelley at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (more commonly referred to as the “”) at Stanford University. Kelley later founded IDEO, which has grown into a leading design firm and, increasingly, a fountainhead of educational ideas. Other leaders associated with design thinking include Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, and Tim Brown, now CEO of IDEO and whose book Change by Design offers business leaders a template for applying design thinking to organizational development.

It is important to emphasize what design thinking is not: it is not exclusively a tool for arts education, nor is it strictly technical. In its most complete expression, says Moses Brown’s Van Lancker, whose course draws on such resources as Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students and corporate partner Hasbro, design thinking adds the element of creativity that spurs both elegance and innovative thinking in more technical fields. She cites RISD president (and a developer of virtual world Second Life) John Maeda’s call for the insertion of the letter A — for Arts, broadly construed — in among the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines: turning STEM into STEAM. “This could happen in every class, every level, and every day,” says Van Lancker.

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