Designing Our Way To Better Learning

hbr-sept-2015Last week I attended a workshop at Harvard for corporate and organizational leaders on “Design Thinking” (thus the absence of my weekly blog posting last Friday).

There is a lot I anticipate sharing with colleagues about this workshop, and this experience I know will feed future postings on my site. It truly was transformative for me as a school head and an educational leader.  It happened to be the first conference/workshop I’ve attended in thirty years that was not intended exclusively for educators.

Design thinking has been permeating the corporate and MBA world for several years now, and several giant corporations have thoroughly revamped their workplace cultures by adopting this compelling and different approach to problem-solving, customer service, and product development. This approach is also a positively surprising way for even understanding what problem it is that you want to solve, or for discovering who exactly is the customer you are serving.

Below I’ll offer a short stack of bullet points about how design thinking can help us teachers and educators “get behind the learner” and thus fulfill our promise of delivering educational excellence to all. But first I want to explain what design thinking is all about:

design-thinking-23211111Traditional decision making for managers follows a left brain approach: beginning with a pre-identified problem, next is a review of data, then some analytical thinking, and finally a major top-down decision is made.  But there’s a big difference between deciding and designing. Design thinking might begin with an inspiration, an initial idea or concept, or maybe a problem that is vaguely defined. It is a collaborative process of brainstorming who exactly is the customer you intend to serve.  By learning about this customer’s wants, needs, challenges, limitations, conditions (socio-economic, health, educational, etc.), and emotional state, among a host of other factors, you can begin to identify the problem that you want to solve. Instead of being analytical and deductive, the design thinker is intuitive and inductive. In design thinking, the problem or service you’re attempting to create is not known up front; instead, design thinking is a meandering navigation down a path toward the end user, as it were, and the problem you are solving for this end user can only be known after researching, interviewing, videotaping, and otherwise better knowing your customer.

Design thinkers design their way through all kinds of problems to solve. They make many tiny decisions while they prototype products/services meant to solve the problem you have matched with the customer.  Ryan Jacoby and Colin Raney of IDEO have explained it this way: “Through experimentation and iteration, designers formulate a deeper understanding of their options…over and over, they refine their ideas, building and rebuilding, until they arrive at the final object.”

The standard definitions of design thinking will talk about customers and products. However, I feel strongly that these terms translate well in the educational arena by talking about students and learning.

Here are some advantages of applying design thinking to the classroom:

  • Teachers will know their students much more as individuals with a complex array of needs, traits, interests, and strengths.
  • Teachers will be able to see the learning they are intending to manifest in the classroom from the students’ perspectives.
  • Teachers will learn to be flexible and spontaneous, seizing on the learning opportunity that arises unpredictably.
  • Teachers will feel permission to alter the pacing of the content, in order to go deeper into a subject or a skill that is being developed.
  • Teachers will regard their classroom as a daily laboratory that demands constant attention to the effectiveness of the lessons.
  • Teachers will be able to apply complex approaches that are designed to accommodate a range of learning styles.
  • Teachers will sense the mandate to be creative, take chances, and be innovative.

This blog post is not about offering specific lesson plans; rather, it is a call for teachers to seriously consider this movement going on mostly in the cutting edge business world. Design thinking is a 180 degree turning away from a fixed mindset of doing things the same way. It is a way to break through the rut and sameness of so much teaching that goes on, and in turn can blow open a crystal blue opening toward a new horizon of excellence and opportunity for student enrichment and engagement.

Google “design thinking” or take a look at the online books on the topic—get started on what will be a thrilling venture in your professional life.


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