Not So Fast…

I just had the opportunity to present at the GAFE Southern Summit in Atlanta over past weekend.  One of my sessions introduced participants to the process of design thinking.  While it is a challenge to “do” design thinking in an hour, I had a great group and it was a lot of fun.

smallbrainI’ve been studying/immersing myself/learning about the process for several years.  My interest in design thinking originated with my belief that imagination was the most limiting factor in today’s climate of school improvement, and I was seeking a process that could be used in a school setting that might change that.  And yes, I was looking for a process, because schools love processes.  If there was a process that could be applied to a school issue and it supported and engendered a creative problem-solving approach, then I was going to be very interested.   It turns out that design thinking can indeed support all of that.

It’s also apparent that there is a possibility that design thinking could be used as a pedagogical approach.  Would it be interesting for students to explore an issue with deep empathy, organize thoughts and ideas into a direction, ideate around that, prototype a solution and test it.  Yeah, that works.  And if you would have watched the workshop, my guess is that most would like to see the behaviors exhibited by the participants in my session in their learners.  Almost all were engaged, lots of discussion, pattern-finding, challenging each other, brainstorming, ideation, and creating something new to address a unique problem.  That’s pretty good stuff.

Now I’m not saying that this is the magic bullet.  But it’s an intriguing one.

Of course, there were lots of questions.  I expected that, after all, wrapping your head around the process and how it works is enough of a challenge, let alone in an hour.  But the really interesting questions were about the applicability of design thinking as a learning process within what they currently taught.  Where were the entry points?  How do I use the process to:  _______ ? (insert some curricular topic).  For example, how would I use design thinking to teach mitosis?  Answer:  you wouldn’t.

So, here lies the challenge, and why it is difficult to see the application of design thinking to classroom learning, at least in the current form of a classroom and what happens there.

Most curricula are designed around the acquisition of content.  I know this, and you should to.  We’ve got units to “cover” and tests to take.  Learning in most high schools is containerized and content-acquisition driven.

Teachers kept asking how to apply design thinking to their curriculum.  When the curriculum is isolated and content-focused, well, you have a challenge.

Design thinking asks students to solution seek in response to a real, meaningful and messy question.  It engages learners in a process where “subjects” are not considered separately, but together in an interdisciplinary connection of understanding that supports the development and testing of a potential design.

Teachers kept trying to find links to their current container called curriculum.  Where could I use this, they kept asking?

I’m not sure design thinking, which is a terrific approach that can create the conditions for an entirely different learning experience, can be effectively employed without a very serious redefinition of a school’s curriculum.  It’s not something done by a teacher in a unit, it’s a mindset that an entire school employs and uses to craft empowered learning that seeks to solve great problems worth solving.

There has to be a point where teachers and schools stop trying to retrofit everything interesting, everything new, into old mindsets, structures, and beliefs.



  1. Great post, David. When a school is structured so that approaches like design thinking and project-based learning are the norm, great stuff is indeed possible. Take a look at a project-in-progress at the American School of Bombay, which has taken a deep dive into design thinking and PBL:
    Part 1:
    Part 2:
    (I’m eager for Part 3!)
    While designing a solution to make their learning community a more peaceful place, these first-graders also are meeting more traditional learning goals–using descriptive language, making observations, organizing data, etc. Doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.

    • davidjakes says:

      Hi Suzie: thank you for your comments and sending those links along. Makes sense, right? Give them an important question to solve and they have a reason for building all of the other skills. There’s a context for learning.

  2. I think you’re response to the mitosis question is spot on. Design thinking, PBL, inquiry, etc are all pedagogies that are generally stark contrasts to the direct instruction model that has dominated schools. The thing is nothing is for everybody. You wouldn’t teach someone to change a tire using inquiry. Direct instruction, however can work in almost every situation. Even schools that brand themselves as inquiry schools have to be able to effectively know when it’s not the best way to learn and teach. Not that that is preferable, but it is scalable which is what schools have always desired. The real shift is being able to aptly apply different pedagogies to different types of learning and be okay with that.

    • davidjakes says:

      Agreed. When I taught juniors and seniors homeostasis, I had to explain it. I had to tell them, and address the intricacies and complexities of the processes that support internal steady state. But it becomes a problem when that’s all that’s done, and that’s all teachers aspire to. I guess it goes back to the art of teaching, and that is to know what is best when.

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