Does design thinking run the risk of being the next buzzword in K-12 education?
The theme of the recent National Association of Independent Schools conference highlighted design and innovation. One could not throw a rock without finding a session purported to link design thinking to learning. Many educators have realized that actually finding problems, asking questions, understanding systems, and understanding alternative views are keys to good learning and good collaborative problem solving. Some schools are trying to intentionally evolve in this direction.
The focus on design thinking at the conference was like watching a toddler stumble around living room furniture. The great news is that the toddler is trying to walk, but it is still painful. Other than a few seasoned practitioners of design thinking, there was a noticeable lack of rigor and understanding about the true nature and fundamental process of design thinking. For every Greg Bamford, Mary Cantwell, and Carla Silver (and others) who apply rigor to the discipline, there were indicators like this note purporting to define design thinking without mentioning either users or empathy, perhaps the two most key elements of the process. I visited several session where, despite the description, evidence of design thinking was ephemeral at best. Would we introduce a new US History curriculum via comic books or Cliff Notes? Design thinking is a real process, not, as I heard over a conversation in the exhibitor hall lunch line, “sort of a general approach to brainstorming”. It is great to discuss where design thinking might go and where it might take us in the future, but when we ignore the roots of learning we run the risk of just making stuff up in order to be part of the buzz.
My fear is that design thinking is the next buzzword. Like “grit”, which some of us believe is used by many schools and educators without true vetting of the word or understanding of its application in a broader context, we risk minimizing the positive impact of a great body of thought. I have visited schools, and know of more, for example, that are building maker spaces, Innovation Labs, and Design Centers with virtually no discussion or community-wide understanding of how that space will actually improve, or become embedded in, learning across the school. They are checking off a box on the strategic plan. So, stumbling is better than crawling, but let’s not make a habit out of it. If something is worth learning, let’s demand rigor or we fall into a constant waterfall of descending returns.
The most accessible resources I know for deep learning about design thinking in K-12 education are the weekly #dtk12chat on Twitter; the Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation and its annual FUSE conference; and the resources on the website of the Stanford d.school.