Last night on the always provocative Twitter #DTK12Chat, thought leader/teacher/design thinker Mary Cantwell asked “In design thinking, does either process or product trump the other?”. Most responses favored process; a few championed product, for without a product are we not just spinning our wheels? I offered two thoughts and have been stewing over them. “In design thinking, as in all learning, process IS the product.” And “process and product are two sides of the same coin.”
Mary’s question did just what it was meant to do: provoke thinking. I think that the question embeds a false assumption, as if we asked, “which is the more critical element in water, hydrogen or oxygen?”
As I have said before, I believe design thinking is a scaffold of “good thinking” or “creative problem solving”, and not a unique species. I believe the Tao of learning is that by engaging the process we learn…which is the most important product.
But is not a key strength of design thinking to prototype a result, and then tweak it, make it better, do it again, and learn from those incremental results? Yes, but the question is, “what is a result, or product?” Turned loose in a room full of stuff and tools and encouragement we make things. This is valuable, even fabulous work! And it is relatively easy for a good teacher to extrapolate from that physical design studio to, say, an English class where the students empathize with other writers, the world around them, and classmates, and iterate better and better poetry.
But consider this: we are at the base of a mountain searching for a path to the top. We try this way and that and wind our way up the mountain, finding our way across swollen streams, up rocky cliffs, along narrow tracks, past the sleeping bear, and enjoy the view, or not. We never make it to the top; maybe daylight runs out or we get too tired, or we just plain give up because we don’t have enough “grit”, or we decide to take a nap in the meadow instead, or we lack enough knowledge of the mountain, or a guide who can teach us what we need to know.
Some would argue that the “product” of this experience, or “process” would be an understanding of the lessons we learn from failing to get to the top, of successfully concluding the exercise. I think the “product” is the cumulative experience of the time spent on the mountain, regardless of completion of the task. Any one of us, student or adult, who spent time on that mountain would have engaged a process replete with design thinking strategies, whether we could name them or not. To the outside observer it may appear difficult to identify the product, but it is there nonetheless. I just don’t see how it can be otherwise. Surely that process resulted in really good, perhaps even unique or life-changing learning, even if the product might be in dispute or hard to define. Maybe we just don’t try hard enough to understand highly intangible products, because in school we compel ourselves to measure the tangible.
I think this thought experiment proves my point that we can’t separate process from product in real learning, but any good experiment must stand up to challenge. Hopefully you will!