Design your (educational) design work series #1: Exploration before Explanation

Tessa Forshaw
Apr 17 · 3 min read

Designing educational experiences at the

Last week was the first class of Design Thinking Studio for the spring quarter. DTS is designed to be an accessible entry-point into the world of design for students across Stanford’s seven schools. Given that nearly every student in the class is new to design, on the first day of class, all that Rich, Colin, and I asked our students to do is show up.

When they arrive we put them into interdisciplinary teams, give them a framing question (“How might we make a positive impact on plastic use on campus?”) and hand each team an envelope with eight activity cards inside. Each envelope has the same cards, in a different order (see image). They are told to be back in 90 min.

So what happens? At first, we hear “this is so ambiguous, there are no instructions,” “could you clarify what you want us to produce at the end?” And yet by the end of the 90 min, every team has produced thoughtful design work that is starting to explore the problem space and has come back feeling as though they accomplished something real.

And all this from activity cards like “Learn about plastic use on campus. Report back.” or “Come up with an idea to reduce plastic waste on campus. Find out what works, find out what doesn’t. Improve it.” Pretty ambiguous, right? And that’s the point.

There are two core objectives behind this 90 min activity:

  • By experiencing ambiguity as a class, learners create a shared mental model for ambiguity that they can dissect, examine, reflect on, and ultimately learn from.

These two learning objectives connect to two of the design abilities; “Navigating ambiguity” and “designing your design work.” For them to be learned and practiced, they need to be named and introduced, but only after learners have explored and experienced them for themselves.

How come? Exploration before explanation leads to stronger learning.

“Exploration before explanation” as a learning principle shows up early in the history of the learning sciences and the study of human development for learning. It was popularized as the 5e instructional model for scientific inquiry. To use the technical terms, it approaches learning from a constructive-developmentalism pedagogy.

The core tenet is to get students actively involved with the lesson so that they actively build their understanding of concepts through a process of real-time sense-making. Once they’ve had the chance to try to make sense of an experience themselves, they can build on that base by talking with their peers and teachers. Through discussion, the experience can be situated, and students can engage in a process of collective meaning-making.

Want to get your learning science geek on? Here are a few key readings that will help you deep dive into exploration before exploration, and meaning-making.

P.S — One pro tip if you try this in your classroom: sometimes as an educator it can be really uncomfortable to let students sit in ambiguity. But the world is full of ambiguity, and out there the stakes are high and the consequences are real. If we can’t safely practice navigating ambiguity in a classroom, where do we expect students to learn it? Just remember that intentionally designed ambiguity is a learning experience, and in the example given above it only lasts for 90 minutes.


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Tessa Forshaw

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Shaping an inclusive future through design, research, and learning science. Lecturer @ Stanford + Teaching Faculty @ Harvard University ES


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