How Design Thinking can benefit Education

Design thinking as a mindset and work attitude for creative problem solving has become crucial for many activities both in education and advanced training. In this article I will reflect on the added value design thinking brings to education. I believe in education and lifelong learning as being the foundation for all we do in life. However, the way we think about education is in urgent need of change toward a more contemporary form. In the past, the focus of education has been on the transmission of content and knowledge. With regard to university education, Norman and Spohrer observed this more than twenty years ago (1996):

The curriculum is structured around the basic topics of literacy, history, social studies, science, and mathematics. For each content area, experts divide the topics into small, manageable bundles, each then taught according to a prescribed lesson plan. This framework governs most of the world’s teaching, from the first day of class, on through university education.

Thus, educational design has been focusing on the question of how to get ‘manageable bundles’ of existing knowledge into people‘s brains. But we are headed into a world where humans as being a container of mere knowledge is way less needed than humans as being confident and creative designers of the future. As Sir Ken Robinson, well-known British education and creativity expert, states: “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

The problem is, however, that education today is not only not promoting creativity, it’s killing it. I agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he says: “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” Whenever I play together with my two four-year-old nieces, I am always impressed by their curiosity, enthusiasm, creativity and inventiveness. But after going to school and university, how much of this will be left? Making people learn the allegedly ‘one true answer’ by heart, designing standardized, knowledge-driven curricula, a ‘one size fits all approach’ — all this leads to sucking the creativity out of people.

Hence, I propose that the focus of education needs to change from delivering recycled standardized bundles of knowledge to learner-centered education. Learner-centered education means, that

the focus is on the learner and authentic problems rather than on the structured analysis of the curriculum content — though both are clearly necessary. (Norman and Spohrer, 1996)

And this is where design thinking as a human-centered approach can help.

Bringing design thinking to education means emphasizing our human talents and abilities. It is worth mentioning that this is neither entirely new nor does it intend to completely replace things that are already working well. But design thinking has proven to be an effective approach for making changes across a variety of professions such as research, business, and management. In fact, it is well known that design thinking has been successfully applied to education in K-12, undergraduate, graduate and professional training, so there are a lot of examples already displaying the benefit of design thinking in education.

In the following, along the lines of the four-dimensional education framework by the Center for Curriculum Redesign, a non-profit global organization dedicated to improving Education, I would like to briefly give an outline of what design thinking can add to traditional education.

The four-dimensional education framework below focuses on knowledge (what to know and understand), skills (how to use that knowledge), character (how to behave and engage in the world), and learning to learn (how to reflect on and adapt by continuing to learn and grow).

Design thinking is particularly powerful in adding value regarding the three dimensions ‘character’, ‘skills’ and ‘learning to learn’. I will discuss three specific aspects concerning each of these three dimensions.

Character

Let’s start with the character dimension. Through fostering character development you build the foundation for lifelong learning.

Character education is about the acquisition and strengthening of virtues (qualities), values (beliefs and ideals), and the capacity to make wise choices for a well-rounded life and a thriving society. (Fadel et al., 2015)

I will highlight three character qualities that I believe are relevant to all humans in the modern world and that play an important role in design thinking: creative confidence, adaptability and social and cultural awareness.

  • Creative Confidence

Creative confidence is a term introduced by Tom and David Kelly in 2012 and is an inherently optimistic way of looking at what’s possible and believing in your ability to create change in the world around you. The hypothesis is that most people are born creative, but it needs continuous practice or it gets diminished. Design thinking continuously motivates you to strengthen your ‘creative muscle’. It is based on having a growth state of mind and promotes a bias towards action. You have to face the unknown, get active, engage and experiment often. In doing so, you get aware of how much you are capable of designing something meaningful and being a contributor in achieving something.

  • Adaptability

Consistently adapting to changing circumstances and environments and embracing new ideas is one of the key characteristics of design thinking. Innovation in its nature is unpredictable and therefore you get constantly challenged to rethink and dare to go in new directions.

  • Social and cultural awareness

Design thinking provides a framework for interdisciplinary collaboration, as its core is a we-culture of mutual creation. Diversity does not only get tolerated but promoted as being a crucial part of the process. You work together with people that are different from yourself. You immerse yourself in life worlds that are possibly foreign to you. Consequently, you consistently are confronted with and learn more about new perspectives and point of views.

Skills

Skills have always been subject of educative discussions, and there is always the question of what skills are relevant in the future. I will propose the three skills that I believe design thinking nurtures the most: critical thinking/problem solving, creativity and collaboration.

  • Critical thinking/problem solving

Design thinking is a human-centered approach toward problem solving. It provides you with a framework of how to tackle complex problems. Design thinking reminds you to always be a questioning thinker as it prompts you to examine and test propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance.

  • Creativity

Creative confidence requires creativity. Design thinking helps you apply, explore and practice creativity. It prompts you to use both of your hemispheres, meaning the logical as well as the intuitive side of your brain. As an open-ended and playful approach, design thinking gives you the necessary freedom to be an explorer of the unknown.

  • Collaboration

Complex problems can only be solved through collaboration among people with different skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. And yet, the more someone differs from oneself, the less easy it is to work together. Design thinking is beneficial in two ways. On the one hand, it provides teams with a common language to go through the creative process. On the other hand, through grounding practice in a deep understanding of humans, their needs and their circumstances, design thinking facilitates an alignment of team members’ perspectives, as they work toward the the common goal of improving human’s lives. Consequently, team members have a structured process of joining forces to achieve the goal of improving lives.

Learning to learn

Learning how to learn, or also ‘Meta-Learning Dimension’, basically encircles all other dimensions (‘Knowledge’, ‘Skills’, and ‘Character’) and supports an ongoing development.

Learning to learn engages learners to build on prior learning and life experiences in order to use and apply knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts […]. This competence includes awareness of one’s learning process and needs, identifying available opportunities, and the ability to overcome obstacles in order to learn successfully. (European Parliament, 2006)

Curiosity & motivation, reflection and patience are three characteristics of ‘Learning to learn’ that design thinking cultivates.

  • Curiosity & Motivation

Albert Einstein once said: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity and motivation play an essential role in design thinking. Design thinking encourages you to acknowledge that you may know some things, but still there is so much to explore! In design thinking, you constantly try to adopt a beginner’s mindset and explore things from different perspectives. Quite often it results from the empathy you’ve built for users, because you get intrinsically motivated to improve their experiences.

  • Reflection

Reflection is constructive questioning about what you do and why you do it and then deciding about the next steps in the future. This is a central facet of the iterative working process in design thinking. You constantly get feedback from yourself, your team and the users.

  • Patience

Patience is a virtue. There is no magic tool to solve a problem, there is no shortcut to innovation. Same holds true for design thinking; it’s not the easy solution some people would wish for. Nevertheless, design thinking provides you with an ongoing process you can trust that a useful solution will emerge eventually. Through its richness in variety, design thinking gives you the confidence that it’s okay that good things take time.

Summary

To sum it up, education is in urgent need of change toward focusing on the human beings and their potential and talents, and here are the three ways that design thinking can support that:

Character:

Creative Confidence | Adaptability | Social & Cultural awareness

Skills:

Critical thinking/problem solving | Creativity | Collaboration

Learning to learn:

Curiosity & Motivation | Reflection | Patience

Thank you for reading this, I hope this is helpful for you. Let me know if you have experience with design thinking and education, or if you have introduced design thinking to education. Feedback and additional thoughts are always appreciated.


References:

Norman, Donald & C. Spohrer, James. (1996). Learner-Centered Education.

Fadel, Charles & Bialik, Maya & Trilling, Bernie. (2015). Four-Dimensional Education.

European Parliament. (2006). Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for lifelong learning.


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