Design and Redesign Thinking…and the teacher way of being…


December 17, 2017 by readlisaread

I had the great fortune to do a presentation the other day with a group of highly engaged, motivated and capable kids, ranging in age from grade 8 to 12.  I was tasked with leading them through a Design Thinking activity that would help them shape the future direction of their organization (in this case, a District level Student Council). At the end of our two or so hours together, I thanked them for spending time with me and sharing their thinking, and I also thanked them for giving me the opportunity to learn some things.  I didn’t tell THEM what I learned, but I share my learning with you, gentle reader, as I digest the experience of what it really means to think deeply.

The more deeply I dive into Design Thinking, the more I realize I am doing the whole process a disservice every time I have to take a shortcut or artificially condense the timeline. I had been struggling with this for a while by the time I met with this group, and what I learned was that I was right…. this process cannot be short-circuited and rich at the same time. One cannot do deep thinking in an atmosphere of haste.

On the surface, most teachers walking into my space that day would have thought “Wow! these kids are doing a great job!” And they did, and the ideas they came up with were all deeply felt and worthy of pursuit.  But I was troubled by the output. In every case, the groups created a beautifully rendered and impeccably crafted poster that represented their thoughts. Now, before you leap to any conclusions, I take full responsibility for the poster action– I brought in coloured markers and card stock in neon colours, shapes like arrows and callouts and speech bubbles. I had tape and glue and sticky notes. I provided Sharpies and pens and presentation folders. All the trappings of a terrific, whiz-bang poster. As seen at any Middle School science fair.

Precisely what I hadn’t wanted.

In fairness to myself, I did SAY to the group they could demonstrate their learning in any way– an improv skit; write a script; create a single, elegant infographic; even an interpretive dance.  The latter got chuckles…. but no takers.

We have focussed for so many years in education on Product and Output, we have lost the art of the process. I remember being the age of my charges and thoroughly enjoying my high school english class, when our teacher introduced Socratic Dialogue. I liked it, because he responded to each of us individually, but I didn’t fully appreciate the gift of being able to focus and consider a topic or an idea deeply, and thinking I was at the end of my argument  when I was challenged to go even deeper.

There are many ways to approach Design Thinking. Generally, the process hangs on the five pillars of: Empathy, Definition, Ideation, Prototyping and Reflection.  Sometimes slightly different vocabulary is used, but generally that is the process. When I first latched onto to the concept, I landed on Prototyping as the pillar of great learning. And I did get vastly different results than the Science Fair poster– I provided pipe cleaners and balloons and dollar store bric-a-brac (or is it gee-jaws?) and had my learners (in this case, adult learners doing post-graduate work in Learning Theory) create metaphors for their concepts. And it was great– fun, inventive and amazing to seeing learning demonstrated in such a different way. But again, the process was short-circuited, and the making of *stuff* is only so sustainable. And…. adults understand the value of play, while kids generally just want to play, and rich session of metaphor-building in a grade 3 classroom could quickly devolve into a pipe-cleaner-palooza balloon-battle. The more opportunity I had to understand all the elements of Design Thinking, I could see that while the design part was extremely important, more so was the pillar of Empathy.  The “why and for whom” at the heart of the question at hand.

And so back to the original tale. Not only did I feel I had done a disservice to the process, I felt my learners had not been given the rich opportunity they deserved. The focus of each of their projects was a deeply felt, authentic and empathetic question. For that I am grateful, and appreciate that was my goal, after all. My learning (for which I am also grateful) tells me that next time I would not provide all the shiny trappings of Poster Creation and instead limit the Product to a simple display of the results of exercising deep and rich thinking.

I’d still bring sticky notes and sharpies, though…. some things you’ll need to pry out of my cold, dead teacher’s hand….


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