Design Thinking: For Innovation and For Learning

What is “design thinking” and what does it offer for schools? Here, Ewan McIntosh offers an introduction to some of the elements of design thinking. He argues that, as a creative approach to problem-solving, design thinking can be a powerful process for both innovation and learning.

At Milpitas Public School District on the outskirts of San Francisco, 10,000 students enjoy the kind of innovative, student-led, technology-assisted, inspiring learning about which many educators can only dream. Students suffering from poor educational outcomes have seen their schools change from didactic, teacher-led classrooms to enquiry-based learning supported in school and at home by over 3,500 new Chromebooks, with more on the way.

Importantly, the change at Milpitas wasn’t a decision from on high; it came from the ideas and plans of their teachers.

In the spring of 2012, Milpitas’ Superintendent Cary Matsuoka was inspired by the process of design thinking as a means to involve a community in innovation. He asked his district teachers and head teachers one simple question: “If you could design a school what would it look like?” After a three-month design process, Milpitas teachers were ready to pitch their new models to Matsuoka, his executive team, and the union.

“[Local authorities and Governments] usually take years to plan and produce a binder that sits on a shelf. But binders do not change the system,’ Matsuoka says.

Mindsets, skillsets, toolsets for innovative thinking

Design thinking involves a set of different mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets, used at specific points in the innovation or learning process to achieve a specific goal.

If you could design a school what would it look like?

Design thinking can be commonly found in luxury fashion houses, in global tech, media, and telecommunications companies, and in small tech startups.  It provides broad parameters that encourage divergent thinking and a human-centred approach to rethinking the way things are done, the way things are built, and how people might use them. It’s incredibly powerful.

For example, by refocusing on people, rather than on strategies, nearly two-thirds of Milpitas’ schools have been able to recalibrate learning, creating engaging, happy places with improved engagement.

Each week, I get to work in both schools and creative companies, and there is much for each group to learn from the other when it comes to leading innovation. In the time I spend with school leaders and teachers, I see many struggling with overload, rejection, and abortive attempts at innovation.

In today’s schools, what is it that really counts? What is it that we hope to change with all our strategy documents and vision statements? There is a gulf between what schools say counts – increasing children’s creativity, fostering responsible citizenship, supporting confident learners, workers ,and entrepreneurs-to-be, and so on – and what appears to actually count: getting through the curriculum or meeting the test criteria.

What might design thinking mean for my leadership approach?

Why does the education sector seem to struggle with change? And are the challenges faced in education any different to those faced by the fashion or media companies? That is, what can schools learn from the design thinking processes that these companies have adopted?

Of course, previous attempts to bring big business’s way of working to schools have been tortuous failures. But bringing some of the creative attitudes and divergent ways of thinking from small companies that have evolved so rapidly in the past decade offers some possibilities. There are interesting differences between these nimble design-thinking startups and flabby incumbent corporations, for example, and there are lessons there for how school innovators might develop and apply their own ideas.

First – a small team, not an innovative individual, owns the idea. Too often, innovation is associated with a bright light, an innovation leader, a lighthouse. But leading innovation is not about running every innovative project yourself or writing grand strategies.

Second – the team understands from the get-go that they need to find, nurture and involve their community to help build and scale their idea quickly enough to succeed.

Third – the team is nearly always the “David” to an existing, decision-making “Goliath.” School leadership teams and Boards are always perplexed when I suggest that a teacher- and student-based team will set out the existing landscape of the school on which to build the next plan. “Who will make the decisions?” is the frequent reply. The fact is: a small team without the pressure of having to make decisions nearly always develops more creative ideas to fuel future development than a Board that feels the pressure to deliver weighty decisions. They can hold their ideas lightly, kill the poor ones earlier, develop the promising ones faster, and have less fear of feedback.

Shared language of innovation – and a shared language of learning

Design thinking does not only offer potential for rethinking school management or leadership. Adopting this shared process and language around innovation has a profound impact on students too – their ambitions and expectations for what should happen in the classroom.

Take a moment to recollect your happiest memories as you learned something new. What were you doing? What kind of activity were you undertaking?

I’ve asked this question to about 8000 young people, mums, dads, parents and business people over the past four years, and their answers are remarkably similar. The most common answer: making stuff. Close behind are school trips, that is learning that took place far away from the school or the classroom. Others talk about moments they felt they could choose what they did next or when they followed a truly personal passion.

But this raises an important question. As High Tech High founder Larry Rosenstock asks,

How does this comport with the way you teach and if it doesn’t comport with the way you teach what can we then do to get you teaching the way you yourself learned? … It wasn’t imposed on you: this came from within you.

Design thinking and learning from the students’ perspective

Schools, districts, and entire countries often have long-term strategies, composed to stretch five or more years into the future, designed to improve student outcomes. The people who write them come and go, and the text in a local authority strategy may be read by fewer than 100 people –  certainly not by the parents, students, and many of the teachers who will put it into action.

But it is not strategy documents that make happy, challenging, choice-filled, successful learning. It’s not strategy documents that makes innovation happen. Innovation in learning happens thanks to teachers and students feeling engaged and empowered enough themselves to find out what might make better learning, learning how to make it happen, and then actually trying it out.

Image credits: Michael

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