The design thinking trend

There has been a growing interest in recent years in the application of “design thinking” to education. For example, IDEO, a design firm that has been a leader in design thinking, has produced media and materials aimed directly at educators.

The basic concept of design thinking is straightforward: conceptualize a problem, brainstorm possible solutions in as open and creative of a way as possible, and tinker/invent/try/fail/evaluate until you get to a solution that solves your problem. What’s refreshing and exciting and interesting about the process is 1) that it gets you think hard about what problem you are really trying to solve and how you know it’s a problem, and 2) when brainstorming possible solutions, its insistence there really are no bad ideas. It’s a good way of getting around conventional wisdom.

At the the same time, it sure seems as if a lot of current experiments with design thinking in schools sell themselves short. They take for granted that a school must be organized into grade levels and subject areas, that it must exist as a single building, that it must have certain positions (teacher, principal, counselor), etc.

It’s not that these are necessarily bad ideas. But if we are really trying to bring this way of thinking and working into schools, everything about how we design them should be on the table. What problem are we really trying to solve? Is the problem that test scores are too low? Is it that not enough kids are going to college?

I don’t think so. I think the problem is this: as a society, we are struggling to prepare young people to become successful, self-sufficient workers and citizens.¬†Improving test scores and college attendance are strategies for solving this problem. But a design view of school reform should take a step back from these strategies. It should ask about whether there are other ways to think about solving the bigger problem.¬†Doing so might lead to a very different vision of schools and learning than the one we’ve had for the last century.