Tom Vander Ark, 1st Executive Director of Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, advocate for innovations in learning, Author and Forbes Columnist
Design thinking as a problem-solving approach has been extensively used in the world of business and is expanding its footprint in the realm of education as well. What makes design thinking a game changer is a way it asks questions and seeks answers for problems that seem insurmountable. There is no limit to thinking and the focus is on finding a solution.
A visit to schools these days is interesting in more ways than one. The design seems to be the common theme. Kids everywhere are sketching, sewing and solving big problems. For instance, SAMI, a high school at the zoo in Tacoma looks like a big maker space with labs and garage doors everywhere. Students conduct hands-on projects with community connections. Closer home India, students are seen brainstorming, going back to the drawing board, redesigning and rethinking strategies to find a solution. In short- the iterative approach is the new mantra. In the past, most problems professionals addressed (from engineering to public policy) were technical. Many of us were trained in pattern recognition and solution application. Each profession had a canon of best practices. What is different now is that we’re all facing more new and complex problems, what 10 years ago Ron Heifetz called adaptive problems.
To address new and complex problems, we all need a flexible growth mindset and a structured problem-solving methodology. It’s what Google’s Jonathan Rochelle called ‘confidence in the face of complexity.’ Design thinking, a mindset, and methodology popularised by Stanford’s d.School, starts with understanding the problem that includes building empathy and understanding of the people involved –a combination of research skills and a way of thinking. Once the problem is identified, an iterative approach to solution development follows; prototypes are tested and refined.
Schools that embrace design as a core aspect of their model are finding success not only in student outcomes but also in recruiting and keeping exceptional educators. Why? Because design unleashes the creative potential in each student and taps into the passions of educators they may or may not even realize they have.
Building on design skills, young people need initiative in the face of opportunity: learning to take initiative, to shape impact opportunities including projects, campaigns, and startup organizations (i.e., entrepreneurship). They also need self-awareness in the face of diversity: becoming self-aware, learning to read social situations and build relationships, collaborating through difficult situations. Trends in Design-Focused Schools California charter schools leading on design thinking include High Tech High, where Director Kaleb Rashad sees design as focus on equity and Design Tech High on the Oracle campus. Freshman at d.Tech takes a prototyping class to learn how to represent their ideas physically and digitally.
In the Eastern Standard Time Zone, there is Purdue Polytechnic in Indianapolis and Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville. In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Initiative has helped to activate districts including South Fayette and Montour. The growing number of design-based schools exhibit three trends:
- Integration over isolation: Not limited to a maker space, leading schools incorporate design thinking across the curriculum.
- Extended challenges around big issues: Students work in extended challenges that address global goals. Teachers ask students to work on problems with no answers.
- Supported by skill building: Leading schools support design by teaching research strategies, prototyping skills, and project management.
It’s time to make design thinking central to elementary and secondary learning. Leading schools are designing the way.