What is “design thinking,” and why does it belong in America’s classrooms?

Actually, as cognitive scientist Lindsay Portnoy explains in this post, many teachers are already using design thinking but may not know it.

Design thinking is a process for solving problems creatively and infusing meaning into what students learn, regardless of the subject or grade. She writes:

Innovative methods of teaching and learning like design thinking are helping students and teachers reframe the way that school is done. What has become clear is that the success of each individual won’t come from besting a computer or working more quickly or efficiently than a robot, but rather by using our innately human capacities of talking with others to debate, discuss and develop dynamic solutions toward our shared goals.
Design thinking is a method of applying knowledge to practice. Isn’t this also the definition of teaching?

Portnoy, a researcher and professor at Northeastern University, is the author of the upcoming book “Designed to Learn: Using Design Thinking to Bring Purpose and Passion to the Classroom.” She is also a co-founder of the educational-game company Killer Snails, which develops learning card games, such as “Assassins of the Sea,” and has attracted funding from the National Science Foundation.

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This post is a modified chapter of her book, which will be published in November 2019.

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By Lindsay Portnoy

Fauquier High School is a large public school in Warrenton, Va. With its multiple buildings, it feels more like a college campus than a high school. The layout makes it difficult for the school community to connect. In 2017, school officials went in search of a solution that would help students and staff feel a greater sense of community.

One educator drew inspiration from an unusual place: the school’s front lobby and hallways.

George Murphy is a science educator at Fauquier and realized that while he couldn’t change the structure of the buildings, he could work with students to design a space that builds community. He noticed the bare walls along the main lobby where school faculty members and students gathered each morning and saw a blank template ripe for innovation.

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Murphy’s idea: create an interdisciplinary mural.

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The mural would be a living timeline to visually document the tremendous amount of knowledge acquired within the school’s walls. Murphy’s AP biology students started in the lobby by representing their learning through rich visual imagery chronologically across the physical space.

Each department added its own contributions, and soon scientifically accurate models of the ocean’s layers emerged alongside images of historical figures and the technologies driving each innovation.

For the first time, students could see connections across seemingly disparate fields such as medicine, technology and history. Through the living timeline, it became clear how technological innovations like X-ray diffraction set the stage for medical discoveries like DNA, leading the way for a deeper understanding of genetics and disease.

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What began as a dilemma of connection and community turned into a celebration of learning. Students were seen proudly showing siblings and parents their contribution to a community knowledge installation, and through experience they learned that knowledge itself grows through collaboration.

What made this all possible? Design thinking.

Using the intentional but flexible elements of design thinking, students could share their knowledge while building a stronger community. Students could see the interdisciplinary nature of learning in a concrete way on the walls of their school and began connecting the dots between otherwise siloed content areas.

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Distinct from pure discovery learning, design thinking is a guided approach to understanding the application of content as it is learned. In design-thinking classrooms, curricular standards are enacted through meaningful experiences that place the why of learning in the shared hands of both learners and educators.

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Its five essential elements: understand for empathy; identify and research; communicate to form innovative ideas; prototype and test; repeat and reflect. Built on decades of research in learning science, these elements reinforce what we know to be true, that real knowledge acquisition is messy and fluid and doesn’t live in isolation.

Traditional instruction about the Industrial Revolution includes readings or passive consumption of prepackaged media. This is not the case when applying elements of design thinking. Teaching artists Jody Drezner Alperin and Vicky Finney Crouch were discussing the history of labor unions with students in a large Title 1 school in New York City when one student shared how children in her home country still work in unsafe conditions.

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Students in this self-contained fourth- and fifth-grade classroom began researching local legislation on child labor rights. By empathizing with children not protected by labor laws, these students were compelled to jump into action. Their research led them to a free app used to scan products before purchasing to see their country of origin. Students set out to get as many community members to download and use the app as possible, creating and placing fliers everywhere from backpacks to bodega windows.

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Using the elements of design thinking, students went from passively learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to launching a community-wide awareness campaign to awaken their local community about the profound impact of their purchases.

Most educators are already using aspects of design thinking in their classrooms when asking students to apply, synthesize and create on the basis of their learning. Reframing curriculum toward design thinking requires a simple shift toward ongoing and iterative assessment with a focus on the utility of the content. Although there’s no single recipe for translating curriculum into design thinking experiences, there is a single overarching question to ask: You’ve learned it, now what are you going to do with it?

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Innovative methods of teaching and learning like design thinking are helping students and teachers reframe the way that school is done. What has become clear is that the success of each individual won’t come from besting a computer or working more quickly or efficiently than a robot, but rather by using our innately human capacities of talking with others to debate, discuss and develop dynamic solutions toward our shared goals.

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Design thinking is a method of applying knowledge to practice. Isn’t this also the definition of teaching?

Design thinking shifts our thinking to see that students are already able to contribute meaningfully to the world around them. It’s an open invitation for those who wish to support our students in taking on roles in the complex landscape that is our current and future reality. It is a shift from traditional models of education of consumption to focus instead on the purpose of learning and the power of student voice through creation.

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We all agree that school as we know it should change. But we often get stuck in the how. Design thinking is not a single answer but one of several solutions that can pave the way to more meaningful learning. The elements of design thinking bring new voices into the design of solutions to our biggest problems and show both our students and our communities how our combined knowledge is key to a more just and abundant future.

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