Tag Archive for Design

Design Thinking and School Change

I recently facilitated a discussion on design thinking at EdCampPDX. Design thinking is a process for solving problems promoted by IDEO and Stanford’s d.school, among others. The design process includes the following steps:

  • Interviewing users
  • Seeking themes in identified issues
  • Brainstorming solutions while reserving judgment
  • Prototyping and revision

Our discussion group explored the potential of design thinking for student instruction, technology innovation, and school management. The discussion quickly turned to the question of school change — how may a school broadly adopt innovative forms of teaching and management such as design thinking? One school leader expressed concern that students would be less prepared for college admissions as a result of such a change in instructional methods. Others in the group advocated for instructional innovation and risk-taking.

This debate happens frequently when discussing innovation, and school change is difficult to lead. It feels safer to continue to practice the current methods that to try something new, because the promise for improvement is only theoretical, and others have to buy into the change for it to succeed.

At the same time, I left this discussion with a new idea; that design thinking itself could help an instructional team build support for design thinking and other educational innovations. That is, the protocol for discussing design thinking should itself model the design thinking process.

Let us interview students directly and find out whether they are actually passionate about their studies or rather just “doing school” (Pope). Let us seek themes in identified issues to find the problems for which solutions would most benefit students.

When considering possibilities for change, let us set a protocol to reserve judgment and only build on others’ ideas. Nothing kills a discussion more quickly than a veteran teacher standing up to denounce a new idea when it has only just been proposed.

Let us prototype design thinking as an instructional method within our school, with small groups or short units in the year, collect feedback on prototype performance, revise, and try again. Let us evaluate the potential of an idea not just by discussing it but by trying it.


A Whole New Mind

I recently read A Whole New Mind (Pink), which explains the importance of right-brained thinking to success in the new economy. Two of the principles Pink explores rang particularly true for me: Design and Creativity.


Pink helped me understand the rising importance of good design in the marketplace. In a world of plenty, consumers are increasingly choosing products with better design, and mainstream stores offer well-designed products at affordable prices.

This change in the marketplace may help explain some changes at our school. Over the past few years, our students have expressed a clear preference for Apple laptops over Lenovo. We used to purchase twice as many ThinkPads s iBooks. Now, the ratio is 5:1 in favor of Apple. Could a preference for good design in part explain this shift?

Students are rapidly adopting smart phones, starting with the iPhone but also including Blackberry, Sidekick and other popular devices. In part, the falling cost of the devices combined with the need of kids to stay in touch with each other may explain the trend. However, good design is critical to the students’ mobile experience, since they use the devices so intensively. The ability to merge entertainment and communication into one device is also a strong draw. We see almost no Windows Mobile-based phones, especially when compared with a corporate environment.

Students and teachers have expressed pretty high standards for the immediate usability of our IT services. “Intuitive” is a popular expectation. If a tool we roll out is not very usable, such as Outlook Web Access or our parent email lists, people tend to seek an alternative, such as GMail or Yahoo! Groups. Our IT staff has to devote more time to planning and design of the community’s tech resources. When we have the time, higher expectations compel us to produce better services. When our plates are already full, it causes workload anxiety.


Pink builds a case that creativity will be essential to success in the modern economy. Catlin Gabel prides itself on teaching creativity and has launched initiatives to improve our work in this area. The school launched a capital campaign to raise funds for three initiatives, including the construction of a new creative arts center.

We have seen rapid change in the arts curriculum in recent years. Digital photography, film, and animation classes take full advantage of the ability of students to rapidly create, review, and experiment with their work in digital form. Film students self-publish on YouTube, and independent study kids are preparing submit Flickr slideshows of portfolio work as part of their college applications. Even extremely physical classes such as ceramics and woodshop capture digital images of work for recordkeeping and communication.

We recently held an event to celebrate the school’s rich history of excellent science instruction. Three guests delivered speeches via prerecorded online video. All underscored the importance of asking good questions and creative thinking to their professional successes.


To what extent have these concepts of design and creativity penetrated the minds of the teachers and parents in our community, critical stakeholders whose support is essential to effect change? I feel lucky to work at an institution with a critical mass of tech-aware professionals, yet every institution I know is partway along the process of transformation.

I repeatedly face the same challenge: how to act as an effective change agent so that teachers and parents in particular will come to understand new media: its importance, how it works, and what it means to schools. I make progress but also seek better ways to communicate the message, structure learning experiences for others, and increase reach.