Design Thinking

When you think of design thinking, think of innovative outcomes…like the iPod, or that perfect peeler that both cuts well and has an amazing grip, or the Aravind Eye Care system that allows for thousands of underresourced families in India to address cataract issues.

Pioneers of design thinking called it the process of “a practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result” (Simon, 1969). Recently, educational researchers have been asking what happens when educators integrate the process of design thinking into the classroom. Their findings include numerous examples of enhanced student learning.

Probably the most well-known research example comes from a 2008 Pennsylvania study in which students in science classes designed and built electrical alarm systems to learn electricity concepts over a four-week period using the systems design approach (Mehalik et al). The results suggest that a design thinking approach for teaching science concepts has superior performance for knowledge gain achievements in core science concepts, engagement, and retention when compared to a scripted inquiry approach. The design thinking approach, according to this study, was most helpful to low-achieving African American students.

In addition to the Pennsylvania study, a (growing) body of research exists suggesting that design thinking positively impacts student achievement (Smith et al, 2005) and promotes the kind of problem-solving, teaming, and creativity skills researchers are suggesting that high school graduates need in order to navigate the 21st century marketplace (Harding, 2009; Dym et al, 2005; Smith et al, 2005; Goldman et al, 2009). Innovative program components of design thinking include:

  • An emphasis on innovation – By applying the process of product design – D.E.E.P. or Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce – to education, educators loosen traditional learning frameworks, tap into students’ deep wells of creativity, and make critical thinking essential to solving problems.
  • Collaboration – Similar to constructivist theories of learning, which posit learning as a social activity, design thinking is taught as a team process with multiple socio-technological dimensions that require effective communication skills, multidisciplinary teams, and careful consideration of global and social impacts.
  • Integrating both divergent and convergent thinking – Design-based learning involves a mixture of both (i) convergent thinking, or problem-oriented thinking, where the questioner deals primarily with know why as they attempt to approach and reveal facts, as well as (ii) divergent, or design-oriented, thinking, which deals primarily with know-how and requires that the questioner attempt to deviate from facts to the possibilities (i.e., multiple possible concepts) that can be created from them (Dym et al, 2005).
  • Complexity – In addition to ambitious large-scale engineering projects, the boundaries of design thinking extend to such interdisciplinary factors as environmental, economical, and social impacts.
  • Quantitative reasoning – Design thinking requires the use of empirical data, statistics, and experimentation.