There’s no doubt that design thinking is a hot topic in education. And we’re not complaining – when people call us to work with their school, design thinking is almost always what prompts them to call.
As a trained therapist, I laugh, because I see a parallel between dating and the current buzz about design thinking. Educators and design thinking are currently experiencing the early glow of a new relationship, when people often develop unreasonable expectations about their future together.
Some relationships are doomed to fail when things get hard. Others move past that phase and develop sturdier foundations based on a realistic appreciation of what it takes to make things work.
There’s a time coming – and it’s not far off – when the bubble will burst and the hype will move on to something else. Many schools that experiment with design thinking aren’t going to get the results they want.
It won’t be because design thinking failed, but because “design thinking” will have been misunderstood as a tidy process of innovation-by-numbers that leaves the mess of human interaction under the radar. It will have failed because we will have made design thinking into something that fits easily into our classrooms, rather than really changing the way we ask each other to interact.
How does ”design thinking” often go wrong?
- It’s reduced to a linear-sequential process. The Stanford design school and IDEO have helpfully presented design thinking in five modes or phases. Too often, this becomes a five step process for students to follow – a process that elides ambiguity rather than providing frames to navigate it. Let’s face it – it’s easier to present the five modes of thought than it is for a teacher to embrace ambiguity.
- We fall in love with the tools. Oh, the Post-It notes! The empathy maps! The improv! We love these tools, and we use them unashamedly. But in the long line of teacher-tips-and-tricks, an undue focus on tools distracts us from the need to shift overarching understandings.
- We don’t provide frameworks for understanding group creative process. For design thinking to work, students need more than creative thinking tools and language. Students need tools and language to describe the way that they work with others. They need to be trained to observe the function (or dysfunction of their group.) They need to know how they can have a positive impact on the group in those moments. This is why we believe that design thinking is a leadership challenge – it calls upon us to change the way people work together.
- We don’t acknowledge the emotional challenge. Design thinking is often presented as a set of magic tricks to help people think in new ways. But the magic isn’t in the Post-It’s. It’s in our tolerance for ambiguity and the emotional strength to say what’s partially understood. It requires us to be wrong and accept feedback. It requires us to lean into critical conversations. Even when groups are healthy, the individual experience will be hard.
The schools that succeed will be the ones that get beyond the (wonderful, but insufficient) d.school Bootcamp Bootleg. They will push beyond individual “design thinking” exercises to shift entrenched mindsets, embody new behaviors, and change patterns of relation between the people in the room.
Here are some of the human skills that groups demonstrate when design thinking goes deeper.
- Collaboration: Otherwise known in Kindergarten as “gets along well with others,” we don’t often give students language for observing whether or not it’s working.
- Giving Feedback: The art of telling your truth without trampling on other versions of the truth.
- Receiving Feedback: The ability to listen, accept the possibility of error, avoid defensiveness, and adapt.
- Leadership: In a collaborative environment, accepting yourself as the leverage point in the successful function of the group rather than waiting for others to change the dynamic.
- Pivot Sense: The ability to you let go of an old idea in service of moving forward.
- Repair: When things go wrong, the ability to take responsibility, apologize, and take positive action in the relationship.
- Risk: The ability to attach your sense of self to learning and growth rather than content knowledge or process expertise.
- Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is underappreciated. In a world where we all make mistakes, teaching and practicing the act of forgiveness of others as well as self is critical.
These are human skills, not process steps. At Leading is Learning, we believe they’re core 21st century leadership skills. They need to be explicitly cultivated.
That’s one reason we were so excited to partner with Mount Vernon Presbyterian School for //fuse. They are national innovators in the use of design thinking in education – and they understand the need to cultivate mindsets, as well as tools.
What made //fuse unique? The focus on the human skills needed to make 21st century education a reality. In addition to practicing core design exercises, we’ll unpack the individual and relational aspects of working through design thinking – and learn the frameworks students need to thrive in any creative group process.