This year’s new Dylan: Design Thinking

I’ve quoted D’Arcy Norman’s MSc thesis here before. However, newly immersed in the introductory strides of Design Thinkingcourtesy of UVic and #TieGrad’s EDCI 335 course, I think the following bears on our emerging discussions:

…educational technology can be prone to cycles of hype and fetishism, where new tools and applications are rapidly adopted by individuals who are seen as innovators in the field, with little time for thorough or rigorous investigation of the pedagogical strategies that may be enabled by the affordances of these new tools.

Not explicitly a “technology,” per say,  a quick Google search reveals Design Thinking as a possible blank-filler in the educational Mad Lib of How ___________ will revolutionize education! Within this wider family network are pedagogical approaches: project-based, inquiry or experiential learning; tools: Twitter, Blogs, Skype in the Classroom; or the more nebulous -ifications: Gamification, MOOCification, Learnification… 

An Emerson quote I find myself falling back on in such moments of cynicism goes something like, “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, yet at the center, simplicity of cause.” In other words: might each of these various revolutionary manifestations be riffs on the same basic principles?

And might these principles be part of larger intellectual traditions that will provide us a better understanding of learning, society and education than venture-backed entrepreneurs?

As Bill Storage points out in a particularly scathing historical critique of the design movement,

“The term [design thinking] has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along.”

Principles of Pedagogy

In my final presentation in our last course, Social Media & Personalized LearningI attempted to frame my views of learning and the potential of new media to continue to inspire the original tenants of the Project of Enlightenment. The basic underlying principles – which in turn created the elements of design in my courses and informal learning spaces – concerned themselves with the generations-old philosophical traditions of the enlightenment movement. These principles of pedagogy addressed concerns that were:

  • Epistemological
  • Metaphysical
  • Aesthetic
  • As well as Social-Political

Epistemologically speaking, my “design thinking” is rooted in an emergent view of knowledge whereby “knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next.” This is supplemented by the metaphysical premise that we know ourselves by knowing others, and that new ways of knowing others create new ways of knowing ourselves, which in turn becomes a question of human aesthetics as the search for new and evolving selves continues.

Each of these ideas culminates in the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment revolutions in Europe: the creation of the democratic public sphere:

…an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action.

Douglas Kellner talks about how the advent of the bourgeois public sphere brought about the possibility of,

[f]or the first time in history, individuals and groups [shaping] public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.

Many of the different pieces we’ve been supplied as part of our reading on Design Thinking poises it as a revelatory challenge to the project of democracy and enlightenment birthed in the 1700s. Bruce Nussbaum wrote in 2009 about how

“… it is the evolution of design into Design (with or without the “Thinking” term) to redesign large-scale social systems in business and civic society that has folks moving to embrace it. In this era of melting models and flaming careers, of economic uncertainty and social volatility, Design has a set of tools and methods that can guide people to new solutions.”

(Nussbaum has since called “Design Thinking” a “failed experiment.”)

Harvard’s Peter Rowe, who first introduced the concept of Design Thinking in 1987, characterized the phenomenon thus:

“Quite often references are made to objects already within the domain of architecture. On other occasions, however, an analogy is made with objects and  organizational concepts that are farther afield and outside of architecture. Sometimes these analogies serve a designer’s purpose for more than a single project and thus become incorporated as a central part of that individual’s design thinking.”

If this sounds familiar, Don Norman is quick to point out that “radical breakthrough ideas and creative thinking somehow managed to shape history before the advent of Design Thinking.” He continues by saying that, “‘Design Thinking’ is what creative people in all disciplines have always done.”

This raises a few questions for me:

First, what are these dispositions then, I wonder, that compose Design Thinking / Creativity / Interdisciplinary Learning / Project-Based? Aren’t collaboration, creativity, social responsibility, cultural understanding, communications, innovation, and critical thinking (all taken from the BC Ministry of Education’s Guide to 21st Century Learning) at the heart of John Dewey’s vision of learning? Immanuel Kant’s? Socrates’?

And secondly, from whence does the compulsion to endlessly repackage, repurpose and re-sell these ideas emerge? In this vein I wonder why we are so reluctant to acknowledge the longer traditions that these intellectual pursuits have enjoyed?

The question begged by these others, I think, is that of who benefits from presenting the nature of learning with such a historical myopia?

Featured image courtesy of David Kernohan.

6 thoughts on “This year’s new Dylan: Design Thinking

  1. I still can’t believe my supervisor let me leave that paragraph in the thesis. Definitely one of my favourite parts of the whole thing. (that and the diagrams. the rest feels like busywork)

  2. I do love the beardstroke parabola, tho perhaps a chinstroke or evilpinkie would be more gender neutral.

    In its infant stages, in any learner, design thinking exists. It needs nurturing, the right people in the right place, at the right time. It is organic.

    And powerful.

    So like anything that can be subverted, it has been. To be marketed, packaged, sold, consumed. And to sell that, the initial “simplicity of cause” needs to be convoluted, bloated, confused so the seller can be seen as the solver of the problem with a program.

    Maybe the issue is not the simplicity of the idea of design thinking, or “thinking” as we could refer to it as. It is ensuring that we have the tenacity, creativity, understanding, communication, and innovation to filter, assess and dismiss. Like “creative people in all disciplines have always done.” And what our children will need to do.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mardelle – I think you’ve hit on a few of the essential pieces here, in “ensuring we have the tenacity, creativity, understanding, communication and innovation to filter, assess and dismiss.” We might call this collection of attributes more broadly, “critical thinking,” or even “problem solving,” I think.

      From here I start wondering about what our schools need to do to fully embrace this type of organic, empowering learning: we need to look differently at our ministry learning outcomes, for one (something we can be glad is occurring); at how the various courses, themes and outcomes are allowed and encouraged to interact (interdisciplinary and collaborative learning); and then how our assessment methods might be able to provide learners and families with information on their progress in a manner that is congruent with these types of values.

      In British Columbia, the BC EdPlan has fortunately brought a few of these issues into the public dialogue about education; less inspiring is the fact that much of the planning that has provided the framework for these discussions has been supplied by the same “convoluted, bloated and confused” sellers of education that have shown in many jurisdictions around the world to have a very different set of values guiding their role in designing learning.

      That sounds cynical, I realize. But I also think, for the moment, that we have an opportunity that won’t exist for long: to shape and stake our own claims in this emerging forum of educational discourse and design. With any luck, many of the innovations grassroots educators have brought (and will bring) to the table in the coming years will be grandfathered in to whatever Huxleyian/Orwellian view of “Personalized Learning” Pearson winds up selling on behalf of the province’s public schools.

      And yes, Chinstroke Parabola would be more gender neutral – I will alert David Kernohan, the chart’s author.

      1. Cynicism is healthy. I certainly am hopeful that the “new” (read always-existed-in-education) 21 century learning catches on in its best form. But I am as certain that we need to be vigilant that the online textbook format, kids moving through beautifully designed modules in a glossy package labeled “individualized “, is not where we end up.

        Thanks for always opening the door to great conversation.

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