Design Thinking as Critical Literacy


TALONS Kinetic Art w/ Jay Bundy Johnson

“Design thinking asks students to become investigators in their world, attempt to solve problems, bridge gaps of knowledge independently, collaboratively, and resourcefully.”

So decrees Lee-Ann Gray of the ability of Design Thinking to “make school more like real life.” Gray positions her view of schooling’s purpose clearly in her opening paragraphs, where she notes that, “These are skills that are highly relevant in today’s job market.”

To cite a source explored in more depth on this blog recently, they might also be referred to as “what creative people in all disciplines have always done.”

Gray highlights a notion of Design Thinking which

“involves immersing students in what [Mary Cantwell, Design Thinking Coordinator and IT Faculty Support at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School] calls situations for discovery. Situations for discovery encourage a wide range of relevant and active learning. In them, students are prompted to consider the community, areas of need, the environment, or challenges they face. DT gives students ownership of their work, which is a hallmark in igniting the love of learning.”

Last semester much of my subsequent exploration of citizenship learning began with the discovery of critical literacy as a central piece of creating of “student ownership” of learning. The foundation for this thinking was shaped by the work of Paulo Freire, who talks about learning as a process of discovering our individual and collective “generative themes” and rehearsing the process of transcending them:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

In Design Thinking, Gray says, “the teacher becomes a facilitator of learning, and students become active learners.” How facilitation differs from “teaching,” she doesn’t reveal; however, she does assert that this type of active learning leads to “higher and faster” information retention and skill development.

Presenting a similar “problem-based” dialectical approach, I found Freire more helpful in sketching out the role of the teacher:

“The program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.

That Freire’s ideas have been a staple of progressive educational philosophy for more than thirty years casts Gray’s framing of “Design Thinking” as something of an overstatement:

“Design Thinking is [...] a major game changer for teachers. Teachers have no preconceived idea about the direction DT projects will take. This model shifts the teacher’s role considerably, as the outcome and how students will reach it, are unknown at the outset. In DT, gone are the days when teachers have a plan of how it should all go. In my opinion, this represents a great shift in pedagogy.”

That all being said, Ian Grivois makes a compelling comparison in highlighting that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked about

language being a ‘form of life‘ (Kindersley, 2011), meaning that it is intimately connected to the context in which it is spoken. Language is molded by the character of the speaker and meaning is recreated in the understanding of the listener.”

“Similarly,” Grivois says, “Design can be considered as an active language of practice, even if it is an especially visual language.” Here I think the tenants of Design Thinking in education align neatly with the aims of Freire’s Critical Pedagogy and Literacy. Grivois reveals design “as a process of discovery, learning, and addressing needs,” and that it “combines creativity, empathy and rational analysis to help realize successful outcomes.”

There is the familiar ring of Freire and the idea that education is the act of enabling a “critical perception,” which

“is embodied in action, [and where] a climate of hope and confidence devel­ops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations. As reality is transformed and these situations are superseded, new ones will appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts.”

The design process visualized by Stanford’s d.School  (Ratcliffe 2009).

The design process visualized by Stanford’s d.School
(Ratcliffe 2009).

Here we begin to see a meaningful congruence between the principles of design and the emancipatory endeavour of critical pedagogy. Other quotes from Grivois’ paper, On Design Thinking and Education that struck me as particularly Freireian: 

“Through questioning, research, observation and a playful discovery, a clear understanding of the needs and goals will often reveal a solution.”

“The collaborative relationship implies that there is development internally and externally – as an individual and as a community.”

“It works best when the designer and the user group are on equal terms as they explore the design and challenge together, a collaboration.”

Far from the novelty of 21st century “game-changer,” I am confident that one could find similar sentiments scattered throughout philosophical and educational texts going back to Socrates, which makes the question of the week, “Does Design Thinking Work in Education?” a particular challenge.

If this type of “thinking” isn’t appropriate for K12 learners – as Debbie Morrison argues in her post “Why ‘Design Thinking’ Doesn’t Work in Education” –  when does it become appropriate, if ever?

Morrison asks:

Do K-12 students really have the education background to engage in Design Thinking?  I suggest that teaching this process to K-12 students is not only unfeasible, but unnecessary and limiting.  Rather than spending time teaching a structured, cookie-cutter problem-solving process, time might be better spent teaching, and facilitating learning in a breadth of subjects. Rather than give students more structure, they may benefit from less, yet more learning. To think outside of the box, to have multiple perspectives, students require an education grounded in the humanities.

I am confused by the idea that, “Rather than spending time teaching a structured, cookie-cutter problem-solving process, time might be better spent teaching, and facilitating learning in a breadth of subjects.”

Why must these aims be separate?

The problem solving method of Design Thinking as asserted by Grivois and Friere can hardly be described as “cookie-cutter,” or “structured.” Furthermore the implicit skills evoked through this type of discovery process are of vital societal necessity, and help create a context for learning about the value of the humanities, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of intellectual and democratic progress congruent with such enlightened goals.

Delivering on educational outcomes without engaging students in this critical process is something I think Gert Biesta would warn against, as he asserts:

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

“The context in which a thing is learned,” Gardner Campbell reminds us, “frames the nature and purpose of that learning.”

If Design Thinking in Education is truly to be a “game changer,” it needs to be aligned with the transformational values at the heart of cultivating a critical literacy in each member of society, and offer opportunities for learners to own and create the contexts and purposes of their own learning.