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Design Thinking


Design is in everything.

That’s a pretty big statement, but unequivocally true. In the world of education, Harvard University defines design thinking as a mindset and approach to learning, collaboration, and problem-solving that has a desire to identify challenges and offer possible solutions, as well as a system for refining and testing. In other words, it is not necessarily something to be learned; design thinking is a way of learning and needs to be the bedrock of 21st-century education.

The exponential technological growth of the past 30 years has rendered the memorization of facts and most calculation functions obsolete. Of course, students still need to build foundational skills to understand higher-level thinking. The challenge for educators, however, is to teach beyond foundational skills, providing a mindset of how to learn and, by extension, how to lead. When new tools are made available, such as the internet 30 years ago or artificial intelligence today, it is imperative that students learn how to leverage these tools under the umbrella of an orientation toward design.

Because design is in everything, we most commonly have seen it in science classrooms, where a student might design an experiment. There is an idea or hypothesis, followed by research, testing, and then a conclusion. A well-done project might go beyond the conclusion with further research and application. The student has crafted something new from a variety of different inputs. 

However, I often teach writing in a humanities class the same way - how do you craft an argument? There is a thesis, then research, drafts, perhaps with different possibilities of organization, and in the end, drawing to a conclusion - all of which should have the end user in mind. In other words, how will the reader of my paper react? What am I trying to get them to feel or think?

Education has, in this technological age, struggled to keep up. Unfortunately, schools too often are mired in “traditional” ways of teaching, and state legislatures become overly concerned about content that meets an arbitrary political need. It is not what you learn but how you learn. Not what you teach but how you teach. If we focus on teaching students how to learn instead of just what to learn, relevant subject matter can become infinite, and learning truly lifelong. 

Psychologist Madeline Levine identified seven skills needed for a child’s development: enthusiasm, resourcefulness, creativity, work ethic, self-control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Those also happen to be, in my opinion, the skills that will make a successful adult in the second half of the 21st century. In a world that advances as fast as ours, it will be the confident, creative, and nimble who will thrive. Design thinking emphasizes all of these traits. It encourages enthusiasm by allowing the student to be engaged in their learning. It encourages enthusiasm by allowing the student to be engaged with his or her learning, it emphasizes a structured work ethic that utilizes creativity and resourcefulness to research and test theories, and they gain confidence through having a voice and being able to act and speak with fear through their preparedness. It is that student who will be most successful.

As the head of school at Evansville Day School, I see firsthand a blend of learning through play and project-based learning in our Primary School. We emphasize the discovery of purpose and the “why” behind learning in our Middle School by building the skills of design thinking. And we apply those design thinking skills to learning through discovering one’s passions in the Upper School. Play, Purpose, and Passion - these are the foundation of design thinking and seeds of growth for future success.