It’s Time to Re-Design How We Think
Over the last 50+ years, a new way of thinking has been growing in popularity. Centered around essential human capacities — empathy, optimism, iteration and collaboration — it is filling a substantial gap in how we think. This approach is called Design Thinking and it has the potential to be as influential to the 21st century as the Scientific Method was to the previous four. It is time we make Design Thinking a universal and standard part of K-12 education.
I’ve been teaching Design Thinking to adults for five years now and I’m tired of it. In so many places I go — universities, governments, nonprofits and businesses — Design Thinking has moved from new to normal. In business and technology, most have heard of it, many have tried it, and in some cases, people are practicing it well. I can sense the excitement wearing off and that people are ready to move on.
But I don’t think we should.
What I have witnessed in my teaching is that the set of principles under the moniker ‘Design Thinking’ is filling a substantial gap in how we think.
To move on would be to overlook the fact that Design Thinking is popular for a reason. Unlike any other method, Design Thinking provides a model for solving grand challenges — through collaboration, imagination and empathy. Rather than move on, it’s time that we democratize access to this method, and standardize this mindset. Design Thinking needs to move out of the C-suite and universities, and become a foundational part of the curriculum in public K-12 education.
What is Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach for complex problems — ones that are often referred to in the Design Thinking biz as “wicked.” There are several models for Design Thinking, including those produced by IDEO, Stanford, IBM and the UK Design Council, but all of them emphasize the same core set of problem-solving principles: empathy, iteration, optimism and collaboration. Design Thinking organizes these principles into an applied method which, like the Scientific Method, is a reusable framework for solving a challenge.
In the past 10–20 years, Design Thinking has exploded in popularity. Companies like Google, IBM, Ford and PepsiCo, and universities like Stanford University, University of Michigan and University of Texas have embraced it fervently.
Why the wide scale embrace of Design Thinking?
There is a short answer to this question: 21st century problems. Wherever you look, people are trying to solve big, hairy, multi-dimensional problems — ones that need an expansive problem-solving framework like Design Thinking.
Let’s get into the long answer though. As part of my job as a Design Thinking consultant, I help many different types of organizations solve problems. Regardless of whether I’m working with a bank or a media company, a university or a corporation — the obstacles people run into trying to solve big challenges are the same. Here are a few of the most common obstacles:
- Siloed Approaches. This group doesn’t talk to that group even though they’re working on the same thing. Two groups work in parallel and then in the end figure out they’ve gone in different directions.
- Poor Problem Framing. Adults are really bad at framing things in human terms. We have a tendency to think about the “how” and forget about the “why”. The result is early solution-ing that doesn’t solve the problem. Problem-solvers focus on what they know how to make (e.g. a process, a website) and forget to focus on human need, the crucial link in identifying a solution. Frequently this means that the problem-solving group hasn’t included anyone who would benefit from their solution in their process.
- Absent Learning Cycles. A group gets together to make something that has never been made before. In year one they build the handlebar, in year two they build the wheel. By year three they haven’t tested any of their assumptions, and they haven’t made anything they can test. Are we on the right track? Who knows?
These obstacles are just as prevalent in universities as they are in nonprofits as they are in corporations. The commonalities across these organizations demonstrate a vast opportunity for improvement in our common education. The reason organizations are turning to Design Thinking, is because it provides a reusable (and teachable) way of solving “Siloed Approaches” by being hyper-collaborative, solving “Poor Problem Framing” by being human-focused and solving “Absent Learning Cycles” by using an iterative approach.
Design Thinking Changes. How. We. Think.
I want to take a moment to explain why adopting a new mental process — like Design Thinking — matters so much.
To learn a new mental process is to change how we perceive the world. It requires the adoption of new values and new ways of behaving.
Take for example the Scientific Method: a simple scaffold that gives us insight into how knowledge is made, confidence to move through a process ourselves, and a common language for communicating with peers. While the Scientific Method can be drawn as a simple box and arrow diagram, the values it communicates — skepticism, precision, logic — are far reaching in how we collectively perceive the world.
“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking.” — Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist, describes scientific thinking as, “A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.” Similarly, to employ Design Thinking, is to approach the world in a particular way. The parallel might be: a way of optimistically creating new versions of the world with a fine understanding of the human experience. Looking at Design Thinking and the Scientific Method side by side, it becomes evident how important a process can be.
An Example: COVID-19
Let’s take the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of a wicked problem, in order to draw out how Design Thinking enhances a problem-solving approach.
The Scientific Method is needed to discover the truth about COVID-19: how to identify it, how to stop it from infecting others and how to treat victims. In order to do so with confidence, the process is sterilized. A constrained scope, precise measurements and controlled variables, are science-based devices for finding what is true. Thus far, the truths revealed by scientific inquiry have produced COVID-19 tests, ways to successfully prevent infection like social-distancing, and most notably, a reliable vaccine.
Meanwhile, Design Thinking couches scientific truths in our already complex reality by focusing on the humans at the center of a challenge.
- How do we help at-risk populations understand the importance of social distancing?
- How do we provide patients with the most empathetic experience when they get COVID-19?
- How do government officials work across systems to ensure people in the most need get the vaccine the quickest?
Through Design Thinking, problem solvers acknowledge the scientific truths of COVID-19 while empathizing with the human condition (e.g. economic, social, existential, medical) and considering intangibles like fear and hardship. The solutions that are produced recognize the human toll, thereby earning the trust, insight and effectiveness needed to implement solutions.
We need the Scientific Method to address this global pandemic, but addressing the reality created by COVID-19 requires a problem-solving approach that acknowledges we are human, solving human problems.
Experimenting with Design Thinking in K-12
“Education is all about the right answer. The right answer is very important, but it’s not sufficient… We need also to think of possibilities.” — Edward de Bono
Today, there are examples of K-12 schools that are experimenting with a Design Thinking curriculum. Pioneers like the Forbes Primary School (Australia) and the Design 39 Campus (United States) and programs like Stanford’s K-12 lab and Juliani & Spencer’s Launch Cycle are all charting the way. These are fantastic proof points, but they’re not the wide-scale adoption that is necessary.
What these schools and programs are teaching is unique. Some of the words I’ve used to describe Design Thinking — like creativity and collaboration — are abstract concepts that may sound familiar, especially to teachers versed in 21st Century Skills and the 6 Cs. However, what Design Thinking does is harness these kinds of skills into an applied method. Because it’s an applied method, Design Thinking is repeatable, and gives students a common scaffolding for tackling a wicked real world challenge. Much like the Scientific Method imbues students with a respect for skepticism, precision and logic, Design Thinking gives students a new way of perceiving the world — a way that imbues values like creativity, collaboration and empathy.
What’s more, Design Thinking is perfect for K-12 because it is simple to grasp, versatile to apply and cheap to use — meaning, it scales.
How might we scale Design Thinking in public education?
One of my jobs at IBM is to help client organizations, mostly for-profit corporations, adopt Design Thinking. IBM somewhat famously did this successfully, and since then IBM has been helping other organization on a similar journey. The wide-scale adoption of Design Thinking is certainly possible for large organizations like the US public education system. The simple secret is using Design Thinking, to scale Design Thinking.
- Co-create with your users. Teaching Design Thinking to a new population requires tailoring. There are existing systems, concepts, and learner preferences. To bring Design Thinking to K-12 public education, bring students into the prototyping process.
- Prototype small wins. Design Thinking emphasizes prototyping to learn, and the same thing is true for scaling Design Thinking in a new organization. Don’t start big, start small. Try integrating Design Thinking into a few classes. Once that small prototype is established, make sure to find out from students, teachers, parents what worked and what didn’t.
- Collaborate out, and up. Everyone up to the Secretary of Education needs to get involved. In order for Design Thinking to scale in a new organization, it can’t just be teachers and students learning Design Thinking. Success depends on the management chain understanding a new set of goals so that teachers have the support they need to experiment.
If you’re a teacher and you’re already teaching Design Thinking, great — keep doing it. We need it. If you’re a parent, know that teachers want to experiment with innovative education, but they’re constrained by standards and resources, so advocate to the administration that a Design Thinking approach is essential in the workplace of today and tomorrow. And if you’re our new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cordona, or anyone who works for him, please get in touch.
Hal Wuertz is a senior design manager at IBM, focusing on A.I. software products. She has taught Design Thinking techniques to hundreds of people, and was previously a full time Design Thinking consultant, helping large organizations including NGOs, corporations, governments and universities, learn and adopt Design Thinking methodologies. She has written for publications like the Design Management Institute and EPIC People on topics relating to cultural change by design, and continues to pursue ideas about how Design Thinking can be used to facilitate social change and preferable futures.
Special thanks to Jordan Shade, Chris Hammond, June Appel, Dan Fields, Aria Wuertz, Randi Sather and Neal Krajnik for your critique, honesty, ideas and collaboration.