What I am Learning from Design Thinking

For the past two years, I have had the great privilege of participating in several design thinking workshops as a way to seek solutions to barriers and issues in education.  I have left each workshop feeling invigorated, motivated, and ready to continue pursuing solutions in re-designing public education.

Human-centeredness is essential.  We know this, don’t we?  But do we listen and remember why we do what we do and why we make the decisions we make?  Do we stay focused on the needs of the students?   We can do this by listening and showing empathy for given situations.  In one of the design thinking workshops where I participated, students sat with us as we practiced our listening skills.  Students told us about their own dreams for ensuring girls in their rural school possessed more positive body image.  Together, adults and teens brainstormed ideas for solving the problem the girls identified.  The teens and their principal left the workshop with concrete possibilities after the groups prototyped several of the ideas generated during the brainstorming session.

Facilitation skills make an enormous difference.  In my early years of learning to teach, I wrote my philosophy of teaching and included language such as “I am a facilitator of learning… .”  Over the course of eleven years in the classroom, I fluctuated on a continuum of facilitator__teacher.  The constant was always a focus on maintaining a student-centered classroom (thanks to my teacher preparation program).
Facilitating meetings with adults is only slightly different than facilitating learning with a group of teenagers.  It helps to utilize an inquiry approach and to remember the facilitator shouldn't be seen as the expert, but as someone who is curious about the topic/question of study.  Last week I participated in a design thinking workshop in Chicago, the facilitators possessed excellent facilitation skills as they led a group of educators from Colorado and Kentucky through six workstations where we considered potential barriers to collaboration among teachers across the two states, and then we worked to create possible solutions to
these barriers.  With this topic being so heavy and with a need to end the day with solutions, one might expect that we were exhausted at the end of the day.  On the contrary, we left the downtown Chicago studio feeling invigorated and excited about our next steps for our collaborative project.  The facilitators led the group process, helped us improve our communications, examine barriers, and achieve our outcome of creating a community of practice.

Prototypes are a vital part of the process.  Just like in brainstorming, there are no rules while creating a prototype.  Instead of asking, can I _______?  Ask, how will I______?  This is when we test out our ideas, so we can refine them and improve the process and/or product we are creating.  For our day in Chicago, educators from Colorado and Kentucky were coming together, but before we convened, our facilitators prototyped the process with teachers from the Chicago area.  Then those teachers joined us for the day, bringing new perspectives to our planning.

Collaboration is key.  Maybe this is one of my most favorite parts of design thinking because I have long sought collaborative opportunities in education.  Bringing different perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches to learning enhances the experience for all involved.  Who says educators have to stay within our isolated towers of subject area?  Who says students have to learn one subject at a time?  Design thinking encourages collaboration across disciplines, professions, and demographics, recognizing each individual and promoting listening and equality.


I suspect my foray into design thinking has only just begun because I see it as a way to discover, imagine, create, research, renew, and re-focus public education for the very people it’s intended to serve.
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