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Bridging Learning and Application: Design Thinking in Education

A recent study from PwC found that 91 percent of CEOs are concerned that employees lack the soft skills necessary to meet the needs of an evolving economy.

With automation transforming the role of employee from rote worker to innovator and problem solver, the 4 Cs–critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication–are more powerful than ever.

While companies tailor learning experiences to upskill employees through badging or micro-credentialing, global educators are turning to flexible, but intentional elements of design thinking to guide students in purposely applying foundational knowledge today as they design novel solutions to the problems of tomorrow.

5 key elements

The five essential elements of design thinking include:

  1. Understanding through empathy
  2. Identifying and researching problems
  3. Communicating to ideate potential solutions
  4. Designing and testing solutions
  5. Reflecting and iterating on solutions

When considered together, these five elements support learners in seeing the purpose of learning while also empowering students to apply their knowledge as active participants in creating solutions to their most pressing needs. As students actively apply their knowledge to create solutions, they see how powerful their knowledge is and the process allows them to see how they might grow to solve even more pressing issues in their future. What’s more, each element is infused with opportunities for rich formative feedback that can inform instruction and help meet each learner where they are to help them grow.

A century of learning science research around interdisciplinary and guided learning reinforces the potential of design thinking as a vehicle for transforming classrooms to prepare students for the world. The constructivist nature of design thinking requires learners to apply cross curricular content to design impactful solutions. This helps students see the interconnectivity of solutions, whether it’s applied to managing international epidemics or using behavioral economics to inform policy decisions.

Moreover, with the teacher as a true “guide on the side” student learning is scaffolded through guided inquiry. This intentional acquisition and application of knowledge ensures learners acquire foundational knowledge while autonomously designing solutions with immediate and meaningful application, from redesigning the spaces within their school to connecting with communities across the globe to learn new languages and bridge a cultural divide.

Taken together, the five elements of design thinking demystify the process of learning. In demonstrating the deliberate practice of identifying and acquiring knowledge, students are better prepared to see past problems and begin seeking solutions. Understanding content through empathy helps learners identify problems their knowledge might solve and guides purposeful research towards possible solutions.

Take, for instance, the impressive learning that took place when a group of third graders started asking questions about the solar panels on the roof of Ben Franklin Elementary in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. One learner noted how “burning fires creates a lot of pollution and also takes a lot of firewood” when another learner chimed in to share that, in contrast to using wood, “solar energy is renewable so it’s always there for us to use.” This initial inquiry prompted the students, guided by their teacher, Mrs. Schmidt, to study renewable power sources and, ultimately, create solar ovens for making s’mores—an application of their interdisciplinary knowledge.

As learners work to ideate and create solutions, collaboration and communication with peers improves their outcomes. The students used different approaches to create solar ovens, which necessitated carefully and deliberately selecting from a variety of materials and structures. In the process of their experiment, the students realized that the thermometers in two different ovens calculated temperature in different units: metric and imperial. This resulted in an impromptu math conversation where one student learned that 40 degrees Celsius was higher than 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Testing and reflecting on the solutions they designed themselves supported the students in becoming more skilled communicators and nimble problem solvers.

The process of design thinking is infused with opportunities for reflection and revision and helps students witness the malleable nature of learning and learn that changing course is not failure, but part of the learning process. For example, one student, after happily eating his s’more, hypothesized that if they “added more black material on the outside, it would make our oven even hotter next time.” In their language we hear that it’s not a failure to be ashamed of, but an opportunity to try something new in the future.

A strong school leader helps ensure that a culture of iteration and innovation is valued. Ben Franklin Principal Jay Billy doesn’t just encourage iteration; he also gets into the mix of learning and growing with his students each day. “Iteration is important because it connects the work to improvement. Once we do the work and reflect on our goals, we need to iterate in order to fine-tune and make things even better,” Billy says.

In an age when information is ubiquitous, empowering learners to ask critical questions to deepen thinking and enhance problem solving prowess is the secret sauce of design thinking. When a student wonders aloud about how the metric system came to be while sitting in a science class, a good teacher does not say “hold that thought until history!” But how often does that teacher invite the student to consider their question using the history of science to better understand the concerns of leadership, trade, and established allies during the 18th century?

In the rush to get students to gulp down the standards we often miss the opportunity to support learners in acquiring the soft skills needed to thrive in a world of information ubiquity alongside a more solid foundation of knowledge that will empower more productive change in the future.

When knowledge becomes a tool for transforming the world around them, the very nature of education shifts away from standardization and into the dynamic and human-centered experience that makes learning applicable for students today and prepares them to make a positive impact in the future.

Lindsay PortnoyDr. Lindsay Portnoy is a cognitive psychologist with 16 years in the study and instruction of cognition, human development, and assessment of teaching and learning from birth through adolescence. A former public school teacher and professor of education, she is now the chief learning officer at Killer Snails, a lecturer at Northeastern University, and the facilitator of PDs and retreats for educators across the country. Her first book, Designed to Learn: Using Design Thinking to Bring Purpose and Passion to the Classroom, will be released this November by ASCD.


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