What the heck is ‘design thinking?’ I can’t seem to find a concise definition. It feels like a buzzword catch-all phrase. Since I write about edtech, I’m constantly encountering authors, speakers, and experts who claim that bringing design thinking into the classroom can transform education. I read the phrase on educational blogs all the time but I don’t really know what it means. Perhaps it is too vague, too ambivalent, too general.
I wanted to have a clear sense of just what folks mean by design thinking, especially in regards to education. I turned first to KQED’s fantastic MindShift blog, always a trusty source for learning about new trends in education. There, Katrina Schwartz writes:
In design thinking students solve real problems, think for themselves, discover knowledge and continually revise and change their models and prototypes, just like they might if working on a project at work. With design thinking, students can learn how to interpret information they’ve learned, and continue to iterate and experiment different solutions and ideas. In the process, students gain the confidence that everyone can be part of designing a better future.
Wikipedia tells me that design thinking has to do with combining empathy, creativity, and rationality in order to think about real human solutions. Or, according to folks at Stanford, “Design thinking is a methodology for creative problem solving.”
As a fan of project based learning, I’m intrigued by what seems like a systematic articulation of a type of thinking that’s based on active making and doing rather than passive receiving and consumption.
The philosopher in me, on the other hand, is immediately skeptical. I think of Evgeny Morozov’s excellent book, To Save Everything, Cilck Here: The Folly Of Technological Solutionism. Among other things, the book includes a broad social criticism of what Morozov terms, “Solutionism.” In an interview with The Boston Review, Morozov explains:
What I tried to do with the idea of “solutionism” was to urge our problem-solvers—who, no doubt, got empowered thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies—to pause and ask a very simple question: How did my problem become a problem and how do I know that it is, in fact, a problem?
From an education standpoint, Morozov’s point is succinctly expressed in an Albert Einstein quote that Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World is so fond of sharing. “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than the solution.” Critical thinking is rarely about looking for answers. Instead, it involves discovering unique ways of imagining the problem at hand.
Thinking is about following an intellectual path, not just about reaching a destination. We need to ask ourselves, “what kinds of paths do we want the adults of tomorrow to walk?”
I’m guessing that a healthy skepticism about solutionism can exist simultaneously with design thinking. Perhaps design thinking is not just about the solution, the answer, or the destination. But rather, it is about a systematic way to find clear a path. It asks how we can think about problems in more creative ways.
To take my investigation a step further–and to bridge a gap between the kinds of thinking we promote in early education and the practical applications in the adult world–I contacted Avrum Goldblatt, who wants to innovate biomedical research management. He is director of The Catalyser Program, a comprehensive system that focuses on the ‘catalyser,’ a critical role in research management systems. Goldblatt’s program is interesting to me because it shifts the way we think about innovation. Goldblatt acknowledges the collective nature of innovation, moving beyond our mythology about the individual rock-star visionary. Instead, he understands that innovation happens through systems, organizations, and communications. The Catalyser Program takes design thinking a step further by focusing on the way catalysing agents can improve biomedical research systems.
I spend a lot of time writing and thinking about K-12 education, mostly because my kids are little. However, I also teach at Temple University. At the university level, most of the edtech conversation is about MOOCS. But there is also a need to consider the scholarly endeavors and scientific research that happens in our universities. How do the ways we manage research impact the quality and efficacy? I asked Avrum Goldblatt.
The Catalyser Program provides both training and a community–with conferences, forums, and online archives of designs and best practises designed to nurture and create ‘catalysers.’ The Catalyser’s role is to assist researchers to explicitly design their scientific efforts. These designs are then be communicated to the systems developers as requirements for development, customization or configuration. The Catalyser program complements the typical ad-hoc and corporate management systems.
You believe that ad hoc and corporate management systems have been an obstacle to effective research.
Yes. However, ad hoc and corporate systems are different sorts of obstacles.
Ad hoc can be very helpful in that it creates room for a primary investigator to go his or her own way, using spreadsheets, custom tools, etc. The challenge is getting multiple ad hoc systems to inter-operate. Catalysers can help take ad hoc systems and see how they can be shared and extended, as well as improving on the robustness of their design.
Corporate systems have a variety of challenges. The major one is their priorities: command, control, and scalability. The creative process benefits from a stable environment, of course, but it can also require iterative activities that are sometimes in contradiction with traditional management structures: such as creative destruction of previous assumptions or models.
Do you think typical education system encourages ad hoc and corporate thinking?
Yes. And it is suitable for an education system to encourage both ad hoc and corporate management thinking, as a first step. But the larger context should also be presented.
A key skill of a catalyser is to bridge these two sorts of management worlds, these two ways of thinking. Neither can stand alone. But frequently, they do not coexist very well.
It is trendy to talk about raising kids to be innovators. Is The Catalyser Program less individualistic because it calls for ‘catalysers’ that help to inspire innovation from systems, organizations, and communities? Why is that important?
The media likes to celebrate individual visionaries. However, innovation is almost always a group effort. And communication is the key to a successful group effort. For an innovative effort to take hold it must be able to survive in its ecosystem. By looking at an innovation’s larger needs, the Catalyser can help innovation have a higher success rate of implementation.
Should we be talking in terms of ‘catalyser-thinking’ rather than ‘design thinking’?
I believe that ‘catalyser thinking’ arises naturally from ‘design thinking’. Design thinking can be considered related to systems thinking, but perhaps with a greater emphasis on left brain understanding, so to speak.