Sept. 15, 2020Print | PDF
During a time when educators and students around the globe have been tasked with rethinking the way they teach and learn, there is an opportunity to embed creative design thinking into classrooms and enhance academic-skill development, says a new journal article published by two Wilfrid Laurier University researchers.
In the article, titled “Teaching and Learning Design Thinking (DT): How Do Educators See DT Fitting into the Classroom?” and published in The Canadian Journal of Education, researchers Eden Hennessey and Julie Mueller address educators’ understanding and use of design thinking in the classroom.
“With a design thinking approach, you’re trying to individualize learning and put students at the centre of the experience.”
The foundation of design thinking lies in understanding and re-framing problems based on human needs. Individuals or groups tasked with imagining a solution using design thinking go through a process including empathizing, defining a problem, creating ideas for solutions, prototyping and testing. During the cycle, problems may be redefined and testing can spark new ideas that restart the cycle. The non-linear stages of design thinking help problem-solvers utilize their creativity, critical thinking and collaboration skills.
“Design thinking fits so well with an academic approach because it’s not linear,” says Mueller, a professor in Laurier’s Faculty of Education. “Design thinking focuses on ‘failing forward’ and a growth mindset. This approach allows students to learn during the process of trying things out.”
To prepare students for success in their post-graduation endeavours, it is beneficial if they learn and practise design thinking competencies and skills early in their education, says Mueller.
For their study, Hennessey and Mueller collaborated with a focus group of experienced educators to gauge their understanding of the design thinking process and address how the educators incorporate design thinking into student learning.
The results of the study show that educators are familiar with how the design thinking framework fits into lesson planning and are optimistic about its application. The challenge, as identified by educators, comes during the “ideating” and “prototyping” stages. In a classroom setting, design thinking could lead to multiple students completing different assignments to meet the same learning outcomes. This approach requires flexibility from instructors and the ability to innovate based on student needs and feedback.
“With a design thinking approach, you’re trying to individualize learning and put students at the centre of the experience,” says Hennessey, manager of Laurier’s Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and a researcher with the Laurier Centre for Women in Science.
Embedding the design thinking cycle into the classroom gives students more “voice and choice” in the way they are assessed by their instructors, say Mueller and Hennessey. Design thinking also requires students to take an active role in the assessment process.
“We need to continue to have the courage for that trial and error process – to iterate our own practice and continually improve our ideas and our practice – especially in the context of COVID-19.”
For example, in Mueller’s second-year minor in education course “Learning in 280 Characters or Less,” students examine emerging research and innovative approaches to learning while completing projects and assignments that require self-assessment and peer assessment throughout the term. During the course’s summative assessment, students take a bird’s-eye look at what they accomplished during the course and review the processes they went through. Mueller provides feedback throughout the course.
Mueller, recipient of Laurier’s 2018 Award for Innovation in Teaching, acknowledges that increased choice and input into the learning process creates increased demand on students, but the reward is increased engagement with course content, as well as student pride and ownership in skills development.
“The ability to have the mindset of failing forward, revising, iterating and making things better without seeing these elements as failures is a process that we should ingrain more in education,” says Hennessey.
Hennessey has applied a design thinking framework into her role at the Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She says that inclusion is inherent to design thinking because the user is at the core of the process.
“When I’m working on a new initiative with a student group, I lead them through the stages and ask, ‘What’s the challenge we’re up against and how do we place students at the centre of the EDI experience?’ During planning, we can always revise our approach as we acknowledge and adapt to intersectional identities and experiences.”
Before Mueller began at Laurier, she worked for nearly ten years as an elementary school teacher in Waterloo Region. She says that she witnessed innovative solutions to modern problems emerge in the education system as the result of a design thinking process, so she’s optimistic about the impact the approach can have on the future of education.
“We need to continue to have the courage for that trial and error process – to iterate our own practice and continually improve our ideas and our practice – especially in the context of COVID-19,” says Hennessey.
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