• Post category:Design
Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Written by Charles James

In design thinking, students combine content with creative and critical thinking skills necessary to create products and systems that solve all sorts of problems. Schools should be the campus where students consider current technologies and the development of future ones as well.  Design thinking expands the way students experience content. In so doing, a critical evaluation of past and present designs develops discriminating thinkers who both apply creative thinking and learn to innovate. In the minds of students resides the future, but let’s enter through the past.

Consider the toothbrush.  The toothbrush is a great idea, but where did it come from? The toothbrush is ubiquitous and has been around for hundreds of years. Evidently some innovator in ancient Egypt and later in 15th century China invented solutions to the age-old problem of dirty teeth. I have two toothbrushes I am fond of – the one I use and the one that sits on my bookcase at home.  The latter is an 18th century toothbrush made from animal bone and pig bristles I found at an archaeological dig in central Virginia. However distasteful the idea, pig bristles on the 18th century model demonstrate just how adaptable materials are in meeting people’s innovative ideas.  

Could students in one of our classrooms today create the modern equivalent of the toothbrush? By that I mean, could the students in today’s world step into the generative process that produces a new technology for the future?  In many classrooms, the answer is unfortunately, “No.” This is what needs to change.

How do we start the process? I believe, (and research informs this idea) that innovation arises in clouds of disparate thoughts and neural connections. Clouds are a good analogy because, they are accumulations of molecules filled with kinetic motion and prone to some turbulence and tremendous bursts of energy. Cloud thinking is the ultimate form of mental “computing.” It is the place and conditions that allow ideas to coalesce, to spark and to pour forth. In order for all that to happen, the constituent ideas need to be adjacent or at least near other clouds of in order to connect. For many, education has become the ultimate anti-cloud. We separate our students, fill their time, reduce their conversations and resist the resulting energy from their collective clouds of thought. 

Cloud thinking actually changes the brain.  Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco studied the brain of primates struggling to solve a problem. Over time, the struggle to solve problems actually increased the size of the performance areas of the primates’ brain. Innovation is physiological. Design thinking changes the brain!  Imagine a classroom full of students solving a particularly challenging problem. Imagine the expanding cognitive and contemplative areas of a student’s brain and how that physical change begets additional educational progress.

Cloud potential actually depends on connecting all of the clouds in a classroom. Being in the cloud allows ideas to be carried by the eddies and currents of ideas that naturally exist in and around your own cloud of thought. Classroom activities centered around design can amplify the energy within separate and very different clouds. The half-baked idea that is partially and maybe even sloppily formed may find affinity, connection and conclusion in another person’s cloud of ideas.

Innovation is an accretive process. The toothbrush was not invented by one person’s cloud but the cloud potential of many people over hundreds of years. While we hold tight to our toothbrush, it is hard to imagine the storm of ideas it took to design this one simple implement. The toothbrush was designed in an innovative moment when a unified idea emerged fresh from a constellation of smaller insights and changing brains. Creating this potential in our classroom produces so many reasons to smile.

Ⓒ Charles C. James 2018


Charles (Chuck) James is an educator and curriculum development specialist in science and design education. Chuck’s experience education spans three decades and includes work as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the NASA’s Astrobiology Division and Carnegie Institution’s CASE program. His instructional work in Design, technology, and innovation, includes creating curricula for The National Science Foundation, NASA, The American Geologic Institute, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the American Chemical Society. He is a Director of St. Andrew’s D! Lab and a faculty member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Potomac, Maryland.