Remote Control Boat — Remote controls operate so many of our technologies from TVs, to fans to blind systems. In 1898 Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first wireless controlled boat in New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was almost a century before wireless remotes were common in homes.
In science, first light describes the initial rays of radiation viewed through the lens of a new telescope. The technology and intelligence to view the vast deep reaches of space require consilience — the unification of knowledge and skill across many disciplines necessary to solve significant challenges and questions.
Design thinking is “first sight,” the first inkling of a new idea viewed by a creating mind. First sight is the ability of our minds to unify knowledge in order to see, to create, and to make real the ingenious new ideas of our minds. Instructional unity — consilience — is the holy grail of educational practice.
Design thinking is one of the practices that helps create consilience by connecting learning and thinking. Just as telescopes broaden humankind’s view of our universe, design thinking allows students to explore the frontiers of knowledge in order to imagine and create the future. Wherever our deep human desire to create came from, we are defined by our species’ ability to design, create, and innovate. The world needs innovation to progress. The first sights of design make that innovation possible.
Schools such as St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and our research informed Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) know the power of the meaningful methods we share in this guide. Our journey was pedagogical long before we created the D!Lab. Unlike many programs, we did not backfill a program into a space, rather, we created a home for our program. The CTTL’s mission to embed the best mind, brain, and science education research into the instructional practice of teachers, allows us a unique perspective about design thinking. At St. Andrew’s we are both teachers and researchers. We share our lessons with you here.
Engaging students in designing and collaborative problem solving is a demanding task. This is not merely STEM. The National Science Foundation first coined the term STEM in 2004 (actually the acronym was originally SMET) to describe the links between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While the connections supported by STEM are undeniably important, the boundaries imposed by STEM are confining. At the CTTL, we intentionally crafted a broader philosophy that letters alone cannot capture. There is a troubling kind of illiteracy in the world. There is a lack of ingenuity and innovation. At St. Andrew’s we gave STEM deep roots, but also embedded it in methods for developing creativity, aesthetics, and empathy. We believe design thinking is most exquisitely applied to the most profound needs of others.
The processes we share in this book are for everyone, for they lay out plans for solving real problems and fueling the mind’s first sights. In practice, the design process is both deliberate and intuitive. This book helps instill the importance of the former so that the latter becomes a reflex. We share our tried and true methods for breaking down the design process so whether you are a teacher, student, or other practitioners, you can access the power and purpose of each section. We begin with our mindset.
Design thinking invents the future. It is the iterative process by which humans plan, make, and evaluate new ideas. The human capacity to create and innovate is alive in any person willing to search, question, and tinker. Design thinking is a creative mindset driven by a process that solves all scales of problems. In the classroom, the process becomes a way to make thinking and learning visual — a glimpse into what a student’s mind is experiencing across disciplines. By its very nature, design thinking is a practical art, matched with precise math and governed by the principles of science, that allows students repeated first sights into the future.
The process of design is as valuable as the product. Students learn that ideas have to be incubated through research, trial and error, feedback, and critique — a repetitive process to test ideas and make improvements. Students learn to produce scale drawings from varying perspectives and work from those drawings to produce products of varying resolution, so that several rounds of prototypes can quickly be produced, evaluated, and further refined. Solving problems by design is the nexus among learning, feeling, and making. The process encompasses the flashes of first sight that link mind, eyes, heart, and hands — using the dynamism of a student’s cognitive power and empathy to solve all sorts of problems. The brain, when allowed to design and problem-solve, creates coherence and consilience: that is what schools really need.
In its most meaningful form, the design thinking process is best applied to human need. We use empathy to guide research and creativity to design solutions for others. Through the design process, students give tangible expression to the meaning they experience. Schools should be the place where students’ creativity is combined with deep content, relevant skills, and innovative finesse and aimed at the world’s deepest and seemingly intractable human problems. There is some magic to that process.
Innovative finesse requires creativity: mindful characteristics that enlighten, bend, blend, and spark new ideas. In many cases, creative ideas are conceived by simply playing, doodling, and wondering. Play is the work of creativity because it generates the sheer quantity and quality of the ideas necessary to make never before considered connections. Creating is not simply about innovation. In schools, it is also about expression, bringing to life insights and first sights that might otherwise remain hidden. Creativity is a reflex born of frequent practice and exposure to new problems, approaches, discordant events, and even failure.
Design thinking gives students a new identity: a new way of viewing themselves as creators. Part of that identity includes the aspiration to solve problems and the mindset to feel confident while doing so. In the design process, one constant is certain: you can’t learn without some failure. Failure and mistakes are what are so transformational about this whole process. Contrary to what education often emphasizes, failures are wonderfully liberating. Failure is a necessary component of innovation, so the way students understand failure is critically important. When we make ideas visual and tests reveal failures, we expose and extend ourselves to a moment of insight. When properly applied, uncertainty and mistakes are powerful engines of momentum. When seen as conclusions, mistakes are dead ends. Through design, students learn to push ahead in spite of their feelings, to move toward doubt, and not become so fixated on instant or easy success that they miss the opportunities that mistakes offer. All progress is the revision of something that already exists, punctuated with innovation. Failure is the forge by which ideas and innovation are strengthened and improved.
W. B. Yeats once observed that “education is not the filling of a pail, rather, the lighting of a fire.” Imagination is the spark that illuminates the mind’s first sights. Students are “wired to create.” We know that our students’ skills are exponentially increased when work is enlivened by imagination. But where in the brain does the spark of imagination form? For many years, scientists believed that the mind is what the brain does. Now we know that characteristics like creativity and imagination are more than the sum of our brain’s neural activity. “Creativity and imagination cannot be reduced simply to the neural circuitry of an adult brain and even less to the genes behind our brain,” says neuroscientist Antonio Damassio. Through evolution and experience, the brain’s neural functions have developed this fanciful and seemingly un-brain-like function we call imagination. Language, thought, feeling, and our sense of identity are all woven together from the interactions we have with the external “real world” as well as a rich internal world of imagination within our minds. Art, stories, music, structures, inventions, and communication are birthed by something more than simple brain-bound functions. The imagination and empathy required by the design process raise an experience out of the realm of the brain’s neurons into the deeper realm of mysteries and meaning of the human mind.
Humans have a capacity to create for purpose and progress. What goes on between the ears of our students is not simply the processing of existing ideas and content, but the generation of extraordinary new solutions or first sights. Design thinking is best applied to human need and when empathy is used to guide research, sparks creativity and the design solutions. The design process gives tangible expression to the meaning students experience when they encounter new problems, enter into new situations, travel to new places, and meet new friends. Imagination requires journeying into the world of ideas, people, and places that is different from your own. Schools should be the place where students’ creativity and imagination are combined with deep content, relevant skills, and innovative finesse, work on the behalf of others. Creativity allows us to focus and target our imagination in innovative ways. Empathy, our understanding of the circumstances of another person, provides the best motivation for applying that innovative mindset. It is clear that the design process works best when it is part of an experience that one feels fully. At St. Andrew’s, we feel it is our responsibility to provide the best possible instructional blend of human-centered moments of insight.
Every generation is responsible for inventing the future for the next. Design thinking is a catalyst for that innovation. The process of design thinking is a continual partner to new worlds of ideas. Schools like St. Andrew’s create the spaces and places for innovation to happen. Design thinking is the intentional integration of ideas and disciplines in the pursuit of solutions to problems. Students’ creative genius can be captured and, through the process ideas great and small, can overcome all dimensions of problems. Now that we know the mindset, the purpose, and the goal of design thinking, the creative magic is up to us. Let’s design.