Design Thinking IRL: The education initiative

You’ve probably heard that our education system may or may not prepare future leaders, mainly because it may or may not prepare our kids for real life. This is an unsettling thought, not only to parents, but also to businesses who will hire these students to solve organizational problems in the future.

Our education system, including the curriculum and school environment setup, has been EXACTLY the same (with only minor tweaks) for at least 50 years, if not more. But, the world has moved on, and so has problem solving in the real world. Yet, we don’t teach our kids how to problem solve with constraints, imperfect information, and focus on the people having the problem in the first place. More importantly, we don’t teach them to fail and learn.

And yet, some brave educators do. We’ve encountered several k-12 educators who are teaching the Design Thinking philosophy, methodology, & tools to their students. One of these brave souls is Rich Wiener, who leads the Ramsey High School Design Thinking class.

We spoke to Rich not long ago about his experience teaching Design Thinking to high school students, and how his class is preparing them for life outside the classroom.

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DTL: How do you define design thinking? Why is it important? 

RW: I define design thinking as a process for creative problem solving. What’s particularly characteristic of design thinking is its emphasis on human-centered design and empathy. It’s oriented around understanding the user, empathizing with the user, and designing around the user’s needs. 

DTL: How did you first encounter design thinking as a methodology?

RW: I was drawn to it in 2013 because of an interview with David Kelley [of IDEO]. It particularly impacted me at the time because I was working on a project to define what it means to have 21st century skills in education.

I wanted to understand what the learning experience needs to be for preparing kids for this complex society. [Design Thinking] struck me as a possible solution to foster certain skills - creativity, innovation, complex/messy problem solving - that’s a real weakness in the K-12 school.

I’m also always concerned about the overemphasis on memorization of content, routine thinking, and socialization that educational institutions tend to emphasize. Design Thinking looked like a possible approach to setting up the conditions from an educational perspective that are necessary to promote 21st century skills.

DTL: How are you practicing Design Thinking in K-12? 

RW: After becoming more familiar with the methodology, we posed the question: what would happen if we dropped the Stanford D. School graduate course in design thinking into a high school?

We didn’t know how it would go, just given the students’ developmental level. There was also a question of: do we know enough about the dynamics of design thinking as instructors? It took about two years to train the teachers by sending them through various Design Thinking programs.

DTL: What is the structure of your K-12 Design Thinking program?

RW: So far, we’ve been through five sessions, with different real-world partnerships for each class.

We spend the first half of the semester training the students in Design Thinking, through a whole bunch of hands-on, practical exercises. And, then, they are partnered with a company for about three months to solve a real-life challenge using the Design Thinking methodology and tools to produce innovative solutions. 

DTL: Are there particular facets of design thinking that have helped your students most? 

RW: Fostering the mindset of creative confidence, or being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It teaches them to be fearless in putting their ideas out there for others to build on. 

Another one is failing forward, or being comfortable with making mistakes. In a K-12 system, this is really problematic. Students are programed to not want to fail in pursuit of that A-grade. That’s contrary, of course, to real creative, innovative thinking.

Design Thinking really forces the kids to experience what it feels like when you’re trying to produce new ideas, or see new relationships in the real world. This is really what creativity is all about.

DTL: How do you measure the impact of your design thinking program on your students?

RW: At the end of the day, our benchmark is: has their mindset shifted to embrace the unknown and accept failure as a learning experience?

We are constantly thinking about: can a student face failure and learn from it? Can a student tolerate the ambiguity of working through a really complicated problem with a real company? Can they handle not knowing where they’re going, afraid they’re not going to come up with an answer for that company, and not really understanding the problem along the way?

As you know, in design thinking, they’re going to have to reframe that problem based on customer needs. It's a really hard, yet extremely important thing.

DTL: Can you share some of the feedback you get from the students around their experience?

RW: We’ll often have students say to us that one of their biggest learnings was to be OK with uncomfortable ambiguity (as is often the case with problems in the real world).

Also, we have kids who say, “I’ve learned not to be held back by what I think is possible.” In the beginning the kids always look at a problem and they think, “I feel like quitting this class. I’ve been here two weeks, there’s no way we’re going to be able to solve this.” And then they learn, in the end, that they shouldn’t be held back by what they consider to be "possible”.

To me, that’s the kind of learning outcome I’m looking for.

DTL: How do you measure the impact of Design Thinking on the businesses you partner with?

RW: Ultimately, using Design Thinking, did the kids produce ideas/innovations that help the company or social organization solve their problem? In the end, we’re designers trying to solve a real problem.

With our K-12 program, I’ve received letters from these partnerships saying, “We didn’t have really high expectations of working with high school students, and we were very surprised that the team was able to produce great ideas using this approach." And, in a couple of cases, the kids actually solved some practical problems for these companies.

It makes me laugh as someone who has come to learn and believe in Design Thinking. When we start out in the practical portion of the course, you kind of hope that going through the Design Thinking steps you actually come up with good innovations. But, you’re always wondering in the beginning “Is it going to happen?”

DTL: As seasoned professionals, we wonder the same thing. Every time.

RW: Right?! We need a little magic and consistency. There’s a certain reality to this. A lot of failures and a lot of mediocre ideas have come up. But, there’s always been this collection of new, fresh ideas and insights that have produced this positive feedback for us. 

DTL: Collaborative design is a big part of Design Thinking. How does it play out in K-12?  

RW: In the K-12 system, there’s a difference between working in groups and real collaboration (or what we call "radical collaboration" in Design Thinking). To us, collaborating means you want your team member to succeed. Having that team member succeed is more important than worrying about, “Are my ideas good?” and, “Am I going to succeed?”  

So once we get that dynamic going, everybody feels a responsibility to help each other be their best creative designer. That’s when we have real collaboration.

In the end, the kids tell us that “Oh, we never had an experience like that. We never knew how to truly collaborate because we were basically playing out very linear tasks teachers give us, and these assignments have nothing to do with collaboration.”

DTL: Wow. So what are some examples of real-life projects the kids worked on? 

RW: Our students are often solving problems relevant to them. Schools tend to be so superficial, and the context is so content-memorization oriented that we really don’t confront or challenge our students enough with these authentic problems. In the K-12 system, we have really done a poor job of instituting these kind of programs.

One example would be solving for inclusion for LGBTQ+ in athletics. That was a really challenging, emotional topic. As the kids did their empathy interviews, they found a lot of diversity around people's beliefs around LGBTQ+.

With empathetic interviewing practice, the kids found that you have to establish a kind of belief system in your innovation process to cultivate that creative confidence, but also that you have a personal belief system that you need to constantly keep in mind. 

High school kids are very smart and insightful, and much less programmed than adults. The key is to unlock their ability to reflect on themselves and to understand insights associated with what they’re experiencing.

DTL: How has utilizing design thinking helped you in your own career? 

RW: On the professional side, educators are always looking for a vehicle that will be effective in developing cognitive and emotional growth. We also want the kids to feel social responsibility, and know how to take action. Most importantly, we want them to find a pathway to self-actualization.

That sounds kind of philosophical, but it’s really what it’s about. It’s about finding your voice and that pathway to who you are. So the point is, we’re always looking for these these instructional vehicles. Design Thinking, for me, is a really powerful pathway that I’ve come to embrace because I can see it’s made a difference in the students’ lives.

There are lots of models promoting high levels of cognition and creativity and innovation. But, Design Thinking is bringing out a level of understanding and insight that’s exactly what we’re looking for when we’re looking to promote “21st century higher level skills.”

DTL: How has utilizing design thinking helped you in your personal life? 

RW: Just like the kids, I’ve internalized the design thinking mindset as way to tolerate and embrace ambiguity. I use it in my own life as I deal with my own children when we run across complicated, messy problems.

For example, my daughter fell off track as a junior in high school with the SATs, final exams, boyfriend problems, etc., and she had this nervous breakdown recently. It’s a emotionally pretty intense for a parent.

So I find myself thinking, “Ok, how do you design yourself through this? How do you tolerate this ambiguity right now? How do I work with her and not be afraid that I might make the wrong decision?”

Whether professionally or personally, the Design Thinking mindset permeates my ability to be an effective parent, teacher, college professor and friend.

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It’s always refreshing to take a step back from our day-to-day business consulting to see how Design Thinking is used in a different environment. Rich, and others, are getting real with what their students need to succeed in the real world. So should everyone else.

Design Thinking is not the only method of problem solving, but it’s a process to explore as an alternative to what’s currently in the school system. We are here to help. If you want to explore Design Thinking in your educational institution, let’s chat.

How are you teaching the kids to problem solve?