Design thinking in education has a massive hole in it: the skills designers have.

This is not another article looking to take down a trend in education. No. This is a statement of how much further a great idea is still to come. Should Design Thinking, in capital letters, manage to survive the great pendulum of time and trends in education, then it needs itself to iterate. See, my call to a new universal design model as one example of the many ways design thinking can go. No matter the next direction, this current obsessive focus on the design cycle we now call design thinking is unwarranted. Rather, to think like a designer, we as educators need to be educated like a designer.

This is an opportunity, a chance to fill a large empty space with something incredibly meaningful, like, say, skills. To understand why the design cycle we call Design Thinking are not those skills, let us consider a new college architecture student. That new student is very likely to learn about the design cycle in a chapter of a book or the main focus of a single lecture in a 100 level course — very early on in their education. The cycle is not the focus of much intense scrutiny and isn’t found on the walls of the school building. Also, students are not reading interviews or articles from prominent architects about how much they rely on the design cycle to make a masterpiece. This will also be true for teachers. Could you imagine an architect explain the concept for their new train station strictly in terms of the design process? It may frame their conversation but their design process would be invisible in the background. The same is true for a current teacher-colleague down the hall from me, explaining proudly how her new poetry unit is exceeding her expectations and meeting student needs exceptionally well, culminating in a book now sold on amazon. Nor would I ever describe this beer scooter project of mine directly through design thinking. Instead, I’d tell you about my mechanical work, the woodworking I did and the metal work that all culminated in a design that took months and many collaborators.

My beer scooter in Vienna, Austria.

So, what skills fill this gap in the design process we call design thinking? I have two favorite articles of mine that I wrote that attempt to do just that — provide discrete skills to educational designers that they can name, understand conceptually and act on as they do their work. The first article discusses hostile design, covering how we actually make student lives harder in the name of doing the right thing. Another considers how we sometimes aim to help the neediest students and end up supporting a much greater group of students than intended, or a curb cut.

It’s skills, discrete, important and relevant that will fill the massive gap in design thinking, skills that will make rich the backbone of a design process meant for educators. I give only two examples, yet I challenge the Design Thinking thought leaders to iterate or to get out the way. I challenge them to put meat on the bare bones of the design process they love so dearly. If design thinking has a chance to grow real and lasting roots in education, it had better be ready to bring a tool chest full of skills directly to teachers who need them.


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