Feb 6, 201411:16 AMPoint of View

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Rethinking Education with Design Thinking

Rethinking Education with Design Thinking

At Brightworks, the design thinking school in San Francisco, students create prototypes to test their ideas relating to the project of the day.

Courtesy Brightworks

Stop. Put down your pencils and take a break from the angst over endless test preparations to consider how design thinking may help schools shed the “rat race” of teaching to the tests. Standardized testing has manifested a pressure cooker atmosphere with a learn-memorize-test approach. Public schools are forced to conform in order to get federal funding and even independent schools are test driven due of the heavy reliance on SAT and ACT scores for college admissions.

A movement to “think again” about this self-perpetuating system is gaining momentum. As a parent, I know that this model doesn’t take into consideration that each student is an individual who learns differently and at a different pace. Research shows that this emphasis on testing doesn’t promote knowledge retention, isn’t a good indicator of a student’s aptitude, and the stress it causes students (and parents) is harmful. As of this fall semester, almost 850 U.S. colleges and universities are deemphasizing their reliance on standardized tests and new teaching philosophies and strategies are emerging—including design thinking.

Today, “design thinking” is applied to everything from product development to business management and it’s also uncorking a bigger discussion in the professional communities that concern themselves with education. As a concept, design thinking has been around for ages. It’s basically the same as the “creative design process” I was exposed to in architecture school. It emphasized “problem solving” and went something like this:

• Identify the problem.
• Brainstorm possible solutions
• Test these solutions until they fail
• Welcome and Learn from failure

I recently co-chaired a four-day conference with the help of many local colleagues, Design Thinking and Creativity in Education for the National AIA (American Institute of Architecture) Committee on Architecture and Education to explore some of these emerging strategies and to initiate a discussion between educators and architects on how the places where students learn might evolve to support this method.

There are no teachers at Brightworks, just facilitators who help the kids when they need it.

Courtesy Brightworks

We explored some of the most collaborative and creative examples of this new learning thinking in the Bay Area. This started with Brightworks, an experimental school in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood started by Gever Tulley, TED speaker and author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). My first impression of Brightworks was that it was just north of chaos—but with great results for engaging the kids with learning. Starting with an empty space and no traditional classrooms, the school is fascinating because the kids are literally building their environment as a part of the hands-on process of exploring their current projects. The teachers facilitate these projects and offer advice or guidance when asked. Guest speakers and spontaneous field trips help the students understand the various aspects of the project.

Students not only master the concepts embedded within each project, they also exercise their skills of collaborating with teammates, investigating their topic thoroughly, using empathy to generate ideas for solutions, prototyping, testing and most importantly, they learn that failure is not a setback. As Gever explained in his talk, the retention of information that kids have as a result of this process is significantly higher. More significantly, learning to identify the need for and acquire skills in response to problem solving situations is a life long skill set that will better shape these kids to confront productive careers that address real world problems.

We also visited The Innovation Lab (I-Lab) at The Nueva School, a school for gifted prekindergarten through ninth-grade students in Hillsborough. This flexible use resource exists as an adjunct to their normal curriculum. Whatever the kids are thinking and tinkering with, the I-Lab is where they can prototype their ideas. Integral to the school’s project-based learning approach, the I-Lab is a maker-studio space with 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, computers, construction tools and wheeled work tables that make it easy to organize the room according to the needs of the project. 

The success of Nueva School’s I-Lab has inspired a more integrated design thinking-based design for their new high school, which is under construction.

Courtesy The Nueva School

Nueva is also exploring the possibilities of integrating “design thinking” environments into the design of the new ground up high school they are building. Using what they have learned from their existing Innovation Lab as design inspiration for the layout of the new high school campus and classroom formats. As a result, when thinking about a whole school designed with these sorts of activities in mind, the notion what a classroom might look like is transformed. Spaces need to be flexible to accommodate a wide variety of student use scenarios and project driven set ups. Interestingly, not all the conventional classrooms went away, as the new Nueva High School will be a balance of fixed classroom environments and project-based spaces that can be shaped by the students as needed.

We visited the Stanford campus and had a presentation on the “D school” (design and engineering school) where the current design thinking trend was jump started by David Kelly, the founder of Ideo. Here students draw from a mobile “kit of parts” to assemble work environments shaped to their project-based activities and then put them all back afterwards. Interestingly, showing the contagion of this kind of thinking, other departments on the campus now have their own versions of new spaces inspired by creating flexible environments for multi-disciplinary teams to collaborate.

Not every school is ready to embody design thinking holistically like Brightworks or Nueva School’s new high school, and we understand that there are endemic pressures to stick with current yardsticks for student learning. As an architect who designs learning environments, my own process of design thinking requires collaborating closely with school faculty and administrators to understand their world, needs and aspirations fully. I see the span of pedagogies on a continuum: On one end is the standardized test approach to teaching, which may be physically realized in a traditional forward-facing classroom—where the teacher stands at the front of the room and lectures to a class of forward-facing students. On the opposite end, is the exclusively design-thinking schools where project-based learning requires open spaces with flexible, moveable pieces that can section off areas, can be written on, and will be used in different ways each day depending on the topic being explored.

Between the two are a myriad of teaching and classroom alternatives that are just now being explored in new school designs. These will all likely include some mix of fixed and flexible classroom resources that respond to each school's vision and program. Regardless of where a school stands on this spectrum, these experiments in rethinking the learning environment will play an important role in teaching students in the years to come. The thinking about these spaces will continue to evolve and change as some fail. And that's something we can learn from and build on.


Peter Pfau, FAIA founding Principal of Pfau Long Architecture in San Francisco, is a modernist who balances conceptual rigor with a love for building.

Old to new | New to old
Feb 9, 2014 12:58 am
 Posted by  Michael Smythe

I quote an email sent to me by RCA's L. Bruce Archer in 2002 - in response to a question I posed about something I vaguely recalled hearing about in my mid-1960s New Zealand design school days:

"I was quoting my old Great-Aunt. What she argued was: that the traditional notion of the three R's was wrong. Reading and writing were really the active and the passive aspects of the same thing – literacy. Arithmetic was something else. It was an aspect of numeracy. What the three R's left out altogether was that other important aspect of education – dextrous accomplishment. If one really wanted to express the elements of learning in pairs, she would prefer: reading and writing / reckoning and reasoning / wrighting and wroughting. She was not far off the mark, when you read recent learned papers on the subject." – L Bruce Archer

[PS: I am in Auckland New Zealand - why are the country options on your registration pages so limited?]

Feb 10, 2014 12:50 pm
 Posted by  SeanAsh

Sometimes there are right and wrong answers to mathematical, science, English, etc. problems. There is room for "design thinking" whatever that means (a mere mention of 3D printing in this article should set up the B.S. meter). If you are saying creative, art, problem solving, etc., that is important but it is the other side of the brain. Let's not push this either/or thinking. Sometimes you do have to sweat through the hard math problem on a sheet of paper.

Previous generations did find with mix of the two--and these kind of "hippy" schools produce weak minded individuals if not trained with analytical tools.

Feb 11, 2014 05:12 pm
 Posted by  Neil Goldberg

Michael, thanks for sharing the communication from Bruce Archer - in the current flurry about "design thinking" he is one of the unrecognized, and still highly relevant pioneers of the notion that creative thinking can- and should- be taught. But only in conjunction with making. He was the undisputed pioneer in pushing to have design thinking - or designerly thinking as he called it - into the British school curriculum. I gave up a position at the RCA Department of Design Research to instead come study design in the US. The Design Education Unit looked specifically at developing curriculum and school policy. It's exciting how much of this is beginning to filter into schools at all levels.

Feb 12, 2014 10:42 pm
 Posted by  yakyak

As a parent of a child at Nueva I can assure you that it is not a "hippy" school producing weak minded individuals. The students are some of the most sought after graduates because of their leadership skills, knowledge, critical thinking skills and learning process. "Learning" is more important than being "taught at" especially in terms of retention. How you learn does not have to be traditional to ensure a strong mind.

Apr 29, 2014 07:42 am
 Posted by  Christian

I fully support that - I've always been a big fan of design thinking, and this is exactly the approach we're taking for corporate learning and development with the Adidas Group learning Campus, which we're just building up.

I believe it's necessary to completely re-think and re-wire learning in the 21st century, and to really combine the digital possibilities we have today with the hands-on approach of prototyping. And, we also need to change corporate culture to a more creative, collaborative and innovative learning approach, including fast & smart failure.

More about our approach at adidas here: http://blog.adidas-group.com/2014/03/bringing-the-adidas-group-learning-campus-to-life-learning-in-the-21st-century/

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