Design Thinking: Reimagining Some Essential Questions

Joanne 150I was walking on our campus the other day and was stopped in my tracks by the stunning topiaries created by our sculpture teacher, Terri Frock. In anticipation of Dr. Jane Goodall’s fall visit to our school, Terri posed an artistic problem for herself and our community, which involved designing and constructing a large outside installation that would capture Dr. Goodall’s life work and her message about making a difference in this world.

Not only did these works of art create for me a sense of wonder, beauty, and balance in an otherwise hectic day, they also tugged on me to consider the foundation and motivation for this elegant project, which had the power to transform a moment in such a visceral way.

What, I wondered, inspired Terri to breathe life into these chimps; to shape her aesthetic, creating art that looks back at the viewers, rather than the viewers simply looking at the art; to suggest their connection to each other and to humans; to illuminate some fundamental truths about us and our relationship with our planet. Her art illuminates the theme that people are responsible for their part of the whole — stewards of their place in the world, and accountable for their interactions with it.

Her art illuminates the theme that people are responsible for their part of the whole.

This creative problem, the several-month process involved in creating the life-size chimpanzee topiaries, and the final product, which continues to inspire more questions and possibilities for discovery, it seems to me, is at the core of design thinking.

As Terri talked with me about the catalyst for and ultimate development of her piece, the connections between it and the current design thinking work being done at Stanford’s d.school, Drexel, and Yale also stopped me in my tracks. In fact, her sculpture seemed in perfect harmony with the basic tenets of those models — with the essential design challenge of a real-world problem or question, the need for innovation, and the courage to try and fail.

Art teacher Terri Frock stuffs wire chimpanzee sculptures with moss.

Not only in taking the risks necessary to re-make curriculum, but also to reframe pedagogy, these design thinking models offer us much needed exemplars of what it means to create an overall educational program that will be responsive to our students’ needs as they inherit this increasingly complex world. These innovative structures fully support the kind of preparation necessary for our students to grapple with those real-world problems in a creative and thoughtful way, bringing all their academic, social, and emotional skills to bear in each new situation.

Daily, we are bombarded by research and media pieces telling us that today’s students look like this: exhausted from doing too much meaningless homework and stressed by the overwhelming expectations that come at them from all quarters. And their landscape looks like this: cluttered with technology and the demands of staying apace with social media — leaving our students isolated in the midst of constant connection and hungering for meaningful relationships to each other and their world. We seem to be sacrificing the relational on the altar of the digital.

We seem to be sacrificing the relational on the altar of the digital.

I think that all vectors are pointing to the need for independent schools to reconsider the kind of educational change necessary for our students to be successful, and this generation seems uniquely ready to absorb the messages coming from the design thinking world. Placing this kind of thinking at the center of our teaching and learning calls on us to provide a different, more engaging educational journey for our students, one with a more expansive architecture; it also allows students to develop a different understanding of their world, leading to a more secure future in these uncertain social, economic, and globally connected times.

This way of knowing, thinking, seeing, learning, and responding seems especially suited to adolescent girls. Long-standing research, beginning with Carol Gilligan’s work, supports the notion that girls learn best through collaborative problem solving, experiential processes, discussion, trial and error, and discovery-based initiatives — with authentic challenges as the foundation. They respond to and understand their world through relationships — almost instinctively approaching complex problems with some fundamentals of design thinking, including improvisation, adaptability, and empathy.

We need to respond to the clarion call of design thinking models to transform our schools through this new way of imagining the learning landscape, of developing content, and of understanding pedagogy. The potential for comprehensive, meaningful, and powerful change resides in rethinking the essential questions that we ask and re-envisioning the myriad ways in which we could deliver program — program that is specifically attuned to, in Gilligan’s words, “women’s ways of knowing.”

Joanne Hoffman, Upper School Director

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