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Teaching and Learning through Design Thinking

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Last week was a big week for design thinking in education, both in the field and for me personally.

In the wider world, Edutopia is hosting a free course on Design Thinking for Educators which launched last week and continues this week.

For me, I facilitated a "Design Charrette" learning group at Project Zero's Future of Learning Institute. The Future of Learning Institute is a professional program run by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It's a combination of plenary lectures, break-out group workshops, and then learning groups designed which are designed to foster discussion and reflection to synthesize learning.


My concern with these kinds of professional development models, with lectures and break out groups, is that the don't always provide a space for educators to experience innovative learning environments. So I helped design and pilot a new form of learning group, organized around design thinking and studio art rather than around discussion and reflection. We had participants synthesize through making rather than synthesizing through discussing. Our experiment was based on a vision of the future of learning where students are architects and designers of their own learning experiences.

In our design process, we had participants first learn to think like an artist. While many associate "art" with technique and craft, it's also a set of strategies for engaging with the world: describing, observing, juxtaposing, highlighting, isolation, zooming-in, and so forth. My brilliant co-facilitator, Arzu Mistry, guided participants through these perspectives. Some of our activities included "2-minute designs," where we randomly assigned participants a form (comic strip, t-shirt, video) and a theme (high stakes testing, ubiquitous mobile devices, social-emotional learning) and required them to build a prototype of an artistic representation for the future of learning in 2 (well, really 5) minutes.


Afterwards, we had folks work in groups to create a prototype of the learner of the future. Documentation and juried reviews were central to the design process. Each small group had a giant window that they populated with their brainstorms, status updates, and new ideas.

Twice during the week, we had educators, researchers, and students come through our "studio" in order to ask questions, give feedback and provoke new thinking. Participants put their prototypes in an online gallery for review this week.


Watching the participants struggle and thrive within a very different kind of learning environment was tremendously rewarding. Our educators had a powerful experience in making meaning through a creative process, and many said upon leaving that they planned to implement these strategies in their own classroom and schools. As one participant blogged afterwards:

While I have believed in Constructivist learning for years, participating in this charette gave me a personal understanding of the process that I previously lacked. To be a student in a classroom where process was central to learning deepened my appreciation for this model and will give me a framework to build upon.

If we want to the future of learning to look different from the past, professional learning for pre- and in-service education needs to happen in experimental learning environments that look different from the past. Thanks to all of our participants for getting on this journey with us!

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

Update 8/14/12: Many of the media links that previously appeared in this post were reset to private, so I removed them.

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