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Improving Life and Learning with Design Thinking

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This is the first post in a series based on the new free online course, Design Thinking for Leading and Learning, offered through edX and taught by Justin Reich and other guest presenters from the  MIT faculty. Design Thinking for Leading and Learning introduces educators to the design thinking process and its essential role in research and develop at MIT, provides examples of how educators are incorporating design thinking in their classrooms and learning spaces, and explores how educators can use design thinking themselves to reimagine schools. It launches March 21 and you can register now.

Last month, The Atlantic published and article titled How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at Schools. I can certainly understand how emerging ideas in education can seems like fads, but from my perch at MIT, design thinking isn't a buzzword or a rinky-dink set of activities somebody made up to keep kids busy. Design Thinking is a systematic methodology for solving ill-structured problems through iterative prototyping and testing. Design thinking is how we do research and innovation across the Institute, every day. When folks in my lab roll into work every morning (usually quite late because most of MIT runs on Mountain Time), what they do is design thinking. When people are developing new products in Mechanical Engineering, creating software in the Media Lab, or imagining new businesses at the Sloan School of Management, they are employing ideas from design thinking.

Design thinking is first and foremost a process that helps you approach and solve complex and challenging problems. It provides a framework that encourages questions and serious thought about user experience.  Blade Kotelly, a senior lecturer at MIT in the School of Engineering who runs experience strategy for Sonos, describes it "as a process that people use to more effectively research, and design, and test out ideas, particularly in the domain of how they affect people."

As part of the Design Thinking for Leading and Learning course, Kotelly shares his experience in designing great products.  He employs design thinking to move students into a thought process that focuses on making sense of the user experience through research, design, and evaluation.  The core of the process is developing an understanding of the user including how they relate to the design physically and emotionally. Blade explains,   

"It's important to think about what the meaning of that product is for people. They may not ever be aware of that. But the meaning of a product affects the way people use it and think about using it in ways that are almost subconscious.  And this is where a designer needs to spend a lot of time, particularly if you wanna make a product that's a breakthrough product and that changes the way people live their lives.

"A good example of the meaning of a product is when it comes to a watch. New digital watches, digital technologies, that we wear on our wrists have different kinds of meaning, depending on who made them. For some people, the meaning is about fitness: I'm gonna track your fitness and understand what you do over the course of your day, and even divine what activities you're doing, based on what I sense.  For other companies, it's about sharing ideas, and tracking some health issues, and thinking about a different perspective."

The success of the design depends upon understanding people who use products: who they are and what motivates them.  One of the positive effects of design thinking is that it shows students the powerful  role that design plays in the world around them.  Design is everywhere.  It's in the chair you are sitting in, the way a cell phone feels in your hand, the arrangement of desks in a classroom, or the curve of a mouse. As Blade says:

"The more you realize that everything's been designed, the more you're aware of how to manipulate things and what levers you can pull to produce a great design. And the more you're aware of that, the more you start practicing it, almost subconsciously.

So when you get up in the morning, you're designing what you're gonna wear. When you go to work, you're designing your route to work. When you're doing something where you create something, like a lesson plan, you're of course designing that, but if you see it as a design problem and you're aware of it, you think about it a little differently. I think that our students become more successful when they realize everything they do is solving a design problem.

The incredible opportunity of design is seeing the world as it has been designed and then figuring out how to contribute a new design.  

Register now for two free upcoming edX courses for educators and school leaders:

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

Improving Life and Learning with Design Thinking

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