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Design Thinking Comes to Independent Schools

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Four years ago I missed a meeting at which several Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students approached our administration with an idea. While I cringed in the dentist's chair, my colleagues learned about a new approach to education. The grad students called it "the studio model."

The studio model isn't exactly new--it's how the arts and architecture have been taught for years. In my twenties I passed hours in Rhode Island School of Design studios as my textile-design-student spouse pondered project specs, planned, prototyped, tested, created, and did it all over again. There was ongoing teacher commentary (imagine Tim Gunn on Project Runway), lots of discussion with fellow students, collaboration, and, at each project's conclusion, a high-stakes critique ("Crit" with a capital C--imagine Project Runway again, with Michael Kors snarling unvarnished opinions). Over time, students acquired problem-solving, design, and technical skills in multiple media and materials.

The process was cool--so different from the middle school classes I was teaching; even the major projects I assigned were puny by comparison. The ends seemed so different that there was no thought, or at least I had no thought, of how studio learning might have application in my social studies or English classes. And the studio was 24/7--no bells, no moving on to the next class, no scheduled lunch period or recess.

Our M.I.T. visitors, however, saw the studio model as letting K-12 students engage in serious, real-world problem-solving and learning--involving technical, scientific, and social topics. They proposed a program, drawing on the resources of Harvard and M.I.T. and their own network of friends, where students would spend a term exploring the methodology, absorbing its potential to unleash creativity, inspire intensive learning, and foster a more sophisticated view of the world.

Our school signed on, and by 2010 the NuVu program was a going concern, the first standalone design-studio-based pre-college program. Kids from our school and others--public, private, charter--can now spend a full term in Cambridge, digging into problems posed by coaches from all over the world, from mathematicians to artists to social entrepreneurs to rocket scientists. They design, refine, prototype, and test their own solutions using whatever tools--cognitive, digital, mechanical--and materials are required. A big Crit, with panels of serious experts, ends each session. We are even able to cover the tuition for our students who attend.

NuVu turned out to be riding the crest of the zeitgeist. "Design thinking"--a more common way to describe the meta process behind NuVu's studio method (and a term resisted by the architects of NuVu)--has been sweeping through the independent school community, fostered by the evangelism of professional designers like Harry West of Continuum, Tim Brown of IDEO, and David Kelley of IDEO and the "d.school" at Stanford. In the fall of 2011 I began researching an article on the trend for the independent school press (the piece has hotlinked references); at the National Association of Independent Schools 2012 and 2013 annual conferences there were a total of eleven S.R.O. sessions with about design thinking. Also filled up have been the last few summer institutes at the Nueva School in the heart of Silicon Valley, a prime spawning ground for other schools' design thinking initiatives. Last August teachers from all sectors signed up for a MOOC offered by Edutopia, IDEO, and Riverdale Country School in New York.

Design thinking is essentially problem- and project-based. Although you could pretty easily embed most of the Common Core in a design-thinking-intensive curriculum, you might have to squint to see the details. But the way of thinking that the method promotes (and I've seen it: more appreciative of multiple perspectives, more free to challenge and ask "what if?", more comfortable with failure and the need to go back to the drawing board) is something beyond "standards." Kids still need to know facts, skills, and concepts to apply it well, but they need also to develop a different--some say more empathetic, but I'm not sure that covers it--approach to the world.

Design thinking's appeal, I think, is that it promises to combine an innovative approach to every aspect of curriculum and pedagogy with authenticity of challenge and opportunities for students to engage with their communities. Design thinking dovetails neatly with STEM goals and unites the various precepts of "21st-century learning" with relevance and the fostering of creativity; it's also a perfect fit with the "maker" movement. (Gather some colleagues and learn more through this 90-minute "crash course" from Stanford's d.school. NuVu also offers summer professional development.)

Whether design thinking will fundamentally change the way school happens, right now it's a hot ticket, and independent school "design labs," "innovation labs," and "design engineering courses" are arriving like the pitter-patter of early rain. It's not unreasonable to think that in time this will become a deluge; design thinking has educators as energized as any new idea in recent years.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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