January 16, 2012

Design Thinking 2: Immersion - don't give students a problem to solve...

The Future Belongs To The Curious - so says this compelling clip passed on by Christian Long. But so say the scores of teachers with whom we work, when we suggest to them that the average 13 years of compulsory schooling content can be covered, easily, in less than 13 years time if, in fact, students choose what they cover, and when.

This is the core tenet of the first phase of The Design Thinking School: Immersion.

When we began working with our schools in Brisbane, we explained Immersion like this: 

The first phase of design thinking does not take one fifth of the time: immersion might take up to 70% of the process, as great observations can lead quickly to great ideas for solving real problems. It's a process of opening up opportunities to explore, not shutting them down. This is where, from a teacher's perspective, all control sometimes feels lost as students explore unexpected tangents. The trick is keeping out of the way, and letting students justify to themselves and to others why some tangents are worth exploring and others less so.

Immersion: observation and empathy with others

The act of just observing what goes on in the world is one that most adults struggle with: we want to jump to inferences and even come up with ideas to problems that we've perceived. But there's only one way to spot a great problem: find it through speaking with people, observing their "thoughtless actions", as Jane Fulton Suri puts it, noticing the small things that don't work, and the band-aid solutions people have to make the world around them work better. It's in these observations, and the empathetic process of putting yourselves in their shoes, that interesting problems no-one has solved, and questions to which no-one (yet) knows the answers, will emerge.

Observations might be made around a general theme or a more specific challenge (often framed in the "How might we…?" or "What would happen if…?" vein). The teacher's job with his or her students, much like the client working with creative design agency, is to negotiate the initial trigger of research, the brief, which needs to be

1. open-ended enough not to suggest a pre-existing bias or answer to be second-guessed

2. epic enough to be worth solving or working out (it needs to pass the "so what?" test of your average 14 year old, regardless of the age group of children working on the challenge)

3. negotiated enough to allow the students to find interesting tangents to explore, but the teacher to retrospectively see how curricular goals can be matched with their learning.

 Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, puts it this way:

"The key of a design thinking structure is enough flexibility with enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries."

How about these for starters?

  • What would happen if we cut down the last tree?
  • What would happen if humans became extinct?
  • How might we create a carbon zero school?
  • How does an iPad know where it is?
  • What would happen if there were no religions?
  • How might we solve a problem that will improve the lives of 100 people in our local community?

You'll notice that these are not framed as problems, but rather generative challenges out of which many problems could be found. It is these subsequent problems that students will set out to solve. This means that in a class of 30 students, working in groups of three, four or five, you could end up with 10 different problems being solved within the same initial challenge. Or, you might find students being drawn to one problem in particular.

What they did with this process opened up their eyes to a much more enrichening curriculum approach than anything that had been 'carefully' planned by the teacher. Students didn't just cover what needed covered - they went up and over that limit to surpass the core curriculum, putting it in context, and bringing in other, new and existing content that made their project ideas work.

The key to success, and the differentiator compared to other problem-based learning approaches? Students, not teachers, work out the challenge they want to solve.

This key idea is what I explored in my TEDxLondon talk on the problem finders:

 

Now you can see for yourself how this plays out in the classroom in the video produced by the Brisbane Catholic Education Office.

Tom: At Mount Vernon School in the United States, as part of the ITU Telecom World conference that we helped to reinvent with the participation of 10,000 young people through design thinking, one picture sticks in my mind. As part of the empathy phase young students, no more than six or seven years old, carried water, large canisters of water, from home to school. They had pain on their faces, sweat pouring down their cheeks. All this to better understand what it's like. Because they did that, they thought up better products, through a broader range of solutions.

Ewan: It's hard to teach that empathy/observation part. Teachers want to cover what they feel they want to cover. But empathy and observation is going to go beyond what you need to cover in any six week period, because this isn't a six week project. It's a way of working, a way of learning that frees up so much time later in the year or in the child's school career, with enough cooperation between schools. I wonder whether this is why 3-18 schools, independent mostly, are able to better understand the potential time saving and the ability to reduce the repetition most school students have to put up with.

Cassie: The immersion stage is a very difficult stage. It's not about generating a solution, drawing in a sketchbook, or Googling ideas or finding information. It's about finding emotions, people's feelings, finding empathy for the problem. 

Miriam: When we were in that immersion stage and we were really trying to create that empathy, we were trying to get out of the students their feelings, what they thought about it and then what action can we take to be better? It was sort of empowering to them to see that they can do something about it. It's not just your teachers, your parents your school, you can actually go out there and do something about it.

Comments

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Hi Ewan
I love reading about your work on design thinking and particularly like the idea that the education is in the process, rather than the destination. How, though, do you reconcile it (to parents, headteachers, inspectors) with the seemingly universal need for grades and ongoing assessment that pervades modern educational practice?

Very enlightening post. I could not agree with you more on this. You can't gain muscles by watching somebody else lifting weights. Following this logic it is only when you start practicing, asking questions, answering questions you will learn. Also one of your main points is the questions should foster open discussions and there could be more than one answer. I find this mostly true except precise and computer sciences. Designthinking is the next generation of schooling.

@Matt - It's really a false dichotomy to pitch Traditional teaching methods and Good Results in Summative Assessment against Student-led Approaches and Poorer Results in Summative Assessment. ALL the research points to higher attainment as a result of enquiry-based approaches like this coupled with sound practice in formative assessment, questioning and an understanding of how to plan for enquiry.

If you want to get some primers in that research, check out my links on:
http://delicious.com/ewan.mcintosh/research

You can hone down using the tags for designthinking or assessment, for example.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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