Design Thinking – A scaffold for all Learning

Simon Sinek’s golden circle is an oldie but a goodie. He discusses that successful people and organisations start with the WHY, then worry about the HOW, and only then consider the WHAT should actually be constructed / done. Sinek states that Apple’s success lies in selling you WHY you want a phone rather than WHAT phone they can sell you. I’ve written a post titled “Is your school an X or Why School?” about it in regards to whole school thinking and planning. This time I thought I would link it to Design Thinking and also consider it in regards to the approach teachers often take in planning their lessons and learning for students. Here I want to look at Design Thinking as a scaffolded approach to all learning rather than a problem solving / product design process.

The wrong direction

It has been the staple of teaching for 100 years to first worry about WHAT you want the learners to understand and/or do. In high schools particularly, the WHAT is paramount and the consideration of HOW can be minimal, resulting in yet more reading and creating of Google slides and/or Word docs. The WHY of the learning barely gets a fleeting mention. I’ve tried and failed many times to find a student who can tell me “why they are learning this”. Both Sinek’s Golden Circle and the worldwide topic of Design Thinking suggest this approach to learning might be wrong.

Properly exploring WHY creates purpose and in-turn a stronger connection with the issue leading to intrinsic engagement. The HOW is vital in defining the experience. In fact, agency over the HOW is what makes any endeavour or work bearable. As a teacher, it’s always worth reflecting on the elements of agency you have in deciding what takes place during the day that makes your job tolerable. The Golden Circle is a mindset, while Design Thinking can be seen as a practical approach to operating with the mindset. So here I will attempt to explain the Design Thinking approach as general learning practice so as to embed more of the WHY and HOW into classrooms.

Let “WHY” do the work

For 100 years, standardisation of curriculum has removed a need to worry about WHY we learn things. After all, it’s just WHAT we do. This also means the HOW doesn’t really matter either, as the outcomes and targets seem to have been pre-decided and “we may as well just get through it” (as a teacher said to me in 2018). What many teachers working in this way have not realised is that by only paying lip service to WHY and HOW we increase our workload and a less fun workload at that. When it seems that the reason for the moment is producing or repeating the WHAT,  the Students quickly understand that this is just a compliance game and it becomes only a matter of how much they are willing to comply. Teachers complain they are forever having to repeat themselves and “hold the hand” of every student in the class, “dragging” them up to and through the assessment … and what about all those students who “can’t be bothered!” ?

A serious investment in the WHY learn / carry out such and activity creates a purpose that encourages students to intrinsically do more of the learning legwork. Create a super strong WHY and the students will engage with the WHAT in their own time.

Create a garage of “HOW” learning vehicles

There are many ways to get from A to B and people have many different preferences in how they travel. If we forced all commuters to push themselves to work on skateboards, you would find a sharp increase in working from home. Teachers need to consider 5 to 10 practical approaches that could be utilised by students during lessons. We need to teach, scaffold and practice different strategies in thinking, sharing, collaboration, prototyping/drafting, and peer assessment so as to make everyone’s work lives easier and easier each year. There are multiple ways in HOW all these skills can be carried out and it’s these that teachers need to explore and practice with their classes regardless of WHAT the students are meant to be learning.

Design Thinking as a WHY, HOW, AND WHAT vehicle

Design Thinking is a process that scaffolds learners through starting with deep exploration of WHY, makes HOW a purposeful decision, and then develops the WHAT as a considered and tested product. All under the steam of the students (once the teachers has made them aware and practiced at the process). This ensures things are tackled like the real world of science, writing, performance, art, design, and just about everything. It shifts classrooms from having students attempting to produce things themselves as perfectly as possible and waiting for it to be marked, into a culture of rapid drafting and prototyping, which includes rapid feedback and discussion in multiple tests and iterations within the normal timeframe. It’s a situation of receiving rapid feedback that also spurs on more activity and work – engagement (This is why gaming is popular!).

There are plenty of sites and YouTube videos that explain the process but I’m hoping teachers see it as a general approach to learning anything and working at school. Here’s my attempt to outline how it applies to all learning in schools.

I would recommend practising the process first in a small way with something the students are half familiar with already. Build up their confidence to tackle anything themselves.

P.S. I love seeing the happy look on my students face when I announce …

Class! Remember … like JK Rowling, Picasso, and Elon Musk, I want you to start today with a bad piece of work!