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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Design Thinking For Our College Students – A Better Higher Education Experience?

One way in which design thinking is promoted by its advocates is as a system for solving difficult or wicked problems. Much of Roger Martin’s classic work on design thinking, The Design of Business, lays out an approach by which businesses can overcome the weaknesses of purely analytic or algorithmic processes for problem solving. In higher education we frequently describe critical thinking as an important outcome for college students, and advocates of information literacy discuss the necessity of helping students think critically about the retrieval and usage of information – and how it contributes to the scholarly communication system. One way in which students can develop higher level critical thinking ability is in solving difficult problems. So it would seem to make sense that helping them to better understand and use design thinking would be a valuable component of higher education. There is little or no evidence that design thinking is currently integrated in to the learning process anywhere within the typical undergraduate college curriculum [NOTE – some design and business programs would be exceptions but this is often more the case at the graduate level].

So I was intrigued to come across an article about design thinking in the fall issue of Review of Education Research. I could recall few if any articles about design thinking in the literature of education, and I immediately wondered what ideas and suggestions the authors, Rim Razzouk and Valerie Shute would be sharing in their article “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?” [NOTE: available only to subscribers]. The basic premise of the article is that current pedagogical approaches are inadequate to prepare students for lifelong learning. No matter what career direction a student is headed, he or she must be an effective problem solver. After pointing out the growing interest in design thinking in the world of the business the authors state that:

Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with
difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and
in life in general. Current educational practices, though, typically adhere to outdated theories of learning and pedagogy

The first half of the article provides an in depth literature review of design thinking, so for that reason alone it may be of interest to those seeking a nice survey of the basic concepts and theories. In identifying the characteristics of design thinkers, Razzouk and Shute do a good job of demonstrating that those are qualities we want in our college graduates:
* ability to visualize
* human centered
* ability to develop multiple solutions to a single problem
* systemic vision
* ability to clearly articulate ideas to others
* effective in teams

While the authors do a good job of thinking through how design thinking could benefit college students, the article is thin on providing concrete examples of how and where that would happen in the curriculum. They mostly offer general suggestions:

Associated activities could be designed in a way that requires students
to generate ideas/solutions, receive support for their emergent design thinking
skills… Educators can support their students in developing these skills by providing them with multiple and varied opportunities to design and create prototypes, experiment with different ideas, collaborate with others, reflect on their learning,and repeat the cycle while revising and improving each time. In summary, the premise is that by improving students’ design thinking skills through having them apply processes and methods that designers use to ideate and help them experience how designers approach problems to try to solve them, students will be more ready to face problems, think outside of the box, and come up with innovative solutions.

While I agree with the authors that integrating design thinking skills into the curriculum would definitely benefit the students, I imagine that influencing other faculty to embrace their idea would be difficult. Given that few faculty would even be familiar with design thinking, it would be quite a challenge to get them to accept an entirely new approach to learning that would require them to abandon many of their current practices. I have advocated in the past that Library and Information Science educators should look more closely into design thinking for ways to integrate the ideas and practices into the preparation of future librarians. For the most part it has fallen on deaf ears, and I expect that these authors can expect the same results.

Despite the odds against having the higher education establishment accept design thinking as a viable foundation for a 21st century education, I hope the authors will make an ongoing effort to get other faculty to hear their ideas. As the authors put it, “Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life in general…If we are serious about preparing students to succeed in the world, we should not require that they memorize facts and repeat them on demand; rather, we should provide them with opportunities to interact with content, think critically about it, and use it to create new information.” I think that’s an educational philosophy that many academic librarians would support. I will be following up to see if the authors are able to gain any traction with their bold proposal for educating college students as design thinkers.

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