Design Lab

This year, I have had the pleasure of working to create a “Design Thinking Lab” for my school. Many of you may be wondering what I mean when I say that I am creating a “Design Thinking Lab.” Fear not, I am going to walk you through exactly what a DTL will be for us and what it will mean if you want to create one at your school. This page will include our changes to systems, infrastructure, and training to accommodate teachers and learners (or Cowboys and Millennials).


What is Design Thinking?

Technology should expand minds, not fill them.

In newer business startups, design thinking can sometimes be used as an excuse to provide their employees with recreation facilities (hence the climbing walls in Google Headquarters). Historically, design thinking was initially conceptualized by Herbert Simon from MIT in 1969. Herbert sought to find a method for examining, in a scientific manner, the artificial – or the man-made. While examining the process used to scientifically understand a phenomenon, Herbert found that the majority of scientists went through a seven step process:  define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.

Essentially, design thinking is the process of allowing scientific knowledge and analysis to inform decision making and conceptualization. In education, design thinking is the highest level of Blooms Taxonomy (creativity) coupled with project based learning (PBL), understanding by design, standards based assessment, and a drive to increase professional capital.

Businesses tend to air on the side of including “Design” or “Game” rooms where employees can unwind. When we look at the sift in work ethic between the Generation X/Y work spaces and the Millennials, the line between work and life has been blurred, because we are always connected. A consultant posed a question to a group of educators that I was in a few months ago. That question points to the divide between the X/Y Generations and the students we are educating. The consultant asked “How much of your day to you spend connected?” When the teachers mulled it about, they all said less than 50%. As a Millennial, and a proud one, I calmly told them that I am connected to other people 100% of the time that I use technology. My iPad/iPhone/MacBook always have some social component running in the background – I even get Facebook notifications on my wrist (thanks Pebble!). The question of design thinking comes down to this: can educators, who do not understand the need for connection that is a defining characteristic of Millennial’s, teach students to be design thinkers?

I think that teachers, by design, are some of the most intrinsically integrated people on the planet. For years we have been asked to form PLN’s and PLC’s and work with our peers to create a better environment. Why is it that we often turn towards individualization when we teach? Many of my teachers discuss “My Lesson Plans” or “My Classes” but I rarely hear: “In Biology” or “My Students.” This is actually a product of our Generation, and I know that it sounds like a generalization, and it is, but the Generation X/Y was judged by their individual accomplishments. The Millennials and GenerationI (for internet) measure themselves by the sum of their accomplishments. This is a trend that looks at what was accomplished by the team rather than by the single member. In this change, more and more students are becoming Systemic Thinkers, the Design Thinking Lab allows them to use their skills to support the achievement of the entire group. By focusing our instruction on cooperative learning, discovery, and design, we can better prepare them for the world that they will be facing.


In education, design thinking has a different connotation than it does in the design world. Take a look at the graphic above. In a traditional classroom, a number of factors effect how a student learns. The list of factors is exhaustive and will never be complete. For the sake of simplicity, I am looking at five of those arenas (“but there are only four circles?”- read on for an explanation): Formal Education, Experience, Content, Design/Creativityand Technology. In Design Thinking, we want to approach education in a way that allows the student to engage with the material in several ways or more specifically from each of these domains. Optimally, students who learn with an emphasis in design learning will be able to integrate all of these domains into a single unit at the nexus of education, experience, design, creativity, and technology – or in a nutshell, modern entrepreneurship.


A Tech Focused View

(the technology component)

I have always been a proponent of a technology integrated classroom. Lets face it, at this day in age, all good instruction is technology based instruction (and I do include rulers and pencils as technology tools). Without technology as the root of instruction and education, we are dooming our students to stagnation. If on the other hand, we think about technology as a crucial infrastructure to support learning (like classroom management, and lesson planning) then we can support students as they begin to experiment and integrate with technology at a new and higher level. Since technology, is the underpinning of the entire system, a classroom that is not designed to allow students to experiment and use technology will never reach my ideal of a design thinking classroom. Unfortunately, this criteria of allowing students to experiment removes most classrooms from the realm of Design Thinking Environments. I am sure that most people remember a computer technology course, something akin to “Microsoft PowerPoint 1o1.” That they either taught or participated in. That course has a distinct set of criteria: students at computers, students using one program at a time, students learning everything there is to know about that application. This system produced a set of technologists who understood how to use a program, but not how it worked and why we wanted it to work.

In technology we can no longer spend our time “Filling” and we need to spend our time “Expanding.” Imagine that same classroom with a new title “Public Speaking” where students are asked to develop skills using any technology at their disposal to produce presentations. This new classroom is expansive, it allows for experimentation, and it is a design based class.


Content and Education

Since, I have designed the lab to fully integrate technology into the lives of students, I made sure that each student would be able to create anything they want within the lab. This freedom to experiment must be something that we work with in all aspects of education. Even thinking about the policies that I put in place and help mold at the district level, nowhere are students given the freedom to choose their own technology adventure. As a consequence of that lack of freedom, we have an impulse driven generation who finds it increasingly difficult to self regulate. This past week, I asked a 12yr old student if they wanted more freedom to explore the internet and learn he responded by saying, “I actually think the opposite that students need less free time so that they cannot be off-task.”

Where did we go wrong? Why does this student fear the internet and freedom to make his own decisions? I believe that the fear of the internet is the same as fear of the outdoors. We have been drilling it into students that the internet is full of predators, dangers, and addiction. Is it possible that we are putting a fear in children that is the same fear about climate change? (this question is from discussions with the Boulder Sustainability Office and Dr. Susie Strife in particular who studied children’s reactions to environmental problems for her PhD)

What we need to do is stop all of the fear-mongering about the internet! Yes their are predators on the internet and yes, you could be targeted by them, but with the majority of the developed world on the web the danger is roughly equivalent to going to a mixer at the local hang out. For us to teach experimentation and design, it is important that all technology instruction should follow the TPACK model (which has reached wide-spread acceptance among educational administrators) of ensuring that students get quality technology, pedagogy, and content. What becomes a challenge is developing a stand alone environment that has both good pedagogy and content without an educator in the room. So how do we do that?

Well, to be honest, it is not easy. I am pulling from my own design experience as well as resources from Montessori, Creative Learning Systems, and other architectural designs. What ended up happening in my search for design based classrooms was that I would constantly find the resources developed by the “Maker” movement. One of the most influential documents in creating our model of a Design Lab was the MakerSpaces Playbook produced by Maker Zine. The inherent characteristic of the Maker Movement is the open source nature of every project. Within the playbook, you can find everything that you would need to get started with a MakerSpace. For us, the best resources were in the resource checklists and the easy shopping to be had on Make:.


What about Curriculum?

A fine question… one that I will be exploring over the coming weeks as we make further progress into the future of the Design Lab.