Thinking Design

design-thinking-dead-or-aliveI’ve truly had enough of the dialogue on whether or not design thinking is dead, alive, stillborn, a ruse, a scam, the best thing since sliced bread, the savior of the world…  Truly.  Enough.  If I contemplated my navel as much as people on LinkedIn, Tumbler, Facebook, and other social sites thought about “design thinking, Yea or Nay?” I’d probably be able to name all 65+ types of bacteria that live in my belly button…and to what effect?

As a teacher what I’m after is evidence for design as a way of thinking that is so compelling, that ought to be universal in all our classrooms, and that honors the active nature of learning over the passive practice we find in too many classrooms.

And I’ve found that evidence.  Amazingly, some of it is actually 25 years old and on the opening page of the article “Teaching For, Of, and About Thinking” by Arthur Costa, which appeared in the 1991 Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers’ text, Developing Minds, Vol 2.  That’s correct.  Twenty-Five years ago, the ASCD and Arthur Costa, one of the more storied writers in their stable of curriculum developers, published a short essay in which he made the following claims:

  • “Teaching for thinking “simply means that teachers and administrators examine and strive to create school and classroom conditions that are conducive to children’s thinking.  This means that:
    • Teachers pose problems, raise questions and intervene with paradoxes, dilemmas.
    • Teachers and Admin. structure the school environment for thinking–value it, make time for it, secure support materials, and evaluate growth in it.
    • Teachers  and Administrators respond to students’ ideas in such a way as to maintain a school and classroom climate that creates trust, allows for risk taking, and is experimental, creative, and positive.  This requires listening to students’ and each other’s ideas, remaining nonjudgmental,and having rich data sources.


The article goes on, to discuss “teaching of” and “teaching about” thinking, which encompass the teaching of discrete thinking skills and the teaching of reflective/metacognitive practices that further Costa’s central argument, which is that we don’t (didn’t???  after all, it’s a quarter of a century on now) do enough to engage students in meaningful, relevant, collaborative work that compels them to develop and practice discrete and metacognitive skills not only in doing things, but in doing them with a mindset that is, at least to me, so clearly related to the mindsets championed by design thinking as to be far more than mere coincidence.


In fact, these very mindsets developed by teaching for, of, and about thinking, as well as several others, were just reinforced by the’s latest group of “fellows” in a blog post entitled, “Building Your Design Muscle.”  In this article, fellows Hannah Jones, Nihir Shah and Andrea Small relate how their work at the in 2015–16 revealed five intuitive skills designers practice

“We had designed one learning experience around the value of noticing and another on ambiguity, and we felt a connection. Both were intuitive things designers deal with or practice all the time, but are generally not taught in a formal way. We asked ourselves, “What other intuitive skills do designers have that make them better designers? Skills that develop through practice or are inherent in the design process and collaboration?”

Picking the five wasn’t a scientific process. We brainstormed, voted, and landed on negotiation, metaphors and critique to round out the five.”

homework-machineAlmost a decade after earning my BA in English, and a few years after encountering “Teaching For, Of, and About Thinking,” I used my skills in close reading and careful observations of texts to create a new humanities course for the 7th- and 8th-grade students in my district’s middle school.  The curriculum was based on: close viewing/noticing–practiced through trips to our local college’s art museum; ambiguity–practiced through participation in projects as well as classroom discussions where the answers to questions were uncertain (see The Touchstones Discussion Project); negotiation–engaged in through project based learning where students had to make crucial decisions on their own; metaphor– practiced through numerous exercises with poetic texts (see School Arts, April 2015, page 40–41); and critique through self and peer criteria determination and project evaluation. Barely five years into that curriculum’s evolution, I realized my students were engaging in design thinking.


Now, thinking about design?  I can’t do it without thinking about teaching…about thinking.  What we do when we practice design thinking is engage in a heuristic that is so utterly human, so much a part of us as to be, like Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, hidden in plain sight.  Add to this the fact our school system, for the most part, thoroughly robs students of agency for their own education, and it’s clear why our “Design Muscles” have atrophied, and why teaching thinking has taken a back seat to teaching content.

If we are to prepare students for a world where ambiguity and uncertainties are the realities of their days, and where finding problems adds as much value as solving them, one could hardly think of a more appropriate method for education than design thinking.

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