Connecting Innovation and Creativity in teaching and learning: Design thinking goes to University.

One of the questions I ask designers in my field research is “how did you learn to solve problems”? I get all sorts of answers, but after more than a few jokes about the boot camp that is design school and the battle field of client work, most of the designers I interview talk about learning by doing – learning design thinking by doing design thinking.

If we accept that creativity and innovation are basic to both social and economic growth in our world (and it sure seems like we have), then we must take a closer look at how we are incorporating these skills into our classrooms through the learning opportunities we present to students. Design thinking is something you must learn by doing: the designers I interview and observe as part of the Doing Design Thinking study have certainly taught me that. And design thinking represents an essential skill set for the future. So how can I integrate design thinking practices in my work as an educator at the University of Calgary – what does this do to my understanding of what and how I teach at a post-secondary level, in a non-design area?

After all, being part of an academic community is all about learning to explore, to research and to connect ideas to the future – sounds a lot like design thinking in action no? There are a lot of fascinating ways that the problem solving practices of designers are being incorporated into K-12 education, into post-secondary curriculum redesign and into other creative arts disciplines but there is less work out there linking design thinking methods, and learning strategies within the post-secondary education classroom.

So what would this look like? How would we integrate ‘connective creativity’ – something the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (a US based coalition of educators, business leaders and policy makers) call “a core 21st century skill” – into the learning environment? As Tim Brown (link) and Jocelyn Wyatt (link) explain:

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional”. (Brown and Wyatt, 2010, p.12).

Nurturing this ability to connect the emotional and the functional meanings of ideas in the post-secondary learning space relies on our willingness to embrace problem or project based learning – what many are calling inquiry based learning methods. I can’t tell you how hard I nerd out to the academic literature on inquiry based learning – it is more than a little embarrassing.

But back to the point: to see how students learn, we must plant the flag of traditional models of design thinking practices in what we like to think are non-creative territories. We need to apply the methods designers embrace in their practice outside the studio space, in STEM labs and lecture theatres and tutorial classrooms. Using design thinking models as the foundation of our pedagogical approach can do more than just help us solve a predefined problem (which can be fascinating), they can help us grow and nurture our student’s creative thinking abilities – they can help us foster and enable innovation in the classroom by showing us how students learn to think critically, collaboratively, in a manner that increases interdisciplinary and integrating problem solving methods.

What I see designers doing in the studio can both define what we teach and how we teach.

And by integrating this model of complex problem solving into the classroom, we not only help students prepare for a career that relies on being able to connect ideas through creativity (see this excellent article by Rotherham & Willingham, 2010) but we open doors for students to improve their critical thinking skills, and their own ‘connective creativity’ processes. There are so many projects out there that are touching on this – one of the ones I’m really excited about his happening in the post-secondary space and I would love to see how we can integrate formal design thinking models and practices in  classrooms and labs as well.

The World Economic Forum tells us that by 2020, one-third of all jobs will require complex problem solving skills like ‘design thinking’. This is in three years. THREE YEARS! This means that students already enrolled in PSE will need these skills well in hand before they graduate if they want to take their place as leaders in the Canada of the future.

We have a lot to do everyone. I’m certainly looking forward to putting some of the findings from this @SSHRC_CRSH study into play in the University classroom and seeing just what the impact of integrating design thinking within learning in my field might be.

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