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Why Design Thinking?

By Rich Schellhas
Head of School

How do you feel when there isn’t any one correct answer to a question?

Does the open-endedness feel liberating and inspire creativity, or does the grayness of the expectation instill panic and make it harder for you to know if and how you’ll be successful?

When we began exploring Design Thinking at GA over five years ago, we ‘branded’ our efforts with the following slogan: There is no right answer. To be honest, we did this as much to reassure and embolden the faculty as we did for the students. In my own schooling, the only ‘problems’ we typically solved were math word problems, and those always had just one correct answer (even if showing your work earned you a point here and there). In the sciences and humanities, we were sometimes encouraged to create our own hypotheses and theses and to prove them, but these too were contained within relatively safe parameters which seldom strayed from the range of what we thought the teacher really wanted to hear.

There is a reason why there are as many books about grit, resilience, and risk-taking in a world filled with fear of failure as there are about the necessity to train 21st century students in the skills of critical thinking and problem solving. When confronted with the freedom to analyze and answer a real-world problem however we choose, many of us choke. Some bemoan the drastic shift from traditional teaching and learning as an ‘extra’, while others are just eager to return to the traditional nest where we know that if we just do what we’re told and study hard, we will get by just fine.

But will we? Study after study tells us that the current skills and attributes held by most workers today will be largely irrelevant in the coming decades. We know that artificial intelligence isn’t just around the corner; it’s right in our house, right now. To make this point in a simple way, I often highlight the superior ability of AI to solve puzzles of different kinds found in games. You can harken back to IBM’s Deep Blue beating chess superhero Garry Kasparov, Watson destroying the most successful Jeopardy champions, or even the latest Man vs. Machine contest to set records in solving my childhood staple, Rubik’s Cube.

While AI may easily trump us in outsmarting puzzles, the distinct human advantage remains in outthinking machines when it comes to solving real-world problems. This is why we are pushing our teachers and students out of the nest to learn to fly in a world where there is no right answer, and where they have the power to imagine what might be possible to solve problems both near and far.

Design Thinking* is a collaborative tool to solve real-world problems through a five-step process:

  1. Learn from people impacted by the problem
  2. Concisely define the problem at hand based on that learning
  3.  Brainstorm meaningful solutions
  4. Build prototypes of those solutions
  5. Test and revise your solutions based on feedback from those you learned in Step 1 

Consider recent Design Thinking challenges across GA’s three divisions:

  • How do we wisely live and work with technology in our community? (Upper School)
  • Design and create something that will build better understanding of each other through sharing your personal stories and perspectives (Upper School).
  • What does the ideal school schedule look like? (Upper School)
  • How do we recognize our own strengths (“superpowers”) and those of our peers? How do our strengths appear in our daily lives, and how do we use them to take responsibility for the things we care about? (Middle School)
  • How do we identify our unique learning style and those of our peers? How can we collaborate to solve problems using our collective range of learning styles? (Middle School)
  • How can we create a more inclusive community where we feel safe removing some of the masks we wear? (Middle School)
  • Design and create an innovative backpack that incorporates one or more types of biomimicry (Lower School).
  • How can you use the Earth’s natural resources to create something new and unique that moves? (Lower School)
  •  How can we create a library that inspires us as learners, readers and creators? (Lower School)

We are using our forays into collaborative, day-long problem-solving at GA to highlight ideas and issues our students consider every day, which we hope will begin to give them the ‘Survival Skills’ they need, according to innovation guru Tony Wagner, to lead in the 21st Century*:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving skills
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

Without a doubt, many of these skills tie directly to both GA’s mission and to our curriculum. Design Thinking challenges allow us to combine several at a time universally across our student body to prepare them to succeed whether there is one right answer to one question or an infinite number of possibilities to solve a problem.

And for those who feel more panic than confidence when facing the open-ended, know that we are committed to reveling in imperfect solutions as part of the process, and that we are forever bolstered by GA’s wise motto: By persevering we shall see the fruits.

*Wagner, T. (2008). Global Achievement Gap. New York: Basic Books.