For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
For 2018 Design Education Initiative Jury Captain Susie Wise, design thinking in the realm of education is a topic she practically lives and breathes. Following an impressive breadth of career experience, including founding Stanford's K12 Lab Network, Wise has recently focused her energies primarily on a project bred from the K12 Lab—School Retool, a professional development program rethinking education by incorporating design thinking into curriculum planning. We recently spoke with Wise about the early days at the Stanford d.school with David Kelley, how lesson plans should be redesigned to give students an active role in the formation of their education, and what "design thinking" really means.
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Starting off, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you've been engaged with over the years?
I went to college thinking that I would be in politics and work on Capitol Hill. As I was finishing up school I thought, "you know, I don't think I want to go to Washington D.C. and just be trained in the protocols of how the Hill works." I came out to the Bay area, and I started working in education with a bunch of different educational non-profits. Kind of trying to find my way.
I would think a lot about how I wanted to become a teacher, but I found that I really liked working with programs that went into schools. I did some work in HIV and AIDS education, and that led me to work at the Exploratorium—it was there that I really started to recognize the role of design. After that, I started working in game design and was super intrigued by some of the early multimedia of the CD-rom era. At a certain point, I got tired of making multiplication games for third graders, the kind of "drill and kill" games, so I started working for SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) leading the interactive educational technology group.
The way that I got connected more formally to an understanding of human-centered design and design thinking was when I went to Stanford to do a doctorate in a program called Learning Sciences and Technology Design. I took my first classes with David Kelly, in what at the time was called the Joint Program in Design. I wasn't enrolled in that program, but I took a lot of those classes as part of my doctorate. This was prior to the d.school being created, but I was there right at the time when David Kelly and George Kembel, who would become the first executive director of the d.school, were investigating and prototyping their way towards what would become the d.school. I was involved in that early work and stayed involved. I was the only person all these product designers knew who was in the school of education, so I got to play this kind of interesting bridge role.
This led me back in 2007 to create what is called the K12 lab at the d.school. This was the entity where we really investigated what design thinking could look like in K12 education. We did this by working with folks in K12 education, but also by teaching graduate level courses related to it. After early prototyping, we found that introducing the design process to educators really reconnected them to their own creativity. In many cases, that's why they were teachers to begin with. Most of the work of the K12 lab over the subsequent years has been focused on introducing educators to the power of using design thinking as a process.
More recent work, like a program we have called School Retool, introduces just three design mindsets to school leaders to help them start to change their schools and turn them into more equitable institutions. Those key design mindsets that we introduce are a bias towards action, starting small, and failing forward to learn—those underlying pieces of what designers are particularly good at. [School Retool] really helps educators, whether they're classroom teachers or school leaders or system level leaders, start to notice and work with their own creativity to build their creative confidence.
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You've led me into my next question about School Retool, a project focused on the idea of deeper learning. I'm curious to hear, which aspects of education do you personally believe need to change in this modern era?
Right now is such a critical time—we have an opportunity to help everyone see that school can be different. We need to be able to do that in partially immersive ways. We have a little bit of a legacy problem due to the fact that everyone's been to school and has a relationship to school that has already existed. It makes it hard to get to innovation.
"I think the power of bringing design thinking into schools as a toolkit that both educators and also students directly use is just an approach to creative problem solving and opportunity seeking. It is one of the things that can allow young people to have a process that they reliably know they can use when faced with unforeseen challenges. That's what our future is."
How do we help schools be much more student-centered so that the work that students are doing feels relevant to them and they are actually driving their own learning? Finding that relevance so you can drive your own learning is what sets you up to know how you learn and, therefore, be able to learn things as our world continues to change.
The power of bringing design thinking into schools as a toolkit that both educators and students directly use is just an approach to creative problem solving and opportunity seeking. It can allow young people to have a process that they reliably know they can use when faced with unforeseen challenges. That's what our future is, right? There's so much we don't know about what is to come. We need to move much more into not the what, but the how of learning. I think that's a really powerful place where design plays a critical role because design is a process of learning.
Design is a process of encountering your world, seeing what is needed, and creating from there. I have a deep belief that it's a thing that humans kind of already know how to do. But we also need to build processes so that people have mental models for how to approach it. If students are working on a crisis that's happening in their community, or a topic that they really care about on the other side of the world, that one project builds their momentum and motivation to learn what they need in order to do it. It's also a chance where they're continuing to practice design. The design becomes a through-line for students to practice being in the world and learning from the world, which I think is really powerful.
One of the big hurdles we have to get over now is the obsession with learning a bunch of content knowledge, as opposed to learning how to work through a challenge and discover an opportunity. That's the critical shift I am looking to see. I think a program like School Retool is very much about those outcomes which are creative, critical thinking, communicating, and knowing who you are as a learner. Being able to adopt a learning mindset which says, "I am a learner and I can engage in this community by learning." Those are the outcomes of deeper learning that are really powerful.
"One of the big hurdles we have to get over now is the obsession with learning a bunch of content knowledge, as opposed to learning how to work through a challenge and discover an opportunity."
What we find in working with educators in the context of School Retool is that we don't actually give the adults and our system much opportunity to learn that way—to actually have a structure that gets them to an unknown outcome, which is what learning really is. Just getting to an outcome that wasn't pre-prescribed. With all the devices and content repositories that we have, we're all very aware now that the actual just "knowing" stuff doesn't matter nearly as much as getting to it and figuring out how to actually use it.
School Retool is a cool program because it is really for school leaders interested in starting on the path to change in their school. Sometimes you go to an exemplary school, like a high-tech high, and it looks like magic. These students are so engaged in these projects, they're reading their own work. They're giving the tour of the school and engaging us and these really interesting learning protocols. [Most schools] could never do that because of x, y or z. They don't have this building or this funding or whatever. School Retool really says "You're right. You don't. What uniquely can you do in your school with your existing resources to start on the path? There are some great things that we know work in the world of education that you might want to work towards."
We really work on introducing school leaders to what we think of as some of the levers of design that are actually theirs to use but they don't often think are theirs. Often times you find leaders who think that the way to influence change is to send emails about a new plan. It's a planning-centric approach. The more design-centric approach says "Gosh, you have all these levers that can help you build school culture. You could design space. You can design roles. You can design rituals. You can design incentives. You can design communications and process and time." In fact, the school leader, a principal has all of these things [at their disposable] in a way that a classroom teacher doesn't. It becomes really powerful for them to see that these are all actually levers of design that they can pull.
The program also empowers the student and shows that they have agency in their own education as well, which I feel like is something missing from a lot of normal curricula, at least in the United States.
I think that you hit the nail on the head there, right? Student agency is the critical piece. So much of more traditional historical schooling has been disempowering. The sit and get model. I'm going to fill you with knowledge as opposed to, what are the structures that we together can create that are exciting to you and get you moving in the world to create change?
This year, the Core77 Design Awards' Design Education Initiatives is trying to open up this category into other fields. Of course, it's important to create change within the realm of schools, but what are you hoping to see in submissions that are outside the box?
One of the things I think is really powerful is, how is design a catalyst for learning across the community? Can design be used as a process that helps people to work across difference? Some of the things that we've been working on in the K12 lab have been at the intersection of design thinking and equity consciousness. I'd be so excited to see submissions really approaching that intersection of thinking about how the design process can help more people have their voices heard in a community around a topic that really matters to them. That I think is empowering for young people who are students, but also for professionals looking to engage in their community in a new way.
Design as a process can be used, if done with a great deal of consciousness, to help people work together and collaborate across difference. I'm super interested in projects that are really looking at co-design and that are looking to help communities work together to create prototypes and try things out. I think prototyping becomes a powerful way of working in design that helps to break down some of the structures that limit different people from participating. Once you're working on a prototype, everyone's experience of that prototype becomes equally valid. I'd be really excited to see submissions that are looking at how design can be used for community challenges, and how design can be used to help people work together that might not traditionally do so.
One last question I can't help but ask. Design thinking is a term that's been so hyped up within the design world and especially outside of it. It's often widely misinterpreted. How would you define design thinking in a way that feels true to its original intention?
I'll say a couple of different things on that front. One is, we found that we focus less now on design thinking as a process. The d.school has the hexagon, but I'm super interested in introducing people to a process that leads them to some bit of understanding of who you are, first of all, because I think you need to have consciousness of yourself as the designer. Who are you? Who is it that you're trying to work with? What's your relationship with them going to be? Are you pushing towards co-design? Or, are you really trying to just get to know some folks who understand the space in which they're working or struggling and what the classic needs are? How do you move from a human-centered perspective, and then to a bias toward building and prototyping?
"If I would say what is not design thinking, it's 'I have an idea and I want to try to validate it.'"
In some ways, it's like the empathy and the prototyping, it's just back and forth, back and forth. What I care about more than I do explicit steps of a process is really a sense for those underlying mindsets of trying to be human-centered and having a bias towards action that enables you to learn. That learning might be, "gosh am I really working on the right problem or not?" It might be, "is this thing really working?" But it's not just to validate an idea. If I would say what is not design thinking, it's "I have an idea and I want to try to validate it."
I think there are contexts in which that might be the way you need to go, but that's not design thinking to me. Design thinking is deeply human-centered. That's both consciousness of who you are, and with whom you're working in order to uncover what is a really interesting opportunity space to work in. Then using that bias towards prototyping to both understand if you're on to something, but even more importantly, to understand if you framed the challenge correct to begin with. It wants to be informed by a real experience of the world.
The Core77 Design Awards Design Education Initiative Jury
2018 Design Education Initiative Jury Captain Susie Wise will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:
Tom Maiorana, Assistant Professor of Design, UC Davis
Kareem Collie,Creative Director, The Hive, the Claremont Colleges