February 11, 2013

Education and Design Thinking at the Harvard xDesign By Design Conference

Educational Framework From Harvard xDesign By DesignAt last month’s Harvard xDesign By Design conference, I had the opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary team of designers, engineers, and business leaders to tackle the challenge of identifying deficiencies in educational systems and their approach towards developing students.

The result of our brainstorming session was an educational framework based on bringing design thinking and engagement to students in all grades. Why is it important to infuse this kind of thinking in students at an early age? Governments and businesses face huge challenges in educating students in an economy where the predictability of industrialization is not a given. In an era where technology often outpaces skill sets, the need to develop students who are able to be responsive to a fast changing economy and government built on accessibility to information, creative solutions and technology is imperative.

The framework team 11 that I worked with created and implemented a “studio environment” core made up of, fittingly, three pillars: inquiry, social support, and interdisciplinary education. Inquiry begins with engagement and an open environment where problems are proposed by teachers, and students are free to create solutions and ask questions. In addition, students would have access to their teachers during the most important part of the learning process: solving the problem. Thus, the role of the teacher would be to provide insight, encourage critique and oversee social support.

The social support pillar would emphasize collaborative environments whereby senior students and others from their peer group would be on the vanguard alongside trained teachers. These senior students would develop as leaders as they would be able to provide guidance to younger students: building empathy and social norms.

The third pillar, interdisciplinary education, contributes to a studio environment where the relations between other objects and topics is shared. Business environments produce innovative solutions based on the cohesiveness of interdisciplinary teams. The design team I was involved with was interested in exploring how to continue the excitement and creative energies that students have during the first years of school. We looked at kindergarten environments and found that they were immersed in interdisciplinary rooms. Students had access to creative materials and were commonly tasked with exploring their creative abilities. This energy and environment decreases throughout middle and high school and increases again during late college and graduate studies. The framework we created would encourage the production of strategies to break down the barriers between subject areas, increase engagement and provide environments where teachers from each field can guide students through the problem solving process.

Proposing education reform is a fraught and meticulous process obstructed by entrenched 19th century institutions built on a model of delineating students into two categories: academic and vocational. The obstacles to solving institutional problems in education that the design challenge teams were tasked with solving are major. The Harvard Design Challenge was a beginning of a process and an inspiration that clearly demonstrated that multidisciplinary teams built on perspectives from business, engineering and design are able to work quickly to provide frameworks for meaningful reform.