Replace High Stakes Testing with Higher Return Design Thinking

Several articles in the past couple of weeks have highlighted the methodology of design thinking for both the business environment and education, particularly higher ed. Fast Company provides a quick reboot for those who may need a refresher in“Design Thinking . . . What is That?” The Chronicle of Higher Ed provides a more in-depth examination of the place of design thinking in higher ed in “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?” The Chronicle piece details the popularity of “d. school” classes amongst the general populous at Stanford and discusses the potential to extend the model to college education in general.


What about K-12?

I’ve written before about the value of the design process in K-12, as executed by groups such as Tools at Schools, for example, and the great partnerships that collaborate to bring businesses into the schools to help engage students in more extended design projects. This week I’m prompted by the current focus on design thinking to review some of the benefits for emerging adults (aka high schoolers) should more design thinking be applied to curricula in exchange for traditional grading and testing methodologies.


The Benefits of Design Thinking To K-12 Learning

If we take a look at each stage of design thinking methodology, we can see how this process builds skills that a curriculum based on high stakes testing cannot.

  1. Empathize: Incorporating empathy into the process of learning can have huge benefits. As we listen in order to uncover partner, client, or subject needs, we are practicing an invaluable skill. I’m reminded of my hero, Paulo Freire and how he utilized the tools of dialogue and problem solving to the learning process. Learning how to respect your partner in the dialogue that begins the design process can not only further engage your learners in the current design activity, but will have powerful, long-lasting effects that no amount of preparing for an exam can.

  2. Define: The process of uncovering needs, documenting and then synthesizing these findings requires critical thinking skills of the highest order. Applying these skills to a real-world problem beats practicing test questions any day.

  3. Ideate: This is where creativity really kicks in and learners get to generate means of addressing the problem. With everyone chipping in, and with a sticky note (or white board, or newsprint) array of potential solutions, a great volume of ideas may result. Essential to this step of the process is the belief that “no idea is too stupid,” a concept that any student in a traditional school setting can tell you is not usually practiced. Sorting through and finding the main themes that arise are also a great way to practice problem-solving skills in an authentic manner. Test taking requires a very discrete set of skills that tend to stifle rather than nourish creative problem solving.

  4. Prototype: Creating a physical prototype of either one aspect of or the entire solution and responding to feedback on it provides opportunities for applying a range of skills that test practice does not. Building something out of paper, markers, wood, metal, etc. results in a project deliverable that may in some cases evolve into the actual end-product solution.

  5. Test: Listening to feedback from others, probing further and applying that to a refinement of a solution will serve our kids well as they move on to the workplace. The advice from the d. School is “Don’t defend your prototype; instead watch how your partner (client/user) uses and misuses it. Again, this provides so much more valuable experience than filling in a bubble sheet or staring at a computerized version of the same exam.

As school districts and families struggle with adherence to or rejection of new test-driven curricula, the idea of engaging our kids in more productive and authentic learning experiences becomes more attractive. As each year of high school juniors and seniors waste months in mostly solitary preparation for one of two (or both) standardized tests to sum up the value of their 12 years of schooling, considering alternative ways to practice and build real-life skills becomes increasingly important.


Today’s Practitioners in K-12 and Beyond

As you have probably surmised, design thinking in K-12 will best be realized when schools effectively partner with experienced practitioners as well as corporate sponsors and mentors to help students through the different phases of the process. I’ve written before about Tools at Schools, the brainchild of cofounders Don Buckley, Rinat Aruh and Johan Liden. They have partnered with Puma, for example, to work with students designing “The Sneaker of the Future” and with faculty at the St. Mark’s School in Boston to rethink “STEM to STEAM” amongst other projects. Design thinking is being applied to classroom curriculum as well as professional development and curriculum design.


Juliette LaMontagne, founder of the Breaker projects, is helping to re-engage youth (14-26-year olds) in the learning process by working through regionally-based, real-life design projects , such as the “The Future of the Book,” “Urban Micro Agriculture,” “Technology for Civic Engagement,” and “The Future of Stuff.” Students who have participated in Breaker projects talk about how devoted people are to the projects, how hierarchies vanished as part of the project process, how student-focused the work was, and the great benefit of working with industry mentors.

In many districts and schools across the country, faculty are engaged in projects to re-design or even re-envision school. Imagine if the $1,000 or so spent per PAARC exam question were re-channeled to building design thinking into our standard curriculum model.


Try It. You’ll Like It!

Clearly incorporating design thinking into a curriculum or even considering revamping a school curriculum around this concept requires planning and resources that many schools may not currently have access to. That’s why the partnerships are so important. When we consider what is really at stake, we must continue to push for further change.


If you’re interested in exploring the design process further on your own, or within your school, the d.school has a virtual crash course in design available for anyone to take you, working with a partner or group, through a full design cycle. Or use the Future of Stuff Challenge resources to engage in your own manufacturing challenge (or one of your own . . . design).


#AltEd #CommonCoreCurriculum #DesignThinking #LearnerEngagement #ExperientialLearning #K12 #LearnByDoing




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