In higher education, design thinking is often presented as a process where the problem must be clear before thinking of a solution. It does not do justice to design practice, where experimentation and reflection on the results are at the center, write researchers (pdf) from Inholland and Hogeschool van Amsterdam. A pragmatic approach, where knowledge is seen as something that is completely intertwined with a practice, provides an opportunity to better conceptualize design thinking. Based on this pragmatic view, they give design thinking a place in higher education.
The theoretical framework that the authors lean on is the epistemology of John Dewey, who understands knowledge as a relational construction: the object that a researcher wants to gain knowledge about is not a stationary fact, but a developmental situation that the researcher himself is a part of. . “Our actions shape the situation we reflect on, and we establish meaningful relationships between our actions and the developmental situation,” the authors describe. As that reflection gets richer as someone gains experience, they discover more and more possible ways to respond to a new situation.
Everything happens at once
An important part of Dewey’s theory is his view that the design of a solution does not start with the bare definition of a problem, is followed by a step-by-step analysis and culminates in a solution. Instead, a researcher is always working on a possible solution. The results of these experiments are included in the problem definition, which is therefore adjusted each time on the basis of the newly acquired knowledge.
The conceptual framework fits well with design thinking, according to the authors. Here, too, a preliminary idea can lead to a redefinition of the problem formulation. “Everything – problems, solutions, resources, goals – are interdependent, and all factors develop together during the study,” the authors write.
Prepares students for messy nature design thinking
Thus, this is not an orderly and predictable study. Anyone who wants to incorporate design thinking into higher education will therefore need to prepare students for its messy nature. Not only do problems, solutions, means and goals develop together, a student must also develop the brain power and imagination to shape the new and already known facts into a plausible whole.
To achieve this, the authors have developed four principles by which design thinking can be incorporated into teaching. First, students need to work on real issues for a longer period of time. In addition, they need to develop multiple perspectives on such an issue and test what those perspectives provide. Testing is a matter of research and design at the same time; through design and testing, it becomes clear what the exact problem is and how the possible solutions work in practice.
The last principle is that students must iterate, that is, constantly repeat the steps of the study. For example, manufacturing and testing a prototype is not the end of a study, but provides results that are part of the ongoing triad of discovery, processing, testing, and reflection.
Uncertainty design thinking is difficult
In line with the principle that ideas must be tested in practice, the researchers have described three cases in which, together with those involved in a course, they have given design thinking a place in an education. These educations were subsequently evaluated with stakeholders, after which the insight gained was incorporated into a new round of the education. The largest case involved 200-250 students in the Communication & Multimedia Design program at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences. The other two cases both involved about 80 students.
Supervisors, students and stakeholders from practice appreciated the design thinking approach. The supervisors especially welcomed the fact that the students are learning that there are different perspectives on things. Nevertheless, students and supervisors struggled with the uncertainty inherent in research in design thinking, the authors write. At the same time, they had to formulate problems and devise solutions, as well as set goals and choose means. “Given their search for solid ground, this co-evolution proved difficult for both students and supervisors,” the authors said. “It is not surprising that not all students (or teachers) coped well with the inherent uncertainty.”
Dealing with uncertainty
Based on the behavior of students and supervisors, the researchers distilled four coping mechanisms, each with their own pitfalls. For example, some students sought consistency by understanding the problem as best they could before daring to design a solution. The pitfall of this approach lies in constantly pushing the design itself forward, according to the authors. Other students did just the opposite; they saw focus on design as a good excuse to skip the ‘boring’ theoretical parts. As a result, however, they often came up with a design that lacked clutter and substance.
A third mastery mechanism against uncertainty was based on the assumption that a particular idea is good enough and therefore needs to be worked out, which sometimes led to people walking around with bad ideas and not exploring other ideas and solutions. Finally, their hunger for sure made some students forget to design solutions that actually fit into practice; they mainly designed solutions for a possible future, which led to results that were hardly applicable.
Mirroring gives students something to hold on to
The perceived uncertainty in design thinking poses a pedagogical challenge, the authors conclude. However, research shows that students can overcome that uncertainty by letting them learn from each other. Without a tight framework, it is difficult to determine whether you are doing the right thing, but if you hear how others tackle something and what steps they are taking, you can use that information as a beacon or direction, the reasoning goes. For example, using a poster that students used to present preliminary results to each other, they developed a common understanding of ‘good research’, ‘inspirational ideas’, ‘reasoned choices’ and so on.
Through this exchange of ideas and experiences, most students managed to deal with the doubts and insecurities they had previously struggled with. “They developed a common practice where it became clear what was expected of them, what the problem was, what were good solutions, and what the way forward was,” the researchers describe. “Their individual contributions can be very different, but together they provide a meaningful practice.”