Systems and Design Learning

Everything that exists is a system. The human body is a system; the cells that compose the body are systems; the environment is a system, and so on. Systems science thinking is increasingly being used to tackle a wide variety of subjects in fields such as computing, engineering, epidemiology, education, information science, health, manufacture, management, sustainable development and the environment. (Skyttner, 2006) The objectives for using system and design learning strategies in developing K-12 pedagogical methodologies and curriculums in a digital age is that it inspires in students:

  • Feelings of resolve and commitment
  • To think more and to dare more
  • Accept change as a constant
  • To be caught up in the drama of problem solving, and
  • To be poised to learn and ready to take the next step

A system is a complex of interacting elements that are open to, and interact with their environments (von Bertalanffy, 1968). Systems theory was proposed in the 1940’s by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and furthered by Ross Ashby (1964). Von Bertalanffy was reacting against both reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science. He is considered to be the founder and principal author of General Systems Theory which is best understood as a “general science of wholeness.” The meaning of the somewhat mystical expression, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” is simply that constitutive characteristics are not explainable from the characteristics of the isolated parts. The characteristics of the complex, therefore, appear as new or emergent.” (Bertalanffy, 1968)



Systems’ thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events, and thereby potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences (see: How We Learn and Think: Innovation Systems and Design Thinking Learning Theories). Systems’ thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems’ thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect which allows components to be creatively used in design.

Von Bertalanffy wrote, “If one were to analyze current notions and fashionable catchwords, he would find “systems” high on the list” (1968). A system is a complex of interacting elements and that they are open to, and interact with their environments. In addition, they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, thus they are in a continual evolution. When referring to systems, it also generally means that they are self-regulating or they self-correct through feedback. System thinking is both part-to-whole and whole-to-part thinking about making connections between the various elements so that they fit together as a whole. (von Bertalanffy, 1968)

While von Bertalanffy created the general systems theory, it took several others to create a few basic instructional, learning, and training concepts that tied system theory to the Instructional System Design (ISD) or Analysis, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluate (ADDIE) model that we know today. When the generic design model of ADDIE is utilized, detailed job aids are provided in the form of rating sheets and checklists.

The direct theoretical basis of ADDIE or ISD is the cognitive theory of Robert Gagnè in that it classified learning outcome into five domains of learning (Hannum, 2005; Gagnè, Briggs, 1974).

  1. Verbal information: 1) labels and facts, 2) bodies of knowledge
  2. Intellectual skills: 1) discrimination 2) concrete concept 3) rule using and 4) problem solving
  3. Motor skills:  bodily movements involving muscular activity
  4. Attitudes: an internal state which affects an individual’s choice of action toward a person or object
  5. Cognitive strategies:  an internal process by which the learner controls his/her own ways of thinking and learning

In addition, Gagnè’s Nine Steps of Instructions provides ISD with instructional techniques:

  1. Gain attention: Present a problem or a new situation.
  2. Inform learner of objective: Allows the learners to organize their thoughts and around what they are about to see, hear, and/or do.
  3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge: Allows the learners to build on their previous knowledge or skills.
  4. Present the material: Chunk the information to avoid memory overload and blend the information to aid in information recall.
  5. Provide guidance for learning: This is not the presentation of content, but rather the instructions on how to learn.
  6. Elicit performance: Practice by letting the learner do something with the newly acquired behavior, skills, or knowledge.
  7. Provide feedback: Show correctness of the learner’s response, analyze learner’s behavior.
  8. Assess performance: Test to determine if the lesson has been learned.
  9. Enhance retention and transfer: Inform the learner about similar problem situations, provide additional practice, put the learner in a transfer situation, and review the lesson.

Although ISD is now mainly based on cognitive theory it is also influenced by B. F. Skinner’s objective theory of Behaviorism. Skinner’s main principle, operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that operant conditioning applies to voluntary behavior, while classical conditioning applies to reflexes. Its influence on ISD in that behavior, in this case learning, can be influenced by manipulating the environment. That is, put the correct system or process in place and you can provide an environment for learning. (Skinner, 1951) Skinner’s other contribution is programed learning that is characterized by:

  • Clearly stated behavioral objectives
  • Small frames of instruction
  • Self-pacing
  • Active learner response to inserted questions
  • Immediate feedback regarding the correctness of a response

Individualized instruction in essence replaces the trainer with systematic or programmed materials. (Skinner, 1951)

In 1956 Benjamin Bloom developed his cognitive theory called a Taxonomy of Intellectual Behaviors. (Bloom, 1956) Often used by instructional designers the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives is also a popular cognitive theory that involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills (Bloom, 1956). This includes the recall or recognition of specific facts, procedural patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of intellectual abilities and skills. There are six major categories of cognitive processes, starting from the simplest (bottom) to the most complex (top):

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulties. That is, the first ones must normally be mastered before the next one can take place. (see:

Calling it Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, Lorin Anderson, a former student of Bloom, and David Krathwohl revisited the cognitive domain in the mid-nineties and made some changes, with perhaps the three most prominent ones being:

  • Changing the names in the six categories from noun to verb forms
  • Rearranging them
  • Creating a Processes and Levels of Knowledge Matrix

This new taxonomy reflects a more active form of thinking and is perhaps more accurate. (Anderson, et al, 2000)

Robert Mager’s (1962) Learning Objectives is perhaps the key cornerstone of ISD as it gives the system a purpose. A learning or performance objective allow everyone involved with the learning process know what the learners must be able to perform once they have completed the learning process.

It is composed of three parts:

  1. Observable Action (task) – This describes the observable performance or behavior. An action means a verb must be in the statement, for example “type a letter” or “lift a load.” Each objective covers one behavior so only one verb should be present. If there are many behaviors or the behaviors are complicated, then the objective should be broken down into one or more enabling learning objectives that supports the main terminal learning objective.
  1. At Least One Measurable Criterion (standard) – This states the level of acceptable performance of the task in terms of quantity, quality, time limitations, etc. This will answer any question such as “How many?” or “How well?” For example “At least 5 will be produced,” “Without error.” There can be more than one measurable criterion. Do not fall into the trap of putting in a time constraint because you think there should be a time limit or you cannot easily find another measurable criterion. Use a time limit only if required under the normal working standards.
  1. Conditions of performance (usually) (condition) – Describes the actual conditions under which the task will occur or be observed. Also, it identifies the tools, procedures, materials, aids, or facilities to be used in performing the task. This is best expressed with a prepositional phase such as “without reference to a manual” or “by checking a chart.”


Complex and Computational Thinking

Complex thinking, which could be described as an application of systems thinking, is the capacity to decipher how individual components work together as part of a whole, dynamic unit that creates patterns over time. Computational thinking, too, is related to the notion of complex thinking. Computational thinking entails logical analysis and organization of data; modeling, abstractions, and simulations; and identifying, testing, and implementing possible solutions. Another key skill is the ability to make complex ideas understandable using:

  • Data visualization
  • New forms of imagery
  • Succinct narrative
  • Other communications techniques

The emerging pedagogy, referred to as Computer Supported Collaborative Science (CSCS), supports Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which emphasize higher-order thinking skills not reinforced by traditional textbook centric instruction. In today’s world, it is not enough to be able to conceptualize difficult challenges – one must also be able to make those ideas easy to grasp, easy to share, and easy to support. (Johnson, et al, 2014)

CSCS research underlines the increasing presence of technology in schools as an opportunity to incorporate tools such as Google docs to facilitate a type of collaborative pedagogy that:

  • Fosters the processes of scientific inquiry – asking questions and defining problems;
  • Developing and using models;
  • Planning and carrying out investigations;
  • Analyzing and interpreting data;
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking;
  • Constructing explanations and using evidence to communicate information. (PDF)


Seeing in Systems

Systems training and learning, as well as the concept of design thinking, work well when it comes to engaging students and helps them realize the value in becoming problem solvers. Creating a ‘fail forward’ culture encourages students to attempt to solve a problem and, if they fail, they come back with improved solutions. Building students’ capacity to think in systems creates students who are “solutionists,” Dillon said. “We want kids to create solutions. Ultimately, that’s what we want – kids thinking about how to solve the big hairy problems of the world. I think that’s really important, and I think that only comes through things like design and systems thinking.”

It is important that children be able to identify patterns in natural and social systems that will lead to greater understanding of sustainability issues. As Drexler (2013) stated, “A new suite of open-ended standards seeks to give students experience with engineering and technology by working together to solve problems. In today’s world, it is not enough to be able to conceptualize difficult challenges – one must also be able to make those ideas easy to grasp, easy to share, and easy to support.”

At its core, computational thinking means breaking complex challenges into smaller questions that can be solved with a computer’s number crunching, data compiling and sorting capabilities. Proponents say it’s a problem-solving approach that works in any field, noting that computer modeling, big data and simulations are used in everything from textual analysis to medical research and environmental protection. In elementary school, students should learn the foundations of computational thinking, such as collaborative problem-solving and trial and error that require persistence and good communication with fellow students, two of the “habits of mind” that are self-directed, collaborative, project-based learning (Berdik, 2015).

he creative problem-solving process begins consciously with an awareness that a problem exists or a desire to do problem finding – a personal decision to look for new uses, products, etc. Next, an unconscious or idle period happens, called incubation by some theorists.  An “ah-ha” problem solution brings a person back to conscious focus on the problem, followed by testing and evaluation of ideas or solutions. Another way of describing the process is by thinking about the brain hemispheres taking turns working on the problem: left (conscious), right (unconscious), left-right (insight on problem), and finally left again (evaluation). (See: Creativity and Creative Problem Solving) (Cornett, 1999, p.26)

Middle School in South Fayette starts the transition to specific technology skill courses, such as mobile app development. It didn’t have the K-12 comprehensive program but they built in a research and development space with these labs and STEAM coordinators that allows them to change and adapt as the world changes. Impressive statewide assessment scores have increased in tandem with the computational-thinking initiatives (Berdik, 2015).

Using the pluralistic structure of the Transformative Learning Theory (see: Innovation Methodological Learning Theories) in which students learn through task-oriented problem solving to determine cause and effect relationships as well as communicative learning through an examination of emotions through feelings, needs, and desires (Mezirow, 1991), in all academic subjects, both STEM and liberal arts, students are continually experimenting using the trial and error method for solving problems; reconstructing their experiences and creating new knowledge. Course themes follow an inquiry, analysis and solutions protocol. Although instruction includes creative core drill and practice, there is little emphasis on the rote, unconnected and non-authentic memorization of facts. Using “Mind-and-Hands” (MIT’s motto) students are exposed to activities that relate to real life situations that emphasize project-based and inquiry-based learning (see: Teaching and Learning Platforms), thus creating and rewarding learners who take intellectual risks (Wessling, 2010).

The semantic web, big data, modeling technologies, and other innovations make new approaches to training learners in complex and systems thinking possible. Yet, mastering modes of complex thinking does not make an impact in isolation; communication skills must also be mastered for complex thinking to be applied meaningfully. By relying on computers, students would be able to focus on more real-world applications of math that require critical thinking rather than spending the time to learn mechanical functions that machines can do. ( California State University researchers are training K-12 educators in a new pedagogy that helps K-12 students learn how to think and work like engineers (Johnson, et al., 2014 p. 40).



Another innovation education pedagogical methodology is the concept of Design Thinking which is the basis of Instructional Systems Design (ISD) process of problem-solving. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a process which includes the “building up” of ideas, with few, or no, limits on breadth during a “brainstorming” phase (Robson, 2002). This helps reduce fear of failure in the participant(s) and encourages input and participation from a wide variety of sources in the ideation phases. The phrase “Thinking outside the box,” which was coined to describe one of the goals of the brainstorming phase, is encouraged since this can aid in the discovery of hidden elements and ambiguities in the situation and discovering potentially faulty assumptions.

Design thinking is especially useful when addressing what Horst Rittel referred to as “wicked problems, which are ill-defined or tricky (as opposed to wicked in the sense of malicious). (Rittel, 1973) With ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving exercise. This is as opposed to “tame” or “well-defined” problems where the problem is clear, and the solution is available through some technical knowledge (Beinecke, 2009).

The “a-ha moment” is the moment where there is suddenly a clear forward path (Saloner,2011). It is the point in a cycle where synthesis and divergent thinking, analysis and convergent thinking, and the nature of the problem all come together and an appropriate resolution has been captured. Prior to this point, the process may seem nebulous, hazy and inexact. At this point, the path forward is so obvious that in retrospect it seems odd that it took so long to recognize it. After this point, the focus becomes more and clearer as the final product is constructed (Cross, 2006). Design thinking calls for considering the given user case from various perspectives, empathizing with users, and addressing various stakeholders.

 Design Thinking as a Process for Problem-Solving

One version of the design thinking process has seven stages:

  • Define
  • Research
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Choose
  • Implement
  • Learn (Simon, 1969)

Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; can occur simultaneously and be repeated. A simpler expression of the process is Robert McKim’s phrase “Express–Test–Cycle” (McKim, 1973). An alternative five-phase description of the process is described by Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer:  

  • Redefining the problem,
  • Need-finding and bench-marking,
  • Ideating,
  • Building,
  • Testing (Plattner, et al., 2011)

Yet another way to look at it is Shewart’s PDSA cycle. Although design is always influenced by individual preferences, the design thinking method shares a common set of traits, mainly:

  • Creativity
  • Ambidextrous Thinking
  • Teamwork
  • User-Centeredness (Empathy)
  • Curiosity Andoptimism (Faste, 1994)

The path through these process steps is not strictly circular. Meinel and Leifer state: “While the stages are simple enough, the adaptive expertise required to choose the right inflection points and appropriate next stage is a high order intellectual activity that requires practice and is learnable.” (Plattner, et al., 2011)


Design Principles

Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer assert that there are four principles to design thinking: (Plattner, et al., 2011)

  • The human rule – all design activity is ultimately social in nature
  • The ambiguity rule – design thinkers must preserve ambiguity
  • The re-design rule – all design is re-design
  • The tangibility rule – making ideas tangible always facilitates communication

Resistance, Fear and the Devil’s Advocate

There are factors which can slow or halt the design thinking process; fear, resistance and playing the devil’s advocate. These attitudes introduce destructive negativity. Fear of failure or criticism may prevent someone from even beginning to apply methods and processes to achieve their goals. Both have psychological effects which divert someone from focusing on solutions and shifting their focus to doubts of self-worth, anxieties of “will it be good enough,” or procrastination…”(Cross, et al, 2006).

Resistance can inhibit design thinking by reprioritizing the main goal and shifting efforts to other tasks which may need to be done (Koberg, et al, 1981). Donald Schön talks about the resistance of students towards their professors and the resistance of professors towards students in the learning process (Design Thinking Chart, 2009).

Playing the “Devil’s Advocate” is constant nay-saying – making authoritative assertions as to why every proposed solution will not work. It is an embodiment of negative criticism. Devil’s advocates kill projects by shifting the focus from potential solutions to hypercritical issues with ambiguous effects. The goal is to stop further ideation towards a solution, which, according to Tom and Dave Kelley, ought to be “banned from the room” (Dubberly, in Leborg, 2006).


Design Methods and Process

Design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two. Design Methods are techniques, rules, or ways of doing things which are employed within a design discipline. The methods for design thinking include:

  • Interviewing,
  • Creating user profiles,
  • Looking at other existing solutions,
  • Creating prototypes,
  • Mind mapping,
  • Asking questions like the five ways (Meinel and Leifer), and
  • Situational analysis

Because of design thinking’s parallel nature, there are many different paths through the phases. This is part of the reason design thinking may seem to be “fuzzy” or “ambiguous” when compared to more analytical, Cartesian methods (methodological skepticism) of science and engineering.

Some early design processes stemmed from soft systems methodologies in the 1960s. Koberg and Bagnall wrote The All New Universal Traveller in 1972 and presented a circular, seven-step process to problem-solving. These seven steps could be done lineally or in feed-back loops (Jones, et al, 1992).  Stanford’s developed an updated seven step process in 2007 (Wong et al, 1972).

Other expressions of design processes have been proposed, including a three-step simplified triangular process (or the six-part, less simplified pyramid) by Bryan Lawson (Lawson, 1980). Hugh Dubberly’s free e-book How Do You Design: A Compendium of Models summarizes a large number of design process models (Leborg, 2006).

Design thinking calls for considering the given user case from various perspectives, empathizing with users, and addressing various stakeholders.


Design Thinking in Education

Design thinking has been suggested for use in schools in a variety of curricular ways (Leverenz, 2014; Bowler, 2014; Leinonen, et al 2014) as well as for redesigning student spaces and school systems (Razzouk, et al 2012). Design thinking in education typically takes three forms:

  • Helping school administrators solve institution-based problems,
  • Aiding educators develop more creative lesson plans, and
  • Engendering design thinking skills in students

There are currently many researchers exploring the intersection of design thinking and education (Research Design on Thinking.

The REDLab group, (1) from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, conducts research into design thinking in K-12, secondary, and post-secondary settings. The Hasso Plattner Design Thinking Research Program (2) is a collaborative program between Stanford University and the Hasso Plattner Institute from Potsdam, Germany. The Hasso Plattner Design Thinking Research Program’s mission is to “apply rigorous academic methods to understand how and why design thinking innovation works and fails.”(3) In addition to enriching curriculum and expanding student perspectives, design thinking can also benefit educators. Researchers have proposed that design thinking can enable educators to integrate technology into the classroom.

Design thinking as a viable curricular and systemic reform program is increasingly being recognized by educators. “Much of today’s education system guides students toward finding the correct answers to fill-in-the blanks on standardized tests, as this kind of instruction facilitates streamlined assessments to measure success or failure… It is critical that, particularly in under-served schools this model of learning does not continue to prevail. Students need both the skills and the tools to participate in a society where problems are increasingly complex and nuanced understandings are vital.” (4)

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)

 (1)“RED lab-Research in Education & Design”.

(2)“Overview – Hasso-Plattner-Institute”.




Uses in K-12 education

In the K-12 arena, design thinking is employed to promote creative thinking, teamwork, and student responsibility for learning. The nonprofit Tools at Schools aims to expose students, educators, and schools to design thinking. The organization does this by facilitating a relationship between a school and a manufacturing company. Over a minimum of six months, representatives from the manufacturing company teach students the principles of design and establish the kind of product to be designed (5). The students collaborate to design a prototype that the manufacturer produces. Once the prototype arrives, the students must promote the product and support the ideas that lead to its design.

An example of the Tools at Schools partnership is the redesign of school equipment by 8th grade students at The School at Columbia University. The students were divided into groups and asked to redesign a locker, chair, or a desk to better suit the needs of 21st century pupils (6). The students’ final products were displayed at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair where they demonstrated their product to fair attendees and industry professionals. Overall Tools at Schools not only introduces students to the design process, it exposes them to the design profession through their interactions with designers and manufacturers. Since the students work together in groups, design thinking in education also encourages collaborative learning.

Another organization that works with integrating design thinking for students is the corporation NoTosh. NoTosh has a design thinking school to teach instructors how to implement design thinking into their curriculum. One of the design thinking techniques NoTosh adopted from the corporate world and applied to education is hexagonal thinking. Hexagonal thinking consists of gathering cut-outs in hexagon shapes and writing a concept or fact on each one. Students then connect the hexagons by laying related ideas or facts together. The visual representation of relationships helps students better conceptualize “wicked problems (7).”

Another concrete example of design thinking in action is NoTosh’s “Googleable vs NonGoogleable Questions” exercise. Given a specific topic, students brainstorm questions on that issue and divide their questions into “Googleable and NonGoogleable.” Students research the Googleable questions and present their findings to the class while the NonGoogleable questions are used to create a project.

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)

(5)Tools at Schools. “Tools at Schools – About”.

(6)Tools at Schools. “Tools at Schools”.

(7)“Design Thinking: Synthesis 1 – Hexagonal Thinking”.


Stanford University’s Taking Design Thinking to Schools Initiative

Apart from nonprofit entities and corporations, research universities are also involved in deploying design thinking curriculum to K-12 schools. Part of Stanford University’s efforts to incorporate design thinking in education into a hands-on setting is the Taking Design Thinking to Schools initiative. The Stanford School of Education and partner with K-12 teachers in the Palo Alto area to discover ways to apply design thinking in an educational setting. Teachers and students engage in hands-on design challenges that focus on:

  • Developing empathy,
  • Promoting a bias towards action,
  • Encouraging ideation,
  • Developing metacognitive awareness and
  • Fostering active problem solving

Taking Design Thinking to Schools identifies the following design thinking process:

  • Understand: students explore the topic through research and develop familiarity with the subject matter
  • Observe: this phase consists of students taking note of their environment, which includes physical surroundings and human interactions; students gather more information about peoples’ actions and possible motivation through discussion
  • Point of view: students consider alternate points of views to better understand the problem and to inform their ideas in the next phase
  • Ideate: this phase consists of students brainstorming ideas without criticism or inhibition. In this phase, the focus is on generating lots of ideas with an emphasis on creativity and enjoying the process.
  • Prototype: in this phase students create quick prototypes to investigate ideas generated during the ideation phase
  • Test: students test their ideas in a repetitive fashion and determine which aspects of the design are effective and which could be improved.

By employing this process, the Stanford team and Taking Design Thinking to Schools participants collaborate to develop coursework that students will find engrossing and “hands-on “(8). Thus, the program at Stanford combines both design thinking for teachers who must create alternative curriculum and students who must complete the design thinking-based projects.

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)



The K12 Lab at Stanford

The K12 Lab network is a part of the Stanford University and according to its website its mission is to “inspire and develop the creative confidence of educators and support edu innovators catalyzing new models for teaching and learning” (9). The K12 Lab Network publishes a wiki with information on creating design challenges for K-12 schools. The wiki provides tools for thinking about design challenges as well as criteria for implementing design challenges (10).

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)

(9) “K12 Lab Network”. K12 Lab Network.

(10)“Creating Design Challenges”.


 The Design Thinking for Educators toolkit

The Design Thinking for Educators toolkit was developed in 2011 by the design firm IDEO in partnership with the PreK-12 independent school Riverdale Country School (11). The Design Thinking for Educators toolkit that is currently offered to the public for free download is the second version. (12) The Design Thinking for Educators toolkit is a comprehensive resource for educators to use, which includes a “walk-through of the design thinking process complete with examples and a downloadable workbook” (Bradburn, 2013). The toolkit has been used in academic research to aid in the creation of an “iPad learning Ecosystem” (Kernohan, 2012). To help design a program to aid at-risk youth in the transition from elementary to secondary school,(15) as well as to redesign libraries. (16)

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)


(12) “Toolkit: Design Thinking for Educators.”



AIGA, a professional organization for design, was founded in 1914 as the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Its members practice all forms of communication design, including graphic design, typography, interaction design, branding and identity. AIGA has implemented a movement, DesignEd K12, to take designing thinking to schools. This movement is guided by volunteers and there is not a specific program to follow; instead volunteer designers introduce students to the design field and consequently, design thinking.

DesignEd K12 intends to motivate students to use design thinking to solve problems; to create a network where designers, students, and educational professionals share best practices; to shape a recommended approach to teaching design; and to cultivate a passion for design among young people (13).  Across the nation, many of AIGA’s chapters are working with school districts. The programs range in scope; some mentor students who have shown an interest in design, while other programs offer students the opportunity to explore design and participate in design thinking projects within scheduled classed or through an after-school activity.

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)

(13) “AIGA – Cultivating design thinking in kids.” AIGA – the professional association for design


Obstacles to implementing design thinking in schools

The accountability to succeed on high-stakes standardized tests in K-12 environments prevents the implementation of design thinking curriculum. Educators feel that focusing on classic curriculum will better prepare their students to perform well on these exams (14). Resistance to design thinking also springs from concerns about the appropriateness of applying design thinking to an educational setting. It has been argued that design thinking is best applied by professionals who know a field well (15). Therefore, K-12 students who are limited by their reduced understanding of both the field and their still developing intellectual capacities may not be best suited to design thinking activities (16).

Another more subtle obstacle to design thinking in schools may come from members of the academic community who believe design thinking should remain in the milieu of avant-garde companies. Other issues that may prevent the implementation of design thinking in scholastic settings may be a lack of awareness of the field, educators’ uncertainty in implementing new approaches to teaching, and lack of institutional support. Even for institutions that see the value of design thinking, there is the issue of implementing these new approaches to education successfully. Admittedly, “creating an effective thinking and successful team learning experience is a sticky wicked problem” (Goldsman, et al. 2014).

(Retrieved from Wikipedia  9/19/16)



(16) “Design Thinking’ and Higher Education”.


Design thinking in teaching and learning through Information and Communications Technology (ICT)

The integration of ICT into teaching and learning presents many challenges that go beyond issues dealing with technical implementation. Some researchers have already claimed the limited effects of ICT adoption in learning (Cohan, et al, 2001; Dynarski, et al, 2007; Ross, et al, 2004). Considering the emphasis and the investment that has been placed on the use of ICT in formal learning settings (schools and higher education institutions) it is important to identify where the problems are. In this regard, some voices of the educational community focus on the methods used for integrating ICT in teaching and learning (Dillenbourg, et al, 2009; Bonsignore, et al, 2013). In this sense, the adoption of a design thinking mindset is regarded as a promising strategy to develop holistic solutions.

Design thinking in teaching and learning through ICT can be considered as similar activities. First, it’s important to acknowledge that the type of problems faced by the educational community when adopting learning technology are unique, ill-defined and do not have clear solutions (Mishra, et al, 2008; Leinonen, 2010). This definition corresponds very well to the term “wicked problems” used by the design community (Rittel, et al, 1973). Secondly, similarly to what happens in design, the diversity of actors brings another layer of complexity that should be recognized. In this regard, collaboration between different stakeholders during the design process is another key issue that could contribute to develop more meaningful technologies for learning (Dillenbourg, et al, 2009; Bonsignore, et al, 2013; Leinonen, 2014).

As mentioned design thinking has been outlined as a meaningful approach for facing “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992). The adoption of a design mindset helps understand that there can be many solutions for a given situation and that any design requires testing. From this perspective, bringing design thinking to learning design and design expertise to the development process of technological learning solutions can contribute to the creation of more holistic solutions in learning through ICT (Leinonen, et al, 2014).


Design thinking application

Destination, Imagination and the Fires Within: Design Thinking in a Middle School Classroom,” by Maureen Carroll, Shelley Goldman, Leticia Britos, Jaime Koh, Adam Royalty and Michael Hornstein is a Taking Design Thinking to Schools Research Project the purpose of which was to extend the knowledge base that contributes to an improved understanding of the role of design thinking in K- 12 classrooms. The ethnographic qualitative study focused on the implementation of an interdisciplinary design curriculum by a team of university instructors in a public charter school (see: Appendix 3 for the full project).


Problem Discovery

No matter what pedagogical methodology and or platform a teacher chooses to present content, students have to continually be taught to think while they are learning (see: How We Learn and Think).  As Covington (1998) explained strategic instruction thinking enhances the willingness to use one’s mind in creative ways. At the heart of scientific methods of Systems and Design Learning is the challenge in solving “discovered” problems as contrasted to “presented” problems. In presented problems the solution is already known to the presenter in advance (usually a teacher) and must be worked out by the learner. Typically, such problems are presented in a neatly packaged, highly structured form, with all the information provided for a solution. Most presented problems are in themselves quite trivial (p. 163).

 Rarely in schools is presented knowledge put to work for solving discovered or “created” problems where the presenter (who may be the student) usually does care about answers, and not just about the process – sometimes passionately, even desperately, and precisely because there is no known or preset solution, or at least no single answer on which everyone (not even their teachers) can agree. This is the domain of the truly creative act.

By their nature discovered problems typically must be solved not once, but repeatedly, and sometimes by different players. Today’s assessment of the threat of global warming will change as decades pass. But just how these later appraisals will differ, no one can say except that they will likely prove the point made by R. H. Tawney that ”the certainties of one age are the problems of the next.” It is all part of the drama associated with what James Carse (1986) calls “infinite games.” Infinite games are defined as those human endeavors in which the goal is to extend play (or inquiry) indefinitely. Science is an in-finite game, as is civilization. And so is the playing out of the lives of young children who must repeatedly renegotiate relationships with others as they grow into adulthood. Students need to be taught the broad mental strategies for creating the proper moves and countermoves required by such infinite game play (p. 164).

Albert Einstein felt that problem discovery is the highest expression of humankind’s remarkable intellect when he remarked, “Raising new questions . . . [and] regarding old questions from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” In its essential form, problem discovery reflects the challenge described by Getzels (1975), “Pose an important problem and solve it!” The fundamental ingredients of this process are the continual readiness of individuals to find problems everywhere, to be puzzled by the obvious, and to see the extraordinary in the ordinary (Arlin, 1975; Wakefield, 1988) (p. 187)

This description typifies the process of scientific discovery. The history of science is replete with examples of breakthrough discoveries that depended on being sensitive to the unexpected. This process involves serendipity, the art of finding something new of value when looking for something else (Shapiro, 1986). Serendipity involves more than luck in that most of the time it is not simply accidental but this dynamics does represents the future. It is the advent of new problems and new ways to deal with old problems that propels the observation that 90 percent of the jobs that will occupy America’s labor force in the year 2020 do not yet exist. It is not typically the case, as some have argued, that humans solve their problems by outliving them, but rather in the process of solving them we create new needs and difficulties, and reshuffle our priorities (p. 188).

Most school tasks are presented as exercises in rote learning. Yet the potential for problem finding in the curriculum is ever present. Problem finding comes into play whenever students must create their own assignments. This occurs at every education level whenever students are expected to carry out original research. It also occurs in high school whenever students invent worthwhile science fair projects and in junior high when children must generate worthy term paper topics on their own (p. 188). This means that discovered problems must be coordinated closely with the growth and development of the child’s procedural knowledge based so that the act of problem solving itself fulfills the promise of content relevance and also spurs further learning in the belief that this new knowledge, too, will eventually prove useful for some as yet undisclosed purpose or problem (p. 194).


Serious Games

The term “serious games” sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. The term actually refers to a game designed for educational or training purposes. The “serious” adjective can refer to products used by industries like defense, education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, religion, and politics. “Gamification” of learning is exploding as computer and Internet-savvy young people enter the workforce and their employers strive to teach and train them in efficient ways for the 21st century.

According to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, 70 percent of major employers utilize interactive software and games to train employees. Additionally, more than 75 percent of businesses and non-profits already offering video game-based training plan to expand their usage in the next 3 to 5 years.

Play used to be regarded as a harmless release of surplus energy, but it has come to be regarded as useful to the process of learning (Jeremy Campbell in Covington, 1998, p.201). Covington (1998), feels that schools should teach students how to play games, “serious” games, an oxymoron termed by Clark Abt’s (1987), under instructional conditions that:

  1. Favor motivational equality,
  2. Promote strategic thinking, and
  3. Reinforce the positive lessons to be learned from failure.

Examples of serious games are:

  • Exponential Growth: A Mathematics Game (p. 203)
  • The Heath Futures game (p. 204)
  • Forbidding Planet: The Space Colony Game (p. 206)
  • Viral Invasion: The Bio-Alert Game (p. 207)
  • Psychic Income: The Career Placement Game (p.208)

Serious games are essentially synonymous with discovered problems whose solutions and consequences cannot always be known in advance (see: Problem Discovery). Most discovered problems can be viewed as games. Any political, economic, or social issue, whether it involves a nation, a neighborhood, or an individual, is a contest of sorts typically played by adversaries with specific objectives in mind and with various resources available to players, including knowledge, skill, and power and even luck and chance play a part.  And, perhaps most notably, adversaries are not always other players. In the case of many discovered problems, players must cooperate to achieve common cause against obstacles not of their own making. Sometimes these long odds are due to a lack of information, and sometimes because there is simply not enough time. At other times the main player may be nature itself, which yields up its secrets only reluctantly. (p. 201)

The word “game” has rich surplus meanings but on the more serious side, games can also mean any test of skill, courage, or an ideal of endurance. Games also refer to objects of pursuit, especially business and vocational pursuits, as in the “sales game.” In the “game of life,” we play for high stakes, risk danger, sometimes gamble recklessly, and in the process we hope to overcome obstacles and uncertainties, all for the sake of winning the ”big game.” It is the combination of the joyous and creative coexisting with the serious side of play – the analytic, the empirical, and the deliberate – that most recommends gaming and role playing as ideal vehicles for encouraging both the will to learn and the capacity to think. Abt (1987) puts it well when he suggests that “in dreams begin responsibilities . . . and in games begin realities” (p. 5).

These realities do benefit, particularly from the fact that serious games provide a union between thought and action. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to explore significant intellectual, personal, and social problems – the thought side of the equation – and to accumulate experience by doing, on the action side, all through the process of role playing that prepares students for the real roles they will play in later life. Abt (1987) reflected, “It is not difficult to imagine a school of the future as a ‘laboratory school’ – a school making massive use of educational simulation games, laboratory exercises, and creative projects – a school in which almost everything to be learned is to be manipulated, physically or mentally” (Abt, 1987, pp. 120-121). (in Covington, 1998, p. 203)

The paper “Supporting Teachers in the Process of Adoption of Game Based Learning Pedagogy” proposes a model for teachers to integrate digital games and game-like activities such as role-playing and simulations into the classroom based on a study of six teachers adopting game-based learning for the first time ( – Valérie Emin-Martinez, Muriel Ney, European Conference on Games-Based Learning, 2013).