Why Design Thinking is a No-Brainer in Catholic Schools

I have been thinking a lot lately about teaching and learning.  We have had lots of Professional Learning over the last several years designed to bring our teachers "up to speed" on the current ideas being talked about and implemented in classrooms around the country (and around the world).  Topics like Project Based Learning,  Design Thinking, Flex Furniture, the purpose of homework, how to maximize Google, and many others have been tackled by our staff.  however, it is Design Thinking that is most on my mind these days.  I am enamored with the approach and find that it is a logical sequence to follow for problem solving.  Our location, being only 13 miles from Stanford University, means that Design Thinking is becoming more and more main stream in schools and businesses,  Yet for some reason, I can't get our faculty to embrace this approach whole-heartedly.  Why?  Is it a case of initiative burn-out? Do we need more training?  Should we engage in a book club read (Creative Confidence is my favorite "intro" book but there are many others as well that Stanford's dSchool recommend and you can find listed here).  I could theorize for days on why it hasn't taken hold the way I imagined.  However, that is a colossal waste of time since I have no quick ways to test my theories.  So instead, I thought I would reflect on why I believe Design Thinking is so important in schools, especially in a school like ours.  This to me seems like a far more productive use of my time.  And before I really get into this, I have to thank @BarbGLuis for the conversation that sparked this post. So here goes...

I work in a Catholic School.  Our community is rooted in Catholic teachings. Catholic teachings are reflective of what are referred to as Gospel values, but you can insert some more secular adjectives such as compassion, respect, honesty, forgiveness, equality, servant leadership, simplicity.  There are others, but for the purposes of this blog, that list is enough.  Design Thinking is rooted in the notion of empathy.  In other words, the process of problem solving requires you to understand the end user before creating a solution.  And there is the connection that I see so clearly but can't seem to communicate in a succinct way to my colleagues.

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The process of learning is all about problem solving.  Students are asked to study/learn/interpret information and use that information to create something new, demonstrate their understanding/mastery by creating something original.  This graphic reflects the stages involved in Design Thinking.  In my mind (and feel free to tell me that I am wrong), empathy is what makes this process unique.  It makes the learning process human, and it makes it personal.  At it's very basic iteration, perhaps students are asked to empathize with the teacher: "How might you show me that you have mastered this material?" Getting more specific in various subjects, perhaps students are asked to empathize with the author of a novel: "What might the author have wanted to say and to whom when they wrote this book during the American Civil War?" or with a different civilization: "How might the French have overcome class tensions without all the stages of the French Revolution?" Perhaps they are asked to design an experiment that reflects the role of acids and bases: "How might we create a neutral solution using just these three liquids?"  The list can go on but I hope that you get the idea.  Intersect this idea of developing empathy with that of Catholic teaching demanding that we all engage in social justice. Pope Francis is the greatest role model of this idea in a long time.  His famous "smell like the sheep" homily from Holy Thursday 2013 in which he reminded priests that they must be shepherds who know their people is a direct call to empathy for all of us, not just priests.

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If we in Catholic schools truly embrace the notion that we must all work for a better world, that we must embrace the needs of the poor and find ways to lift them up, if we believe that fighting for social justice in every corner of the world is part of what each of us is called to do, then how can we ignore such an obvious template for accomplishing this in the classroom?  So much of what we teach intersects with an aspect of social teaching.  Everything that we are teaching our students is another tool that they can use when they are interacting with the world at large to help bring about a more just world.  Whether that is something as basic as literacy so they can tutor those who can't read or write, or complex math knowledge so that they can work with local leaders to design a better traffic pattern to keep children safe in their neighborhood, or an understanding of our political system so that they can advocate for equality where they see inequality, or any of a myriad other applications, our students need to be exposed to and become adept at problem solving through design thinking.  This process will enable them to take their learning beyond the classroom in ways we might not even be able to imagine.  Giving them the tools that Design Thinking incorporates as a way to approach challenges in their life: there are always multiple possible solutions, a solution that works for one group may not work for another with the same problem, the fact that solutions need to be tested and tweaked, the fact that the best solutions are those that are designed not only with the end in mind, but that allow for feedback along the way.  All of these pieces are important lessons for our students to learn.

In my opinion, we are not doing our jobs correctly if we simply ask students to regurgitate
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information.  We are not doing our jobs if we are not allowing students to test the material that we introduce them to and see what different ways they can apply the material.  We are not doing our jobs if we fail to help students see the bigger picture by finding connections to the world around them, the world beyond themselves and the text book.  Knowledge is most powerful when it is embraced and used for good.  If we do not engage in Design Thinking with our students, they are not being allowed to experience those true "a-ha" moments when they find a way to re-imagine the information for themselves.

So back to why I feel that Design Thinking has to be incorporated into Catholic Schools (well, really all schools): we want to educate humans, not robots.  That is the bottom line for me.  Our students have to complete 3-4 years of theology in addition to the other core subjects their public school peers pursue.  And the social teachings of the Church, rooted in the Gospel values, are infused throughout the curriculum.   Thus, the notion of empathy is already implied across all levels of our curriculum.  So why not make it "official" and adopt the principles of Design Thinking as well.  I think it will make our teachers jobs much more rewarding because students will begin to approach learning by looking for the real-world connections, they will begin thinking about the material in a much deeper way up front since they will be expecting a project or discussion or assignment that will ask them individually or in groups to answer the next "How might we..." question.  What a rich and dynamic learning environment that would be!

So how might we as Catholic educators fully embrace and implement Design Thinking across grade levels and across our curriculum?  That is my question, and that is my challenge.  I would love to hear your thoughts.


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