“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent” – Thomas Edison
In twenty-four years in the classroom, Edison’s sentiments above have guided me in all I’ve done. My students are my users: I find out what they need, and I create the lessons to meet those needs. This, then, is actually an act of design, and Edison’s words are an early and, perhaps, rough sketch of what we’ve come to know as design thinking. While it may be a brash assessment, I’d venture that any teacher today who does not know something about design more than “it’s how I can make my bedroom look nicer”needs to take a class in design thinking and how it can apply to the classroom. Or, at the least, take a look at this book by two educators and avowed design thinkers: LAUNCH:Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student.
I’ll make such strong assertions because there is little in this world I want more for my students than to have them be engaged, for the rest of their lives, in the pursuit of answers to two driving questions: “Why are things the way they are?” and “How can I make them better?” I first discovered these questions on a poster featuring designers involved in a contest sponsored by the Sappi Paper company called, “Ideas that Matter.” While these questions define the work of socially aware designers the world over, I immediately realized they were the driving questions I’d held for my entire career as a teacher.
And so I started diving more deeply into design as a way to deepen the project-based learning I did with my students. After getting on social media and conversing with numerous designers in the LinkedIn “Design Thinking” group, I was pointed to an article by the Design Researcher Richard Buchanan called, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” While he published it in 1992, what Buchanan writes holds true for all time. In fact, I have a quotation from the article as part of my e-mail signature: “All men and women require a liberal art of design to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.”
Essentially, Buchanan tells us that we must be readers, decoders, of the built world if we are “to live well.” As such, my work as an English teacher had to increase its focus. I couldn’t just have my students reading words on a page, they had to learn how to “Read the World.” (A term, I discovered later, used by progressive educator Paulo Freier who wrote, “‘We begin with the conviction that the role of man was not only to be in the world, but to engage in relations with the world–that through acts of creation and re-recreation, man makes cultural reality and thereby adds to the natural world, which he did not make’ (43). To Freire, critical literacy is reading both the world and the word” (see here).
Freire guided me to getting my students out of the classroom and into the real world. Design gave me the model for doing that. (The model below is from the d.school and is one of many similar models.):
We began to pay careful attention to people, making observations about friends, fellow students, our families. We took pictures documenting everyday tasks or problematic situations around town that were tolerated in order to identify and understand problems from our own points of view as well as, though interviews, from the users’ points of view.
Then we generated numerous possible solutions, prototyped many of them, testing them with users and having them critiqued by design students. Finally we presented our work at an exhibition.
I’ve since come to know that little of what I was doing was original; rather, I was riding a rising swell of change in education. From places like the d.school and High Tech High, The Science Leadership Academy, the Buck Institute, the Nueva School and countless others teachers were looking for ways to empower and engage their students in a participatory culture, rather than to have them sit as passive consumers of knowledge. Noting I have ever found in my career as a teacher is as integrative and “natural” to how we learn as the work of designers as they move through the recursive cycles of Design Thinking.
And so we move through Edison’s quotation back to the future. You see, Edison serves as a model for the kind of deep learning and productive work we want of our students. And note that while we apply Edison’s name to all his inventions, his work was bolstered and furthered by one of the world’s first R&D departments. We should be wary of the myth of the solitary genius. Nevertheless, his dedication and ability to find problems and design/invent solutions can teach us something about education and how we can help all learners develop the kind of growth mindset and perseverance that are primary characteristics of Edison.
How we go about doing this is less about what we do to students in the classroom and more about what we don’t do. We do test too much. We don’t offer enough alternatives to testing as assessment. We do (still) lecture too much. We don’t offer enough choice and differentiation for how students can learn. We do care too much about control and efficiency. We don’t open our classrooms enough to the truth that deeper learning is about freedom, and it’s messy. I don’t mean messy in a physical sense, though that is often true enough. I mean messy in the sense that deeper learning is rarely linear. It’s organic and grows outwards in many directions, like a vine, often doubling back on itself, sometimes dying off, sometimes flourishing in areas for vast periods of time.
Readers, if you’re not currently thinking that the goal of American public education is to make the world a better place, if you’re thinking it’s simply to get into a good college and then to a good job so you can live a good life, then I’ve failed in the past 1048 words to make an impact. So return to Edison. Was he successful? Yes. Did he get into a good college? What college? But did he make the world a better place. Inarguably, yes. Edison was a self starter, sure, and born with the perseverance and a growth mindset to always see his failures as opportunities. Design can help us help our students do the same. Let us offer this to our students, our children, the world.