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Design thinking is all the rage.

Design thinking offers a deliberate, structured process for solving problems and fostering innovation.  It provides a methodology that can be adopted by academic administrators, faculty members, and students themselves to tackle institutional challenges, rethink course and curricular design, and foster collaboration and creative thinking.

Design thinking begins with a focus on the “end user,” and that individual’s unmet needs, desires, and priorities.  In the case of higher education, that means understanding students’ challenges and aspirations.  A learner-centered approach might focus on course schedules that fail to meet non-traditional student needs, the lack of a sense of belonging among many first-generation college students, college’s opportunity costs for students from low-income families, or fragmented support structures that students find difficult to access.

The next step is to define the particular problems to be solved.  For colleges and universities, those problems might include affordability, student engagement, retention, subject-matter mastery, completion, or post-graduation outcomes.

Subsequent steps involve addressing the problem through:

  • brainstorming (or what design thinking calls “ideation” or “spitballing”);
  • concepting and blueprinting (combining various ideas into implementable plans);
  • rapid prototyping (quickly designing, developing, testing, and evaluating possible solutions); and
  • iterating (a process of continuous improvement through incremental modifications and refinements).

Design thinking is a protocol or procedure for problem solving that entails empathy with the end user, an acute awareness of contextual constraints, and a willingness to accept frequent and repeated failures.  It treats creativity not as the product of sudden epiphanies or conceptual breakthroughs, but, rather, as the result of a step-by-step process that involves needs finding, collaborative problem-solving, and experimental design.

Design thinking also has its own a distinctive lexicon.  Alongside such terms as iteration, concepting, and prototyping, design thinking makes use of such concepts as “divergent thinking” (the process of generating multiple, contrasting ideas), “convergent thinking” (a synthetic process in which a team of problem solvers identifies an optimal solution), and “solutions-based thinking” (a positive, pragmatic mindset that focuses on solutions and possibilities rather than the analysis of problems).

At times, design thinking is contrasted with scientific thinking.  Whereas the scientific method involves controlled experiments, empirical evidence, deductive and inductive reasoning, and reproducible results, design thinking places a greater emphasis on empathizing emotionally with end users, playfully exploring options, and validating solutions in real-world contexts.

How can design thinking be brought into higher education?  For administrators, design thinking offers a methodology for thinking through the challenges faced by their institutions. It provides a framework through which stakeholders, with their distinct interests and disparate perspectives, can work collaboratively to solve pressing problems.

For faculty, it sends the message that teaching is itself design challenge, not simply a matter of communicating content.  For instance, a faculty member might use design thinking to figure out how to engage students more deeply in the course material or how best to remediate gaps in prior knowledge.  

Design thinking encourages faculty to think of themselves as learning architects who have a responsibility to understand and empathize with students’ learning needs, devise and test creative pedagogies, and continuously improve instructional activities and assessments.  It encourages faculty to reimagine teaching in terms of collaborative problem solving, project-based learning, and real-world challenges.

Most important of all, design thinking holds out the prospect of transforming students into innovators and creative problem solvers.  Design thinking offers a model of an education that substitutes doing, making, imagining, and mastering for memorization and testing. Design thinking helps students hone the skills and literacies highly valued in 21st century workplaces, including the ability to tackle tough challenges and seize fresh opportunities by listening and observing critically and closely, working in teams, integrating and reconciling multiple perspectives and disciplinary approaches, challenging incumbent assumptions, and thinking outside the box.  Design thinking, in short, offers an ideal way to nurture creativity, empathy, active engagement, cooperation, and higher-order thinking skills – precisely the qualities that a liberal education is supposed to cultivate.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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