Design as a way of thinking

Design in the classroom: facilitating creative growth for a temperamental century.

In the summer of 2002 I was fortunate to attended the week-long Cooper-Hewitt Design Institute for educators. The Education Office of this branch of the Smithsonian Institution located in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue pulled together the greatest minds in the design community to meet, talk with and conduct workshops with K-12 teachers. I doubt that any other professional group in America does a similar service in providing enrichment for teachers from the brightest bulbs in their field!

The first morning, I walked in to search out the coffee pot and found myself talking to one of my cultural heroes, John Maeda, of the MIT Media Lab then, and now, President-Elect for RISD!
The line-up of design greats was legendary and the opportunity to talk with them directly was a profound experience. Now I see that the CHDI is a traveling show! Since the Cooper Hewitt is the National Design Museum it makes all the sense in the world. So if you know educators in close proximity to Atlanta, please read the following and also go the their website to learn the details, quick!

"Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is accepting applications for participation in its week-long Cooper-Hewitt Design Institute, April 6-10, 2009. The training will take place in Atlanta, GA and is only eligible for Atlanta area K-12 public school teachers.
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in partnership with the Global Health Odyssey Museum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is pleased to present the Cooper-Hewitt Design Institute (CHDI), an intensive, process-based program that will train K-12 teachers to use design-based learning in their classrooms. The CHDI will explore the ideas presented in the upcoming exhibition (February 17-May 29, 2009) at Atlanta’s Global Health Odyssey Museum, Design for the Other 90%, featuring the work of designers attempting to improve the lives of people living in poverty or recovering from natural disasters."
At the program that I attended another presenter from the pantheon was David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO. I noticed that the February issue of Metropolis magazine (image above) is devoted to the theme of design as a strategy for learning in the classroom. Trust me, nothing can take your mind and stretch it in so many directions all at the same time!
Below is a copy of IDEO's "Ten Tips for Creating a 21st-century Classroom Experience" by
Sandy Speicher.
"1. Pull, don’t push.
Create an environment that raises a lot of questions from each of your students, and help them translate that into insight and understanding. Educa­tion is too often seen as the transmission of knowledge. Real learning happens when the student feels the need to reconcile a question he or she is facing—and can’t help but seek out an answer.
2. Create from relevance.
Engage kids in ways that have relevance to them, and you’ll capture their attention and imagination. Allow them to experience the concepts you’re teaching firsthand, and then discuss them (or, better yet, work to address them!) instead of relying on explanation alone.
3. Stop calling them “soft” skills.
Talents such as creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy, and adaptability are not just nice to have; they’re the core capabilities of a 21st-century global economy facing complex challenges.
4. Allow for variation.
Evolve past a one- size-fits-all mentality and permit mass customization, both in the system and the classroom. Too often, equality in education is treated as sameness. The truth is that everyone is starting from a different place and going to a different place.
5. No more sage onstage.
Engaged learning can’t always happen in neat rows. People need to get their hands dirty. They need to feel, experience, and build. In this interactive environment, the role of the teacher is transformed from the expert telling people the answer to an enabler of learning. Step away from the front of the room and find a place to engage with your learners as the “guide on the side.”
6. Teachers are designers.
Let them create. Build an environment where your teachers are actively engaged in learning by doing. Shift the conversation from prescriptive rules to permissive guidance. Even though the resulting environment may be more complicated to manage, the teachers will produce amazing results.
7. Build a learning community.
Learning doesn’t happen in the child’s mind alone. It happens through the social interactions with other kids and teachers, parents, the community, and the world at large. It really does take a village. Schools should find new ways to engage parents and build local and national partnerships. This doesn’t just benefit the child—it brings new resources and knowledge to your institution.
8. Be an anthropologist, not an archaeologist.
An archaeologist seeks to understand the past by investigating its relics and digging for the truth of what was. An anthropologist studies people to understand their values, needs, and desires. If you want to design new solutions for the future, you have to understand what people care about and design for that. Don’t dig for the answer—connect.
9. Incubate the future.
What if our K–12 schools took on the big challenges that we’re facing today? Allow children to see their role in creating this world by studying and creating for topics like global warming, transportation, waste management, health care, poverty, and even education. It’s not about finding the right answer. It’s about being in a place where we learn ambition, involvement, responsibility, not to mention science, math, and literature.
10. Change the discourse.
If you want to drive new behavior, you have to measure new things. Skills such as creativity and collaboration can’t be measured on a bubble chart. We need to create new assessments that help us understand and talk about the developmental progress of 21st-century skills. This is not just about measuring outcomes, but also measuring process. We need formative assessments that are just as important as numeric ones. And here’s the trick: we can’t just have the measures. We actually have to value them."


  1. Hi Patricia, I saw your comment on Jane Dunnewold's blog and saw you are from Silver Spring. I am a student of Jane's here in SS, and a textile artist (newbie) - more time now since I am semi-retired! I enjoyed reading your blog, particularly those words of advice for teaching because the same principles apply to adult education as well. Thanks. Ann Graham


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