Process in Question: Paralleling Realms of Design Thinking in K-12

Designers are for the most part experts in design thinking. Through higher education and career experience, we’ve been conditioned to think with a specific discernment about the importance of process over product. Design thinking is not new in architecture, graphic design, or industrial design. It is not new at all. It’s interesting to me to learn that design thinking in K-12 education has recently exploded and is only now being fully understood as a way to empower young minds to be not only receivers of knowledge, but shapers of knowledge. Why has design thinking been reserved for particular career fields and introduced much later in life?

As I prepare visioning sessions for two new middle school projects south of Seattle, I think back to my own education experiences. I recall lots of memorization, test-based teaching, and not being fully engaged by the subject matter, despite having above-average performance. The most notably missing experience is the lack of asking “why?” Dear middle school social studies teacher: Why did we memorize the 67 Florida counties!? Asking why came later in undergraduate architecture school. “Tell me why you chose to align these elements symmetrically?” asked my Design 1 teacher. Why? Couldn’t I just commit the building to memory and be done with this?! Thus began my path of evaluating the world through a refined lens and acquaintance with process, in lieu of destination.

Bauhaus member Anni Albers comments that, “Design is how we make sense of the world.” Through our process, architects understand the layering of meaning and lasting imprint our designs have on their surroundings, community and culture. Similarly, a fine-tuned education including design thinking prepares and equips students for active participation in human existence, rather than education as merely a means to an immediate end (the final exam or graduation). My lens now sees many parallels between design thinking in education and architecture, as both building design and learning design are processes, constantly producing, evolving, assessing, and repeating for the next iteration. If either discipline risks letting the outcome drive the process, we will end up where we have already been.

As Integrus’ first blog entry, I realize this post sets the tone for who we are and places a frame of reference around why we get up in the morning. What keeps us going is a passion to ensure we ask the right questions with every iteration—that’s the challenge we meet every day. Design thinking has taught us we are as good as our process.

In the two new middle school projects, we’ve allotted areas for non-traditional teaching, which moves towards including new spaces for design thinking. However, after meeting with teachers and staff for the past several months, I’ve heard the same question asked a few times in different ways: “How are we going to know how to educate in these new spaces?” or, “If teachers don’t adapt, will these spaces get used?” As architects, we seem to be offering up plenty of space-based options for education evolution, but it seems there are undetermined hurdles for educators to take advantage of these advancements. The fact that I’m doing heaps of research on innovative educational outliers to facilitate the visioning process for a 50-year building speaks to a curiosity that we (architects) have about teachers and the future of education, but what is it going to take for teachers to have the time and space to work together to explore their teaching through a refined lens? How can we as educational space designers evolve in tandem together with educators and curricula to think deeper about the futures we want for our students? It shouldn’t be an “if you build it, they will come” approach.  I’ve observed the possibility of including design thinking as loud and clear in curriculum, but often implementation seems inaudible and, as I am accustomed, I’m asking why?

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