Learning Design and Designing Learning

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center director

Over winter break, I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long design thinking workshop at Stanford’s d.school. The workshop’s 45 domestic and international attendees represented a broad range of educational institutions and functions, from the Air Force University to engineering and the medical professions, while all sharing the interest in using design strategies to address difficult issues.

The workshop, led by a team of design thinkers from the d.school’s Teaching and Learning Studio, the University of Maryland, the Design Gym in New York City, University of San Diego, and the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Wisconsin, was an intense journey that took us through all stages of the process, from empathizing, defining, and ideating to prototyping, testing, and refining.

During the first half of the workshop the teaching team led us through several design problems to learn and internalize the concepts and methods, which were then applied in the second half to a design problem we are confronting in our own work and which we had formulated in a pre-workshop session.

I found the experience really meaningful and impactful. While I’m aware that I’m far from being a master in design thinking concepts, I have become sufficiently convinced of their power to reframe problems and finding better solutions that I’m making a conscientious effort to practice them in my daily work at Mudd. For example, a basic premise of design thinking is active listening and questioning in order to get at the root of a problem. Too often, I find myself already thinking about how to solve an issue and getting bogged down in minutiae, when I haven’t even fully understood the problem yet. Stepping back and actively working to understand the full context, the involved stakeholders’ perspectives, and background of the issue not only leads to more effective solutions, it will likely also save a lot of time later, because solutions won’t need to be revised as much or as often.

In this context I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for qualitative information. While often messier and harder to categorize, synthesize and make sense of, it’s people’s stories, perceptions and feelings that might hold the key to a problem’s solution. In sustainability, this is vitally important since my work is at least as much about changing behavior as it is about finding technological solutions to things like unsustainable resource use.

Lastly, I really appreciated the design coaches’ ability to immerse themselves into the problem statements we’d prepared and help us view them through a design-thinking lens. Many workshop participants confirmed what I felt, namely that viewing problems as a collaborative challenge as opposed to a problem that needs fixing, opened up our minds to more unconventional and creative ideas and a mindset that embraced failure as part of the process. This was especially remarkable among my fellow participants in the air force and the medical field as their culture eschews failure due to its potentially disastrous consequences.

While not all of us can take the d.school workshop, we are truly fortunate to have the Hive at the Claremont Colleges and thus access to design thinking experts and all the wonderful events and trainings they offer. I look forward to working more closely with the Hive and practicing design thinking in my work and teaching. I’m happy to share more information about the workshop and the materials it provided.