At a recent teaching conference in Richmond, Virginia, a session on “design thinking” in education drew a capacity crowd. Two middle-school teachers demonstrated how they had used the concept to plan and execute an urban-design project in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources.
The teachers in the audience were enchanted by the details of the project; and if the photographs in the presentation were any indication, the students who participated in the lesson enjoyed it, too. The presenting teachers were bubbling over with enthusiasm for what they saw as the potential inherent in teaching design thinking.
Many of the teachers in attendance were flummoxed, however. As we filed out of the room and headed toward our next sessions, I overheard one woman remark to another that while the urban-design project looked like something she’d like to try in her own classroom, “I think I missed something. I still don’t understand what design thinking is. Do you?” The other teacher shook her head and said, “I think it’s a curriculum, but I’m not really sure.”
Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”