Default-thinking the enemy of design-mindset: 10 Steps to scaffold change.

Default-thinking is a significant problem in making changes to support future-oriented learning. Because school has been around for some time strong mental models dictate thinking and practice. Without the provision of time, support and encouragement to break-out of default thinking it will continue to prevail. I read a tweet from Australian teacher rock-star Eddie Woo this morning: I remember my principal once told me, “Some people have 25 years of experience. Some people have had one year of experience repeated 25 times.” Default-thinking is the biggest challenge to developing a design-mindset.


In the 1980s, Harvard psychologist William James wrote “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” Imagine if this was true. Around 15 years ago I went to a seminar where they started talking about the emerging trends in neuroscience, with the claim that in years to come these developments will change our world. We do know now, that over time our neural pathways become more embedded, and as our brain is somewhat lazy, it defaults to the known route to solving a problem, but we can change it. (Fast Company).

What does default-thinking look like? The Cambridge (online) Dictionary defines ‘default’ as “the thing that exists or happens if you do not change it intentionally by performing an action”. This definition sums it up well, ‘the thing’ will continue to happen, unless there is an intention to change.

What might be ‘the thing’?

  • The most effective way to get the content (to pass the exam) in the heads of the students is teaching-talk.
  • Time pressures mean that I just can’t put the cognitive effort into even thinking about change, the immediate is too pressing.
  • Curriculum constraints don’t allow for more creative responses
  • The text book covers everything I need.

In a world of increasing change, we just can’t afford to maintain ‘one year repeated 25 times’ because, as I heard recently “Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again”.

Here are steps you can take to start to change default-thinking. A downloadable resource is provided for you to get your change strategy started.

1. Make a decision to start.

2. Who can you engage in your quest? Find some like-thinking colleagues struggling with the same ‘thing’.

3: What’s the problem this ‘thing’ is trying to solve?

4. Reframe the problem into a positive action? ‘How might we __ for __ to be able to __?’

5. Generate ideas from your reframed question – collect ideas from a wide range of sources.

6. Decide which ones are in your top 5, then your top 1, 2 and 3.

7. Try number 1. Before you start determine:

  • What length of time do we need for this?
  • How many attempts?
  • How will you know it’s successful?

8. Review, refine

9. Is it working?

  • Yes? Meet regularly with your colleagues, reflect and refine.
  • No? Go back to Step 6 and repeat with your second idea.

10.  Write, blog, share what you’ve learnt. Then find the next problem to solve (this never actually stops).

Our brain can change, it is malleable, there is no excuse to remain fixed in our thinking. To break habits and think in new ways we need to be deliberate or intentional in making the change from default-thinking to a design-mindset.


Downloadable: Resource Shifting Default Thinking





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