Future of Learning: Empowering small ‘d’ designers

Why design matters

“I believe it’s one of the most positive tools at our disposal to improve our quality of life”.

Alice Rawsthorn, TED2016


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Pirates, Nurses and Other Rebel Designers


The principles of design can be translated into everyday situations to make the world a better place. In her book, Design is an Attitude, Rawsthorn writes,

“Whenever human beings have adapted to changes in their lives . . . they have engaged in design, but have done so intuitively, often unconsciously.” (p.20).

As the title implies, design is a mindset, one that values resourcefulness and inventiveness. This attitude, “should be bold enough to identify causes they [designers] wish to embrace, while being sufficiently open-minded to draw on the expertise of people in other fields” (Rawsthorn, p.22).

I call myself a (small d) designer. I’m not a Designer with formal qualifications, but a designer who believes that the principles of design have the power to improve quality of life, including transforming pedagogy and the learning ecosystem, effectively engage students today. Seeing ourselves as (small d) designers opens thinking to creativity and innovation in practice. Teaching practice was a little different when I started on my teaching journey in the early ’80s.

As a new recruit, fresh out of school, my pre-service education was called teacher training. Collins (online) Dictionary defines ‘training’ as:  “the process of learning the skills that you need for a particular job or activity.”  Teaching had always required a discreet set of skills to be mastered, predominantly:

  • Possessing sufficient knowledge of the content
  • Transferring content into a lesson plan formula
  • Delivering the lesson plan using didactic instruction
  • Providing tasks that apply content in practice drills and exercises
  • Assessing content in tests
  • Maintaining classroom discipline

In addition, we were assessed on our ability to write legibly on a blackboard, create colourful overhead projector slides and manage behaviour through positive reinforcement and seating plans. That is about all I remember. You can see how ‘training’ no longer adequately describes teaching, it was a simpler world.

Yesterday’s answers can’t solve tomorrow’s problems.

The world of learning today has greater complexity than ever before. ‘Content ‘ is no longer just a discreet body of knowledge to be learnt and digested, and didactic instruction is one tool in the teacher’s toolbox. The application of ‘design thinking’ in education provides a process to navigate the complexity, draw on the unique skills and experiences to share expertise, that creates engaging and purposeful learning experiences, with the needs of the Gen Z and Gen Alpha learners as paramount (Empathy).

Design thinking is described by Tim Brown (IDEO), as “a set of principles that can be applied by diverse people to a wide range of problems” and, he writes, “design has become too important to be left to designers” (in Change by Design). It has the potential to transform teachers from technicians delivering content to becoming designers of learning (OECD, Teachers as Designers of Learning Environments).

Small-d-designers work as a team, bringing a diverse range of expertise to collaboratively design solutions to complex professional problems. After understanding the needs of learners (gaining empathy), design thinking will then ‘Define’, which involves reframing a problem into more optimistic ‘how might we’ questions:

How might we design learning authentic experiences that engage our students, captures curiosity and creates the need-to-know <insert curriculum content here>? 

How might we design the ecosystem for learning that establishes human-centred systems and routines in a shared learning space?

 How might we effectively utilise the skills, experiences and expertise of each member of the teaching team to support learners and enable professional growth?

How might we design the physical space to accommodates multi-modal learning and a variety of learning zones?

Stanford d.school design identifies five components of design thinking.













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