Can design thinking contribute to innovation in curriculum development?

university © Pixabay 2021 / image: nikolayhg

Why tell a new story of curriculum development?

When talking about telling a new story, there should be consideration of whether the need for a new story actually exists. The right questions to ask would be:

  •     Are the students who graduate from institutions of higher learning gaining the knowledge, skills, character and opportunities they were promised?
  •     Has society been able to welcome these graduates into the workplace and social structures as valuable contributors?

If there is any doubt whether the answers to these two questions are in the affirmative, there is, in the words of design thinkers, a “problem”.


The design-thinking process of problem-solving

Since design-thinking was pioneered by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford around 2010, it has gained a groundswell of support for solving problems in complex settings.  Educators are finding it valuable for improving or reconceptualising curricula, especially for its synergy with experiential learning.

The process exists of five iterative stages:


1. Empathising

Through techniques somewhat familiar to field work in the humanities and social sciences, including but not limited to interviews, surveys, focus groups and workshops, problems are identified. The emphasis is on the human experience, and the culture and context within which these problems arise.


2. Defining

The next step involves re-framing and defining the problem in a stakeholder-centric manner. The stories emerging from the first phase assist in developing new perspectives. Old problems may be seen through fresh eyes.


3. Ideating

However, awkward this verb may be, this third phase sets out to develop potential solutions. Blue-sky dreaming is allowed, and nothing is off the table at this stage. Arguably the most creative phase of the process, the typical setting would be a workshop involving multiple stakeholders, and the explicit instruction that this will be a safe zone where nothing should be considered too preposterous.


4. Prototyping

This phase may be more suited to the product design environment, but there is no reason why an experimental, cross-disciplinary curriculum may not also be considered a prototype. The idea here is to put these ideas into play so that its effect on stakeholders can be measured.


5. Testing

The process concludes with developing tangible ways of testing the effect of changes on the stakeholders. Being an iterative process, though, the team will use this feedback as phase 1 of the next cycle. Continuous improvement is the ultimate objective when deciding to deploy design-thinking.


Who to involve in curriculum re-design

Traditionally, curriculum design was seen as a rather lonely and isolated process, with the teacher using a linear process to map the sharing of knowledge for what some call the “sage-on-stage” model of one-directional teaching.

To be successful in the re-design of a curriculum, the maximum number of diverse stakeholders should be engaged. Per definition, that would be “everyone who is affected by, or can affect the learning experience of the students”. The design-thinking team will have to decide exactly how far and wide to cast their net and how to balance the available time and resources.


Impediments that may be expected

There are axioms in modern culture that do not deserve their status. One of those is the ubiquitous idea that “change is good”. If anything, most people prefer the predictable and the controllable.

Design-thinking will change how things have happened in the past, so some resistance should be expected. There are also practical impediments to consider:


·      Incumbency threats

It may be hard to convince colleagues who have taught the same course for many years and achieved consistently good student ratings that the time is ripe for an overhaul. Given the demands made on the time of more senior faculty, it should be expected that some cynicism towards “yet another fad” may get in the way of a wholesale departmental review of the curricula on offer.


·      Cultural conditions

In the late 19th century, English philosopher John Stuart Mill suggested that development comes only with the unsettling of firmly held beliefs. This same thinking informs the approach some take towards education: challenging their students to defend or change their first principles. Nevertheless, not every schooling system or part of society has the same openness towards revisiting core beliefs. As such, it is best to be sensitive to how some stakeholders may react to a perceived radical departure from the way things used to be.


·      Time constraints 

It takes a huge investment of intellect and time to develop a curriculum. Only after teaching a course several times would most faculty members feel that they finally nailed it. To now throw out, proverbially, the baby with the bathwater will require even more time, as the design-thinking process involves frequent deliberation with other stakeholders. For the difference of one key stakeholder not being able to set the time aside, the process may fall flat.


·      Institutional policies

In much the same vein, academic departments might find themselves operating within a very prescriptive university or faculty environment, with little scope to alter their approach. A well-respected Professor of Economics and former Dean at an Ivy league loved telling the story of when he wanted to change his course load in anticipation of his imminent retirement, he was told by the Provost: “This institution is more than 300 years old. I have been in this position for 10 years and have managed to make sure that nothing has changed. I intend doing that as long as I can”.


Create something special

It may be that many of the methods proposed by design-thinkers are already implicitly used in your institution. The next step would be to discuss with colleagues whether they have encountered design-thinking and to start a conversation about this approach to problem-solving at the institution. After more than 10 years of practical successes in virtually every industry, the odds of creating a rewarding experience for all stakeholders through design-thinking are excellent.


© Pixabay 2021 / image: nikolayhg