Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

New Designs for Learning: A Conversation with IDEO Founder David Kelley

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David Kelley is a legend in technology and design circles. Decades ago, he founded a design firm that dreamed up the  computer mouse as we know it today. That firm has since evolved into IDEO, a global design company that has left its unique stamp on everything from consumer goods to social innovation. IDEO's work has probably touched your life in ways you don't even know.

For years, Kelley has brought his passion for design into the classroom as a professor at Stanford's famed Institute of Design (or D.School, for those in the know). More recently, Kelley has set his sights on the K-12 classroom. He and his Stanford graduate students are working with schools to help teachers and students master "design thinking." He recently told us what that means.

Public School Insights: Let's start with a big question. What is "design thinking?"

Kelley: To me, design thinking is basically a methodology that allows people to have confidence in their creative ability. Normally many people don't think of themselves as creative, or they think that creativity comes from somewhere that they don't know—like an angel appears and tells them the answer or gives them a new idea.

So design thinking is hopefully a framework that people can hang their creative confidence on. We give people a step-by-step method on how to more routinely be creative or more routinely innovate.

Public School Insights: So you are not talking about something that only artists or engineers would use.

Kelley: No. I struggled with what to call it when we first started out. The reason that we put the word design in it is that this really is the way that designers naturally think. It's not necessarily the way that doctors, lawyers or teachers think, although some do.

The funny thing is that now in the K-12 literature I read all this stuff about 21st-century skills. And it's amazing because I could just cross out “21st-century skills” and put in “design thinking.” It's basically what we mean, which is a new way of thinking that adds to, but doesn’t replace, the way we normally think—what we call analytical thinking.

Public School Insights: Can you say a bit more about the difference between design thinking, in the 21st-century context, and analytical thinking?

Kelley: Sure. Analytical thinking is great. It’s the way you learned to be step-by-step—to collect data, analyze it and come up with a conclusion, like you did in science class. It is really useful, and I hope people keep doing it. It's very important.

Design thinking is more experimental and less step-by-step. It's fuzzier. It's intuitive. It's empathic. We often say that it’s integrative thinking, where you put together ideas from different sources—it’s synthesis. This is a way of thinking that is not quite so linear, but you can build confidence in it if you do it over and over again.

Public School Insights: As you invoke 21st-century skills, you may know that in the education world there is a debate right now fueled by concern that students might not have the knowledge they need to have to use those other, less definable skills effectively. Is there a way in which design thinking plays into that argument?

Kelley: I don't think anything can substitute for having basic skills. And I'm a strong believer that we have to teach basic skills.

There are two ways we think about design thinking in the context of these skills. One is as a way to take a certain group of people--those who have trouble sitting in chairs and taking information in a certain way—and use this more physical, more project-based learning to turn them on. It's a way to excite them to do the more basic skills. We have plenty of examples of schools where we see that because students are doing what we call “build to think” work—doing things with their hands, doing projects—it becomes a great context to communicate basic skills. If you are working on a solar car project and you need to learn some kind of math to calculate something that you really need on the solar car, then you are willing to learn that math. So we think of design thinking as a way to enable and help at least some kids be motivated through real-world application.

But in most cases you teach basic skills separately, working one side of the brain. Then this design thinking stuff unlocks the other side of the brain, and the combination of those two comes up with much better ideas than one or the other on its own. That's our premise.

Public School Insights: When it comes to the more-than-basic content that people should know—knowledge about scientific principles, knowledge about more sophisticated mathematical application… Do you think that design thinking can unlock that as well?

Kelley: Yes, absolutely. Not to sound too “California”, but with design thinking you’re getting turned on in a certain way that allows you to go to new places and to build confidence in your ability to get there. I think it enables students to go deeper into whatever it is that the teachers want to teach as well as learning basic skills.

Public School Insights: You mentioned work you've done in Philadelphia and in East Palo Alto. Could you describe it more?

Kelley: We are basically doing two things with design thinking in both public and private schools. One is that we are using the design thinking skills of my graduate students to try to figure out how to help schools: inspiring teachers, creating learning environments, improving homework, coming up with afterschool activities…just using our skills to work on the problems in K-12 like we would use our skills to work on problems in banking, the developing world or healthcare. The other is actually helping teachers get design thinking into the curriculum.

Design thinking is kind of like my religion, so I am not to be trusted with describing its importance. But the basic premise of design thinking revolves around empathy, being understanding of what other people want, and how the world is put together from a social and emotional point of view. I personally think that design thinking is as important as math and science. I couldn't defend that with statistically significant research right now, but we find that when we go to a school pretty soon kids are saying stuff like “I got to use my imagination today” and that feels really good.

But there is a problem. When you talk to teachers, they tell you, “I love your ideas and it was a great workshop, but I don't have a minute to put this in my curriculum.” It just breaks your heart. So I think that the thing to do in K-12 to get design thinking in the curriculum is to find little ways, little cracks in the system to put it in. Put it in afterschool. Put it in the way kids do their homework. And our experience so far, though we've only been doing this for a few years, is that once you get in, people really resonate with the social, emotional, empathy-based, project-based, storytelling-based skills that we think are important.

Public School Insights: A lot people in education are talking about things like critical thinking and problem solving, which are two of the more common phrases that are out there. One of the things that we have been up against is that it is very hard for us to say what those things are, to get a concept of how to include them in the curriculum or make them present in the classroom, and then even harder to assess them. Have you been able to crack that nut?

Kelley: In some ways, that is the point, right? I mean, it is not analytical, so it is hard to measure by definition. But people are starting to try to measure these things. I have a lot of graduate students at Stanford who are going to do their PhD's on this and looking at ways to show the outcomes. Our K-12 Lab’s research group has been developing new measures for the ways students learn through design thinking. They’ve identified stages of development for the key design thinking mindsets that are remarkably stable across learning contexts. We can see that children in kindgarten are sometimes even better at being generative than the graduate students we teach, and as you might imagine older students have a leg up on adapting synthesis tools. I am hopeful that we will have more of these kinds of studies. One way to look at it is that the analytical people are running the world, but we have this thing that is not measurable in that way. My opinion is that we have to get analytical about measuring the power of design thinking, so that we can convince the people who are running the world that it has value. It is just what we have to do.

Public School Insights: When you actually bring design thinking into the classroom in Philadelphia or East Palo Alto, are there particular tools or strategies you use to give teachers the ability to do it effectively?

Kelley: We put them through a “boot camp,” as we call it--I don't like the name because it sounds military, which is not me-- but we want them to have a first-hand experience themselves so that they are excited about the power of kids having more confidence and using that other side of the brain. The first step is winning over the teachers, which frankly is not very hard to do. In our experience they are hungry for it.

Then, given No Child Left Behind and all the things that teachers have to measure, the techniques that we use basically try to get teachers to use design thinking in the things that they have to do. They can make something that is not project-based a little bit project-based by bringing in our focus on empathy for other people for instance, or making it real in some way. If you have no choice but to do the curriculum that is outlined, you have to figure out a way to get some of these concepts—empathy, prototyping, synthesis—included.

For example, storytelling is a big part of this. And painting a picture of the future is a very creative act. So instead of just doing a science project, you do the science project in the context of the students telling a story about the future.

Basically its taking these what they're calling 21st-century skills, and applying them to the stuff you have to do. And when we do an innovation lab in a school the Spanish teacher is there just as often as science and math teachers are. Design thinking can apply to anything.

Public School Insights: Tell me bit more about the innovation labs.

Kelley: The innovation lab is basically just a place where physical assets represent our content. For example, everything is on wheels. You write on everything—the table surfaces and the vertical surfaces are white boards, and they move around.

In the lab there's lots of prototyping, building things. Whether it is building a story for a humanities class or redesigning your bed in art class, the notion is that this is a place where the process we talk about comes to life.

These labs also emphasize need-finding in addition to problem-solving. That is something I haven’t talked about. Everybody wants to talk about problem-solving, but we think that the even more creative part is: What are the questions worth asking? What projects are worth working on? What problems are worth attacking, from the student point of view? So the innovation labs are big on need-finding and asking what we call “why” questions.

Public School Insights: It sounds like a lot of what you are doing in the innovation labs and in K-12 settings is derived from what you have done at IDEO. Is that fair to say?

Kelley: Sure. I have been a professor for 30 years and also run this company IDEO. Those roles play off each other because the university setting, the academic setting, really values philosophical, strategic thinking, and the company really values the execution of those ideas. So my whole life I would go over to Stanford, and we would talk about something philosophically and strategically. Then I would go back to IDEO and talk about what I heard at Stanford and whether they think it is a good idea. Then I’d go back to Stanford and teach the kids about what is really going on in the world, the kind of relevant things that students really want, today in particular. They want to do real work in the world rather than just have an intellectual exercise.

I think there is a lot to be said for that back-and-forth process. We need to ask, what is the equivalent in K-12 that makes it relevant for students at this particular age?

There are a lot of design thinking type things going on in higher education. For instance, at the design school at Stanford we have multiple faculty members in every course so there are different points of view represented. Students can resonate with the person that learns or teaches like them or has a similar point of view, or they can see that there is a different view aside from just one teacher’s.

If you think about it, we don’t have any money in K-12, but if we did, wouldn’t you have multiple faculty members with different points of view in the same classroom, so that the kids are not biased? If a teacher has a certain point of view about dinosaurs, for example, the kids are going to pick that up. But if there are multiple points of view available, students can say, “This person thinks this about dinosaurs. This person thinks this different thing about dinosaurs. I am going to decide for myself what I think given that I have all this information.” I’d love to see that approach in K-12.

Public School Insights: And you are going to be doing what you can to push those things?

Kelley: The d.school at Stanford is focused on four areas: (1) K-12, (2) developing world, (3) health and wellness and (4) sustainability. A lot of people are working on each, but my interest is in K-12. It is the biggest lab at the school, and it's my dream that we start some real experiments. There are 50 graduate students working on this. And I have my pet projects, too. I want to go after homework, and I want to go after what happens from 3 to 6 after-school, and a few things like that.

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you but didn't?

Kelley: What it really boils down to for me is proving that design thinking is as important as analytical thinking.

One of your questions was: Is this for everybody? What is happening so far is that the people who are coming to us and flipping from using one side of the brain to using both sides of the brain have some inkling that they want to, that they are ready. They have some connection to creative people or projects. They have some predispostion. But how do we move beyond that to bring in folks who are not predisposed to think that innovation and creativity are important? That is the issue—how can we get it to scale? We are not very good at that yet.

And when I talk to K-12 people, that is their issue too. It's not like the really bright people working on K-12 don't have any ideas. The question is, how do you scale it?

I don't have a snappy answer, other than that I started the d.school with a donation from SAP founder Hasso Plattner. It seems like the world is more open to 21st-century skills now. We need to keep as many people as possible working on it. My goal is to get these ideas out in the world in the hopes that different people who have the power to change the system will.

[David Kelley Photo: Stanford D.School]