Monday Musing: Content vs. Skills

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This question has been popping up a lot lately:

“Should I/my school consider design thinking as a set of skills or as a content area?”

This is not a new question, nor is it specific to design thinking. The argument about whether or not schools should teach content or skills harkens all the way back to the founding of the current school system in the 17th century. But I don’t really understand this argument at all. I think it’s a false dichotomy. Schools should teach both. Design thinking is both. In fact, it’s more: it’s a mindset, too.

This question is often asked of me when an educator or admin wants her kids to practice design thinking, but doesn’t know where it fits within the curriculum, or how to even begin thinking about what it would mean to make design thinking a core value. It’s a significant cultural change in the way we educate our kids. Educators feel overwhelmed. Their natural instinct as humans is to categorize it, to bucket it so that it fits within the nicely delineated world of education. But, in my opinion, design thinking doesn’t fit that way. It shouldn’t.

I think design thinking can be an effective course of study, an effective core value, and an effective methodology. But I think relegating it to a limited, definable category can minimize its potential to empower and suggests to students that design thinking, like most other things our schools “teach,” is yet another element to check off the list of “things I learned.”

But how does this translate into reality? Schools are organizations with structures, and mandates, and regulations, and real, live people who exist within them.

Maybe design thinking should look different at every school. Each learning community has its own needs and strengths, and should adapt accordingly. Maybe we should talk about design thinking as a way of existing as educators, the same way we talk about compassion or curiosity. Maybe we should ask whether the traditional structures of “subjects” limit the way students engage with the world. In the meantime, I’ll be over here, trying to expose as many educators as I can to design thinking and iterating - again and again - my own beliefs and practices. It’s not about “versus.” It’s about expansion.

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