Design thinking

Using Design Thinking to Increase Creativity in Higher Education

Designers. They are a special breed. When we think of a website designer, for example, we think of someone who meets with a client, listens to that client’s needs, discusses the audience for whom the website is to be designed, and then puts on his/her creative hat to craft a site that will attract and engage users.

No one has really thought about how design thinking might transfer to education until recently. But the potential is certainly there and in use in K-12 settings. In fact, design thinking for educators has become a new buzzword within that community. And it is being used to counter the lack of creativity in education that has been missing for a long time.

But what about higher education? Design thinking has not really become a buzzword there. Perhaps that is because the higher ed community does not see the same need as lower levels do. It’s probably time to re-think that if we are to prepare college students for the world they will be facing, especially the interconnectedness of creativity and work.

Just What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is, first and foremost, as the term indicates, a way of thinking. It is focused on problem-solving. Given a problem, the design thinker defines that problem, conducts research, brainstorms a number of possible solutions (without limitation), and ultimately designs a solution that appears to be the best. That solution is then “launched” to determine its effectiveness (the testing phase). It is modified or even trashed depending upon the success of the launch. Usually, the design thinking process involves teamwork, so that the maximum number of possibilities can be considered.

There are commonalities to all types of design thinking – creativity, thinking outside of the box, teamwork, and focus on the end user of the solution.

The Meaning of Creativity in Education

When we speak of creativity in education, we are referring to a host of activities, related to virtually every course. While some subject fields lend themselves more to creative thought than others, there is room for students to be creative anywhere. In general, creativity is defined as the ability to engage in divergent (sometimes called unusual) thought, to generate unique ideas, and to devise uncommon solutions to problems.

Creative thinkers move societies forward – they are inventors, innovators, and problem solvers. And yet, education does not place enough value on creativity in the classroom.

In an online study conducted by U.S. researcher, Edelman Berland, surveyed 1,000 Americans who were college educated, over the age of 25, and employed fulltime in their career fields. The results were as follows:

  1. 85% of respondents stated that creative thinking is important in their positions for problem solving
  2. 68% believe that creativity is a skill that can be taught
  3. 71% state that creativity should be taught as a course in college and incorporated into other coursework as well.
  4. 96% stated that creativity was essential for economic growth, while 78% said it was important in their career fields.
  5. Most all of those surveyed stated that they were more focused on content and skills while in school rather than having opportunities to engage in creative thought. And most believe that this must change, because the benefits of creativity in education carry over into the world of work.

Creativity in Student Life

Given the results of this survey, even though it comprises a relatively small sampling, it would seem that there is not a lot of creativity encouraged or taught on college campuses today.

And yet, we rely on our creatives to experiment, innovate, and come up with solutions to societal problems. We also rely on them to provide us with the products and services that make our lives more efficient, exciting, and enjoyable. Consider, for example, the creativity in student life surrounding Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and their cohorts and the innovations that this brought. And these innovations were not the result of their coursework. In fact, they both dropped out of college to pursue their goals. But both engaged in a form of design thinking to launch their products.

The Implications of Design Thinking for Developing Creativity in Higher Education

While most everyone understands why is higher education important to a developing nation and to already developed nations, there is little discussion about developing creativity in higher education. Much of this is the result of rather archaic teaching methodologies in colleges and universities.

The classical model for coursework in college is the professor as the “giver of knowledge” which must be absorbed by students, who then demonstrate their mastery of the content and skills through examinations. There are also essays and papers to write. Generally, students are required to provide critical analyses of topics, but creativity in problem solving is most often not required.

Of course, there are exceptions. Business students, for example, may engage in case studies, identifying problems that a company has and devising solutions for those problems. Overall, however, there is very little emphasis on creativity and design thinking.

How Can Design Thinking Be Taught in Higher Education?

The answer lies in an overhaul of course curricula, and that is a major challenge. Professors have great emotional investments in their course designs and are not prone to make major changes. It will be a matter of persuading them that, in the long run, forcing students into design thinking through activities and projects makes their course far more relevant and puts the onus for learning and creative problem-solving on the student, not the instructor. The role of the instructor essentially becomes that of facilitator.

Design Thinking for Educators

This involves identifying problems within a course field that are real and challenging. From there, students are taught the process of design thinking and then allowed to select from among the “problems’ and choose one in which they have an interest.

  1. The problem must then be investigated and researched and the details fully disclosed.
  2. At this point, brainstorming must begin, and there are no boundaries for this phase of the process. For this reason, projects involving design thinking are generally group projects.
  3. All solutions are considered and, ultimately, one is chosen.
  4. At this stage, a “prototype” of the solution is designed.
  5. Ideally, a protype can be tested in a real-world situation. If this is not possible, then there should at least be peer evaluation or an assessment by an outside expert.

Factors Affecting Creativity of Students

The most important factors in developing creativity in students are the educators who teach them. Unless they place a high priority on it, they will not plan learning experiences that force students into divergent thinking and creative problem-solving.

Educators at K-12 levels are probably more attuned to the need to promote creativity than those in higher ed. And design thinking is the perfect methodology for higher education coursework. We can do our college students a great service by incorporating it into their coursework and better preparing them for a world we cannot even imagine.

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