Why Design: Design as Liberal Education
The emergence of design thinking in the twentieth century . . . lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.
All men and women require a liberal art of design to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.
–Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”
The world is not getting any simpler.
Ok, I have a firm grasp of the obvious. But let’s be clear and clichéd: children today will inherit a world we can hardly imagine. Little of what we teach them will be relevant even 10 years from now. What, then, do we do to help our educational system, which always changes at a glacial pace, keep up with an increasingly shifting and complex world?
A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s new book, Empower (2017) offers a reframing of the issue when they write: “Our job as teachers, parents, and leaders is not to prepare kids for ‘something,’ our job is to help kids prepare themselves for ‘anything.’” Such inspiration is wonderful, but what does this preparation look like? What are its implications for education?
Arthur W. Combs, writing in Phi Delta Kappan, outlined five educational implications for ‘what the future demands of education.’
These demands are:
1. That curricula planners never again will be able to design a curriculum to be required by everyone. A common content is no longer a valid goal of education. Thus, only the process aspects of curriculum meet the criteria “essential” to prepare youth for the world they will inherit.
2. The new goal for education is the development of intelligent persons. An educational system which is unable to predict the knowledge demanded by the future must concentrate instead on producing persons able to solve problems that cannot presently be foreseen. That is what intelligence is all about.
3. Problem-solving is process oriented education. It is learned by confronting events, defining problems, puzzling with them, experimenting, trying, and searching for effective solutions. Problem-solving and inquiry demand the total use of one’s brain and all the resources one can command to search for solutions. Also, it is best learned from confronting real problems, not artificial ones.
4. A future of choices also requires an emphasis on values. The values which individuals hold have a causal effect on their future choices and behaviors. To maintain stability and to stay on track in a world of many different opportunities will require a framework of values, a set of criteria for making intelligent evaluations and decisions.
5. Finally, a future of change demands life-long education. Education for a future of change will always remain incomplete and open-ended. Thus, opportunities for learning must be available at any time in a student’s life when problems arise for which there are no immediate solutions. Education for the future must be life-long education.
Combs’ list is amazing given that it encapsulates so much of what we talk about in educational reform today. But it is all the more amazing because it was published in 1981 (oh…there’s a much longer blog post here!). Surely an education that seeks to meet these Combs’ five demands is possible in today’s high schools. The focus is on the process(es) of student inquiry, on the acquisition of skills, on problem finding and solving, on, as Juliani and Spencer note, on being “prepared for anything”?
EDUCATION CAN CHANGE, BUT HOW?
Such an education is well within our grasp. We have the means, but meeting Combs’ demands also requires a shift in our methods and the frameworks upon which our outmoded system of education is built. So how do we, to borrow the title of Joy Kirr’s (@Joykirr) new book, “Shift This!”?
The answer lies in the title of this blog series, “Why Design?” In a world of increasing complexity, where the distinction between makers and consumers is growing ever more blurry, we need to educate our children in ways that link the liberal arts to the technical and professional know-how that innovates and drives the world forward, and to do so in a manner that is relevant, engaging, and not merely lecture based.
This imperative is illustrated by Entrepreneur and Software Engineer Tracy Chou, who notes that her work in tech startups–designing features for Quora and algorithms for Pinterest–carried with it a need to think about basic questions of humanity. (Eg. Are our users inherently good or inherently bad? If we create this algorithm, what does it mean to “push good content” to our users?) In the end, Chou wished, “ruefully—and with some embarrassment at [her] younger self’s condescending attitude toward the humanities—[that she] had strived for a proper liberal arts education. (Find her post here.)
THREE CULTURES: SCIENCE, HUMANITIES, DESIGN
From my own experience of over 25 years in the classroom, the best way to provide all learners with a hands-on, experiential education that bridges the distance between the established academic cultures of the humanities and the sciences is with a third culture of general education in design and design awareness (Cross 221-222). Doing such would create a truly liberal education, one that not only recognizes Richard Buchanan’s entreaty above, but that also positions and engages the learner to explore the world through curiosity- and creativity-driven self-determined inquiry and empowers her to act upon her findings to make the world a better place.
Additionally such an education would help eliminate the illusion that education is an end-state, the belief that when we finish high school, or graduate college we have been educated. William Cronon in his seminal essay, “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education” puts it this way: “A liberal education is not something any of us ever achieve; it is not a state. Rather, it is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance, a way of groping toward wisdom in full recognition of our own folly, a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete” (5).
But finally, an education founded upon a synthesis of these three cultures would, as Richard Buchanan noted in this article’s epigraph, “connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.”
GUIDANCE AND DIRECTION
PlusUs takes our bearings from Cronon’s belief and Buchanan’s observations. Through our work with schools, non-profits, museums and individuals devoted to education, we seek to develop human-centered, design-based learning solutions for the “problems and purposes of the present.”
Mankind’s ability to find and solve relevant problems through observation, creative action, prototyping and testing has allowed us to make the world a better place for all. But we cannot rest. In a world of increasing complexity, human-centered design is, as Richard Buchanan noted, “a liberal art [we require] to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.”
It is this art that is at the heart of all PlusUs does.
In the next few weeks I will be looking at how design-based learning methods can help all teachers and learners address the goals of a liberal education and meet the demand Combs delineates while still staying focused on the real and tangible work yet to be done to make the make the world a better place.
Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues Spring Vol. 8, No. 2 (1992) 5–21. Print
Combs, Arthur W. “What the Future Demands of Education.” Phi Delta Kappan January (1981) 369–372. Print
Cronon, William. “Only Connect.” The American Scholar Autumn Vol. 67, No. 4 (1998): n. pag. Print.
Cross, Nigel. “Designerly ways of knowing.” Design Studies October Vol. 3, No. 4 (1982). Print