I recently listened to a podcast with Scott Looney, Headmaster of the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, and also the founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  Mr. Looney discusses not only the project-based work he has introduced at Hawken, but focuses a good deal of his time on the history and philosophy around the Mastery Transcript Consortium–a group of independent and public schools devoted to shifting the high-school transcript away from meaningless letter grades, Grade Point Averages, and Carnegie Units (HS credits) to something more representative of the skills and knowledge students possess and the actual work  they can do.

Mastery as a Natural Process

Part and parcel of any movement to mastery learning is the ability of the learners in the system to chose their areas of study and begin work towards defined standards.   Their work will involve a good deal of false starts, redirections, failures, and successive attempts in order to achieve mastery.  But isn’t that how we learn in the real world?  Something strikes our fancy, we start to pursue it, find ourselves faced with obstacles, failures, and yet, we press on.  Our curiosity and often the necessity of the knowledge we seek drives us to learn.

Design as a Learning Methodology

Listening to Mr. Looney, I couldn’t help but think of the iterative nature of design and the mindset of the design thinker.  How similar is the human drive to learn to the organic process of design?  We encounter a problem, develop empathy for the users, research to help define the problem, seek out numerous pathways to solutions, iterate, test, learn from the results and try again.

It is no stretch to claim that design thinking, in any of its numerous versions (and there are many, including this one specifically created by educators) is a heuristic.  From inception (problem finding), to defining the problem/developing the right question, to developing multiple solutions and then refining and making those solutions better, design thinking is a model for learning that recognizes the importance of content knowledge, development and deployment of skills, and the use of iterative feedback loops to improve the learning experience.

Mastery for All Learners

But let’s not stop at design as a methodology for learning; its impact on education can extend far beyond how we learn.  Indeed, design has the potential to help us rethink not only what we learn, how we learn it, and the importance of such learning, it can also help us examine what is truly important to learn.  Harvard University and 100+ other institutions of higher learning across the United States have adopted a design inspired approach to examining the users of the college application system and just how that system and its demands effect the lives of our young adults.  Their findings are not only important to students seeking college admission, but to all learners in general who are poorly served by a system of evaluation rather than assessment.

PlusUs is a unique organization in that we not only employ design thinking in the work we do with our clients, but we are actively engaged in the spread of design thinking as a pedagogical method.  Our work is not simply about the design of educational products, we are devoted designing educational experiences that engage learners in the discovery of why the world is the way it is, and which also help them realize the innate power they have to make the world better.