Professional development has become unwieldy. Teachers find the sheer number of topics, covering a multitude of changes, overwhelming. In the nexus of multiple mandates, teachers are bombarded with new curriculum, new standards such as Common Core and Next Generation Science; new education endeavors like STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math); new textbook adoptions, computer coding and technology integration. Districts are constantly flooding teachers with tools and materials and asking them to create innovative lessons to prepare students for college and a career. It is hard to get ahead of the curve and be innovative when teachers are drowning in just learning the plethora of acronyms linked to reform.
The answer to this problem is a systemic focus on engineering education through “design thinking,” which is really about creativity and critical thinking as students apply the skills and practical knowledge they've learned. Engineering is commonly thought of as a practice reserved for industry, but it fits into education as a practice described in the Common Core standards and is explicitly written into the Next Generation Science Standards.
Design thinking is simply a problem-solving process that teachers can use with students to help them create solutions through human-centered engineering, according to Wikipedia. Design thinking in the curriculum requires students to exhibit high levels of understanding about content and the application of the content as it relates to those affected by the solutions. It is a skill that does not change with textbooks and can be applied across content areas. It is a practice that students can learn to solve problems with throughout their grade-school years and can be used in college and career.
We need to provide teachers with professional development that models and supports the classrooms we want to see. We want teachers to create environments that foster creativity and critical thinking, but are we mandating so much that we are sucking the creativity out of our teachers? “Teachers will thrive in environments in which they are allowed to express their autonomy,” (Hasselbrink, 2014).
Rather than firehose teachers with professional development on every method, mandate and flavor of the month, we need to give them the chance to learn one overarching practice more deeply. Design thinking gives teachers the freedom to focus deeply on one thing that carries into every teachable area.
It is a natural method for increasing rigor, relevance and innovation with technology in all subject areas. By changing the focus of professional development to a single, cross-cutting practice, we empathize with teachers who are overwhelmed by changes in education. Elementary teachers learn one thing that applies to all subjects. Secondary teachers learn to support their content with a shared practice, encouraging cross-content collaboration. Connecting different content areas with shared practice can support the students who self-identify as the math, English, or artistic student succeed in their "other" subjects. Incorporating engineering and design into other subjects supports engineering as a gender-neutral practice.
Design thinking is active learning. The practice can encompass every curricular area and create an inherent change to the class and curriculum. Design thinking is a practice, not a tool. Technology and content are very powerful tools, but they are tools. We use these tools to help students shape, construct and communicate learning and perspective. The hope is that students will, one day, use these tools to design solutions, engineer products and become contributing members of society, not simply just “do chemistry,” “do history” or “do technology.” Districts should focus on and model practices, such as design thinking, that will prepare students for college and career.