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The Creative Learning Spiral: Starting with Your Imagination in Design Thinking

By Justin Reich — March 08, 2017 3 min read
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This is the second post in a series based on the new free online course, Design Thinking for Leading and Learning, offered through edX and taught by Justin Reich and other guest presenters from the MIT faculty. Design Thinking for Leading and Learning introduces educators to the design thinking process and its essential role in research and develop at MIT, provides examples of how educators are incorporating design thinking in their classrooms and learning spaces, and explores how educators can use design thinking themselves to reimagine schools. It launches March 21 and you can register now.

Mitch Resnick is a professor in the MIT Media Lab and the director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT. One of Prof. Resnick’s signature observations is that most modern creative workplaces look much more like kindergartens than they look like high school classrooms. Rather than lined up in rows working in sync on identical tasks, people gather in small groups, take on challenges, and have some measure of autonomy and choice about how they move through the day. Much of what happens in great kindergarten classrooms is driven by student imagination, and each student’s interests and passions guide guide his or her discovery of new concepts.

Design Thinking isn’t a monolithic concept: there are different approaches to design all across a place like MIT, where mechanical engineers look at design differently than startup advisors in the Sloan School of Management. In his work, Prof. Resnick defines the design process as a creative learning spiral that starts with imagining the possibilities rather than working within a stated problem:

One important benefit of using a creative learning spiral in design thinking is that it helps students look for and discover new problems. Resnick uses the spiral of imagine, create, play, share, and reflect as a continuous loop that frames the design thinking process. “We think of this spiral as something that starts with the imagination. You start with imagine. So you have an idea, and then you create. So it goes from imagine to create, you create something based on those ideas. And then you play and experiment with your creation. And then you share with others and collaborate with others. And then you might step back and reflect upon it. And through that reflection, you start imagining again. So it’s this spiral that keeps going and going, from imagine, create, play, share, reflect, and then more imagination.” The beauty of this process is that the spiral encourages the continuous work on the problem that is both imaginative and reflective. Students are anchored to the problem through a positive lens of looking at new possibilities.

For Resnick, one of the key areas of student learning comes in the reflection stage when students are able to step back and examine what happened and the choices that they made. “As someone works on something, there always are ways in which the activity differs from what they expected. And I think a lot of the best learning happens when you think about those differences, about how your expectations didn’t play out in the reality of what you created, and getting them to reflect upon those differences.” Creating places for students to reflect on the design process helps them to develop a deeper understanding of what they are working on. Questions such as “Why did you do that?” or “What did you expect to happen?” can help students focus.

In the end, there are many different frameworks that design thinkers use to approach solving problems. And there are millions of design problems and possibilities all around. The value of design thinking, for Resnick, is in the possibility it creates for improving education:

“I see design as the most important lens for thinking about improvements in learning and education. If we really want to improve learning and education, I think we need to do it by designing new types of tools and activities to support a richer learning experience. We need to help students learn to design themselves and to learn through the design process. If we want to prepare today’s children for the challenges of tomorrow’s society, they need to grow up as designers. So we need to design new types of educational tools and activities to help today’s students become tomorrow’s designers. The most important thing we can do is to be designing for tomorrow’s designers.”

Register now for a free upcoming edX course for educators and school leaders:

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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