Learner engagement through design is the hallmark of emerging pedagogical process in the 21st Century.

jim brazell's picture

Education is struggling with the dilemma of technological change in the external environment eclipsing the rate of change and adaptation inside of the institution. But, much of our focus on what we have to do in our schools relative to technology (and because of technology) is a distraction to the real issues inhibiting change, progress, and transformation.

Technology. What is it? How do we use it? How is it changing what we do? How is it changing learning, working, playing, and living? In these questions we reify technology—we make it a thing outside of us. Is technology a thing? Can technology be an idea? Can technology be a design? Can technology be a way of thinking? Can technology be an abstract tool? Can technology be a process? Can technology be art? Is art technology? Can technology be science? Is science technology? Is mathematics technology? Is engineering technology? Is technology engineering? What is technology that is not “STEM”? Can technology be both an abstraction and a concrete thing?

What is largely absent in the academy, the college, and the schoolhouse is the confidence of non-STEM disciplines and the openness of STEM disciplines to engage in civil and academic discourse, inquiry, and design relative to technology. This is a paradox as many of the great inventions of the past emerged from the intersection of pluralistic, collaborative and even competitive ideas and disciplines. For example, the confluence of engineering, philosophy, biology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, music, and other disciplines gave rise to the first electronic computers.

Is STEM the domain of science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines only? Or, is STEM pervasive such that technological processes, knowledge, and tools are deeply embedded in every discipline? Or, is it both—or some other system of systems? Is there a transcendent process—something that is within, among and beyond the disciplines but fundamental to all disciplines?

As mentioned in the introduction above, a common thread that bridges much of the theory and practice of emerging “21st Century Teaching and Learning” is design. The design process is fundamentally what differentiates 21st Century learning as a movement to shift from pedantic pedagogical processes narrowly focused on the bottom of the hierarchy of human intellect (mastery of knowledge) to an approach that emphasizes knowledge systems embedded in processes and contexts of use where cause and effect reintroduce first-person experience as a form of feedback to learning. As such, design is a fundamental transdisciplinary process important to questions about change, adaptation, and learning within, among, and beyond all disciplines.

An example of this emphasis on design in modern educational research and emerging policy and standards is the recent National Research Council publication “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” The framework “specifies core ideas in four disciplinary areas—life sciences; physical sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and the applications of science… Just as important are scientific and engineering practices, which have been given too little emphasis in K-12 education, the committee said.  The framework specifies eight key practices that students should learn, such as asking questions and defining problems, analyzing and interpreting data, and constructing explanations and designing solutions. These practices should be integrated with study of the disciplinary core ideas and applied throughout students’ K-12 education.”

A major emphasis of the framework, which is in effect the framework for common core standards in K-12 science and engineering, is to position experiential learning and design as a platform upon which to scaffold knowledge and create a deeper understanding of scientific and engineering processes. The pedagogical recommendation is to emphasize the lifecycle process and systems of knowledge relevant to the practice of science and engineering. The framework lays the foundation for the development of the vocations of science and engineering. The authors of the report also invoke the modern and original definitions of “vocation” as career preparation and “appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science”—effectively cultivating apassion for science and engineering.

Beyond science and engineering, design has also emerged as a common platform for educational transformation in Career and Technical Education (CTE), including design as a platform for cultural, technical, and useful artssuch as video game design, information technology, cyber security, engineering, nano technology, bio technology and architecture. In the humanities and arts, design projects are transforming the classroom into a studio for transmedia and mixed reality projects that shift the classroom to a hybrid environment connecting the schoolhouse to the world through cyberspace. Design has, however, always been fundamental to virtually all disciplines, so what is new?

What is emerging in pedagogical practice, across the P-20 system, is a shift in pedagogy and educational practice from “axiomatic” (self-evident truth) to “inductive” (using observation to move from specific to broader conclusions) reasoning and instructional strategy. This shift is similar to the shift engendered by MIT’s new approach to high school physics after the launch of Sputnik-- shifting physics education from rote learning to learning-by-doing (Full Story – Sputnik Education Shift 1957-2011). Rather than simply teaching the facts, facts and theories are embedded into a design lifecyclethat elicits higher order understanding, application, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity. Generally, the design process focuses the lens of inquiry on the world by asking: “What are you going to do to change the world today?”

With Simon’s definition of design as the "transformation of existing situations into preferred ones," design is differentiated from classical notions of objective science as design, according to Simon, is focused on the “…contingent--not with how things are but with how they might be…” As design takes root in educational practice across the P-20 system, so does a profound opening in the fabric of possibility for what is next in human creativity, innovation and adaptation—learning.

According to Simon, “Learning is any change in a system that produces a more or less permanent change in its capacity for adapting to its environment.” Today, a simple design shift we can all make relative to technology is to recognize that the technology is us—we are the designers, creators and consumers of technology. Every technological artifact is a reflection of humanity’s will. Every technological process and transaction is a result of design choices made by humans. Thus, future possibilities for the world, our students, and our Being in the world hinge on behaving in a way that is in accordance with our responsibility to each other and the future—to have hope and confidence in our ability to affect the future, to ask the right questions, to make the right choices, to learn from our mistakes, and to design new worlds of possibility.

The process of designing the future begins with intentionality—picking an opportunity or challenge upon which to focus—framing a question. Design is, therefore, the opening through which these questions emerge and through which ensuing discourse can unify and differentiate the disciplines in the pursuit of innovation in education and what is next in human development, economic progress, and security. The method and process, the bridge to the future, is the art of being human—design.


Jim Brazell