Design thinking, computational thinking, genius hour, and making in the classroom – good, bad, worse

My daughter participates in an improvisational comedy group called “Comedy Sportz”. They “play” against other teams, but a good time is had by all and the scorekeeping is done with humor. One of the games they play is called “Good, Bad, Worse” where the comedians pretend to be experts on a talk show and take questions from the audience. Each “expert” in turn improvises answers on the spot. Of course the good answers are boring, while the bad and worse answers are outrageous and very very funny.

I sometimes think about this game when people ask me questions about education. Where do you see the Maker Movement fitting in education?” What do you think about design thinking and computational thinking?” “Isn’t “genius hour” a great idea?”

The answers I hear in my head range from the enthusiastic, to the skeptical, to the apocalyptic. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.

  • Good – Students doing challenging and relevant work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered teachers or leaders.
  • Bad – Students doing shallow unfocused work that is not connected to big ideas led by teachers who are unsure, conflicted, or under a mandate.
  • Worse – Students being walked through watered-down, pale imitations of the original ideas, with disempowered, disinterested students and/or teachers.

But unlike Comedy Sportz – the “bad” and “worse” implementations of educational ideas are not funny, just tragic misuses of teacher and student potential.

So I’d like to devote the rest of this post to understanding why good ideas sometimes go bad or worse.

Design Thinking

In the best of worlds, design thinking is a way to structure an iterative design process for young people that is understandable and easy to accomplish. It uses the idea of creating a product, with an explicit process of brainstorming, finding out the needs of the audience, design, development, testing, sharing, and more. I’m being deliberately vague because there are quite a few models of design thinking and I’m not talking about any one in particular.

Design thinking can help students and teachers break out of the lecture/test model and showcase what kids can do, rather than tests that try to catch them at what they can’t do. It’s a place for students to use different problem-solving styles, to add their own flair to school work, and to think about the impact they could have on the world.

Now the worry. In some cases, what I’ve seen promoted as design thinking in K12 is too oriented towards planning, overly structured, and spends too much time in the pre-production phases of the design cycle. The design “thinking” takes over the design “doing”.

One of the traps educators dig for themselves is to overwork the pre-production aspects of children’s work. For some teachers, this is a safe place because it provides extra artifacts that are gradeable and provide signposts that the work is progressing. However, these artifacts sometimes become the product, as children work hard to guess what the teacher is expecting in the mindmap bubbles, storyboards, required drafts, etc., rather than actually making anything real.

Another issue with design thinking is not every invention is a product with a marketing plan. There are times when the imagined constraints of the “market” can take over the process, reducing the chance that a serendipitous realization might result in something amazing. Product design is certainly a valuable aspect of design, but it’s not the only way.

Design thinking can also signal that the products are imaginary, either because of limitations with available building materials, lack of time, or the desire to not curb the imagination of the participants. The problem is that design doesn’t get real until you actually start to make something in the real world. It is neater, faster, and less expensive to eliminate problems with materials, time, technology, etc. However, the engineering challenges of managing constraints never come into play and the heart of the experience – the making – is missed.

None of these are insurmountable problems, but knowing your tools and materials tends to create a synergy that makes the invention process more organic and more personal. The actual work on the invention creates the challenge and the next steps, not an imagined audience or plan.

In the worst case, design thinking is packaged with pre-planned activities, worksheets, and materials. Certainly there is a new buzz around the words “design thinking” and that attracts marketeers who are selling products to schools. Companies are all too eager to offer a teacher who is unsure about design thinking a self-contained lesson plan with handouts or materials all ready to go. And administrators are sometimes too willing to invest in “stuff” that promises to eliminate messy and time-consuming planning. However, messy problems like teacher professional development, figuring out new schedules so students have time for deep, thoughtful work, or time for teachers to work together to grapple with new ideas like design thinking is not something you can shortchange or purchase.

Computational Thinking

For decades, many people have advocated programming as a true 21st century literacy. Programming is a way for children to understand the inner workings of the most powerful tool we have on the planet. I truly believe that learning to program is one of the most important intellectual activities that children can do. There are many many different programming languages for different purposes and ages, and I don’t want to get into that right now. But I think, finally, the time has come where the importance of programming as something children should learn is on the verge of being accepted. Now people are starting to grapple with the complexity of who will teach it, where does it fit in an over packed schedule and curriculum, and what should be taught.

So now that this is happening, along comes this thing called “computational thinking.” There are lots of different definitions, but what I’ve seen mostly is the proposition that children should learn about logic, troubleshooting, procedural approaches to problems, and other ways of thinking that are seen as “computer-like” or more likely to be the kinds of skills used when programming.

There’s good news – yes, children should learn about logic and problem-solving. All good. Children should learn that there are typical ways that computers solve problems and they can program computers to solve problems too.

Now the bad – if computational thinking is abstracted to the extent that there is no actual programming involved, we are left with another case of school teaching “about” things, rather than teaching children to do actual things. Computational thinking should not be seen as a substitute for actual programming, and yet, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening in some schools. The abstract nature of “computational thinking” is actually attractive to some, since it shortcuts the messier problems of teaching teachers to teach actual programming, deciding which language to use, and when to teach programming.

In computational thinking, much like design thinking, I think the verb is wrong and creates the potential for focusing on the thinking/planning rather than the doing. Children should learn programming – the computational thinking will come as a result of learning programming and doesn’t need to be taught in a decontextualized way.

Genius Hour

Schools are giving students time, typically once a week, to work on projects of personal interest, calling this time “Genius Hour”. I’ve also heard it called 20% time or FedEx time. I’m not sure where the term “genius hour” came from, but this idea is partially based on companies like Fed Ex and Google giving employees time to work on personal projects.

At some point in the lore of Google, there was a pronouncement that all Google employees could spend 20% of their time working on projects of personal interest. It even seems that some of these personal projects made their way into real Google products. I’m not here to dispute that story, because I have no doubt that the intention was there, and that some people may have actually gotten that time. However, I can also tell you that knowing how companies like Google work, there would never have been an acceptance that personal projects would come ahead of “normal” work. This is just a fantasy. The pressure from your boss and peers would simply be too much for anyone to walk out the door saying, “sorry about those deadlines, but I gotta take my 20% time today.”

And from what I’ve read, the 20% time at Google was more typically seen as 120% – where you are expected to give 100% to the job, and also spend personal time working on things that may be valuable to the company. I’m pretty sure that no one thinks that fishing is a valid use of the 20% time.

In schools implementing Genius Hour, FedEx time, 20% time, or any other moniker, I’m sure that there are some fabulous examples of kids being allowed to work on projects of personal interest for an hour or so a week. That sounds wonderful – of course this should happen as much as possible. There are also examples of “letting the kids go” and then being disappointed that nothing magical happens. That is a symptom of the teacher either not knowing, or not having the support to teach in a different way that would set up the conditions for success. It’s unreasonable to expect that a classroom operate one way 80% of the time, and a different way 20% of the time. It’s got to be confusing for everyone. Saying that kids like it doesn’t solve the problem that it’s a mixed message for all concerned – teachers, parents, and of course students.

I do have to say that there is something that particularly bugs me about the “genius hour” name – I’m not sure what, maybe some hint of condescending, pat-on-the-head, everyone gets a trophy-ness about it. Is everyone who does anything automatically a genius? Is it time-based? Are we all geniuses because the clock strikes 1:00? Do we think kids are fooled by a name switch, “Oh, NOW I’m smart! Hurray!”

Also, with any of these names, doesn’t that bring up the obvious question – what happens the rest of the time? Is Genius Hour or 20% time just an excuse to not change anything else that the students do? To not make all the learning relevant and personal? Are students not supposed to think for themselves the rest of the time? If we think that kind of thinking is good, do we expect it to leak into the rest of the week by itself?

If one hour a week is reserved for “genius” work – what does that say about the expectations for the rest of school time?

Maker Movement

The Maker Movement is a global revolution in people using new tools and technology to fix and improve their world. The best-known tools of the maker movement are things like 3D printing, microprocessors, robots, smart textiles and materials, wearable computers, and more. These new materials are inexpensive and versions, designs, and code are often shared freely via the Internet

There are wonderful lessons to be learned from the Maker Movement that apply to education. In fact, Gary and I wrote a whole book about it (Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom). Looking at the Maker Movement has multiple benefits for schools. The shared designs, code, and ideas can be used by students to remix into their own inventions. The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and gee-whiz materials can be easily learned and used by students to make STEM subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do.

But of course, there is a darker vision of what might happen when schools mold these lessons into “school-friendly” form. The makerspace could become an isolated room where neat things happen, but these ideas never make it down the hall into “regular” classes. We saw computers in the 90’s gathered into computer labs students visited once in a while for keyboarding lessons. The makerspace parallel to the computer lab should be a worry for educators thinking about putting a makerspace in their school.

Teachers who want to try making type activities could decide to shortcut the process and speed things up by creating recipes for projects that guide students step-by-step through making something. Just like design thinking, project-based learning, or any hands-on activity, the value of the experience is diminished when you over-structure and over-plan it, even when this is done with the best of intentions. Or as Seymour Papert calls it “hands on without heads in.”

And of course there are helpful vendors ready to “make it easy” to do something resembling making in the classroom with pre-packaged kits and lesson plans. For example, take 3D printing. In the Maker classroom, the 3D printer can serve a number of purposes. It can be a design partner, a prototype maker, and a way to bring anyone’s idea into reality. The design process involves using computer design software, and then working to create a real model. The process takes creativity, problem-solving skills, mathematical skills, and more.

Yet there will be a time in the not too distant future when schools will start buying 3D printer files of “educational objects” that can be easily printed out – and this is a terrible, terrible idea. Shortcutting the design process destroys the value of the experience. And yet, I’m 100% sure this will happen. The value of “making” can be undone by well meaning adults who are simply trying to remove the risk, smooth out the idiosyncrasies, and reduce the time needed. It’s natural to try to streamline the process, but that instinct can reduce the value of making to a paint-by-numbers experience.

“Making” may sound like it’s about the physical act of creation, but the educational power is in making meaning and making sense of the world.

In our new book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we explore in detail how to create vibrant learning spaces with materials both old and new. No easy label or buzzword can capture the professional expertise that it takes to create learning environments like this. Yet I personally am partial to “makers” and “making” because it at least gets the verb right.


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