Why I Teach Design Thinking

VMS Community Blog
Posted September 21, 2018
by Grant Gary, Design Thinking & project-Based Math Teacher

In the year 2030, true Artificial Intelligence will come online. That’s the same year our current 5th graders will graduate from college. This might sound like an outlandish prediction, and it was when I first read about it as an 11th grader in a 2001 essay titled “The law of accelerating returns” by Ray Kurzweil. Fast forward to 2018, and Ray Kurzweil is now the head of engineering at Google! Whether we want it to happen or not, an artificially intelligent future is coming our way, and it’s coming much faster than any of us realize. As an educator, I continually ask myself the question: Am I doing enough to prepare my students for the inevitable world they are walking into?

It’s difficult to predict what this new world will look like. Assuming the robots don’t become our “overlords”, we are going to live in a society that is radically transformed. One in which the pace of change of technology is so rapid, the difference between one generation and the next is defined by only a few years, and ultimately only a few months. In this world, products will no longer be shipped from point A to point B. Instead, the information for how to produce those items will be sent to a 3D printer inside your home, where once the data is received, the product will print in a matter of seconds. In this vision of the future, information and ideas will rule as the great economic engine. Those who have the ability to create ideas, design them, and ultimately sell them to others, will be our leaders.

That is where design thinking comes into play. More than any other discipline I have come across in my 7 years as an educator, 4 years in Silicon Valley, and 8 years in higher education, it is the greatest generator of ideas on the planet. In a simple 90-minute design sprint, a team of students will generate upwards of 100 ideas. As a class, they will generate thousands. These ideas are then culled, prototyped and tested in a matter of minutes. Instead of investing hundreds of “man” hours into a product, students build a simple prototype out of cheap materials, like cardboard and tape, that allows them to test whether or not their idea is viable in the real world. If it is, great! They keep on building. If it’s not, great! There was very little wasted in terms of time and resources and now they can start anew with the knowledge they have gained about why their idea DID NOT work. This ability to rapidly prototype and iterate is one aspect of what will set my students apart in this future world.

At the center of the design process is the need for deep, deep empathy. I constantly challenge my students to answer the question: What does this human being NEED? And when I discuss needs, I don’t mean surface level needs. I talk about the deepest human needs that are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy; belonging, achievement, status, and ultimately self-actualization. My students know that the greatest products meet so many deep needs, they don’t require a marketing campaign to sell. Think about Google, how many of their commercials did you see before you used their search engine? Zero! The human need to search and discover is so deeply ingrained in our DNA, the company that most deeply filled that need has become one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. Think about Apple. The iPhone simultaneously fulfills our need to connect, attain social status, and create! It does this so powerfully, it has propelled the company to a 1 Trillion-dollar valuation, more than 5% of the entire GDP of the United States!

Ultimately, Design thinking is about more than methods or empathy or entrepreneurship. It is about instilling a mindset in students called Creative Confidence. Creative Confidence is the ability to act in the face of extreme uncertainty. It is the ability to tackle a complex, novel problem where the solution is completely unknown. It is the ability to get “unstuck” when everyone in the room is doubting there is a way forward. These mindsets will be vital in a world where the jobs that are going to exist haven’t even been created yet! They will be a cornerstone of the leaders in our future government, industry and academia. I am confident that through learning design thinking, my students will develop Creative Confidence. And when 2030 finally comes around, they will be prepared for what will be the next great evolutionary event on our planet.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.