Complex challenges in teaching: can design thinking help?

Last week I participated and presented in TERNZ (Tertiary Education Research in New Zealand) 2011 conference. Participants were higher-education lecturers and researchers who came from across disciplines and had a common interest in research into teaching and learning in higher education.

This conference has a unique spirit that asks presenters to present a research work in progress rather than final results, and look at the conference as an opportunity to discuss their ideas and directions with colleagues. In this way, conference participants are helping each other in the journey towards better understanding higher education.

Another interesting thing about TERNZ is its unique format. Instead of the expected 15min presentation – 5min for questions, each session lasts 45min and is compiled of 10min presentation and 35min discussion. After each session, you go to your “host group”, in which you meet with about 9 colleagues and reflect on what you’ve learned from the session you participated in. Since there are 6 parallel sessions, when you get to the host group discussion you get to hear about some of the sessions you have missed.

The discussions in the sessions and in the host groups were so inspiring and I am now left with many new understandings, and mainly – new questions.

The session I presented was called “Complex challenges in teaching: can design thinking help?”. The abstract for this presentation is available here under Day 1, 1pm.

The design thinking process according to how I see it

(Above is a sketch of the design thinking process as I see it).

Basically, in this session I tried to give participants a quick experience of the design thinking process, as well as some design tools they can apply for solving complex teaching problems/challenges (e.g. prioritizing their expectations for a solution under what Must/Should/Could this solution contain?, ideation process – using de Bono’s “random word” as an inspiration for a solution to help break your patterns of thought…).

The challenge that was raised in the session was “How can we help students develop critical thinking across disciplines?”. Obviously, we didn’t get to solve this question in the time-frame we had, however, we did use the process to address it and gain some of the strategies that are being used in the design world and can be applied to teaching.

Personally, I was interested in learning more about the thought processes teachers use to address challenges, as well as finding an answer to whether or not having an explicit thought process is helpful? If so, is design thinking a valid option for that?


Presentations from the 2011 Spotlight on teaching and learning

The presentations from the 2011 Spotlight Colloquium about teaching and learning we organized at the University of Otago are now online.

Please feel free to follow this link to see the abstracts and some of the presentations.

This year, we also tried out pecha-kucha, which is a unique format of presentation, which is based on 20 images X 20 seconds per image. Presenters are expected to make their point in 6:40min, which is refreshing to watch (and a bit nerve-racking to present).

This tag cloud (made using represents the main topics that were discussed at the conference. Enjoy!

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Notes from “Tackling the Wicked Problem of Creativity in Higher Education”

“Tackling the Wicked Problem of Creativity in Higher Education” by Norman Jackson can be downloaded through this link.

This paper provides a good overview of some the characteristics of creativity in Higher Education. Here are parts of the paper I found to be very interesting and may be of interest to you as well:

There is an assumption underlying what follows, that creativity is important and necessary to achieving difficult things and to our individual and collective well being (not withstanding the fact that creativity can also result in bad things). The world needs people who can combine their knowledge, skills and capabilities in creative and adventurous ways to find and solve complex problems. Creativity is important to our inventiveness, adaptability and productivity as individuals, and to the prosperity and functioning of organizations and to the health and prosperity of our society and economy.

The problem with higher education is that it pays far too little attention to students’ creative development.

A third assumption is that the teaching and learning process, with all its complexity, unpredictability and endless sources of stimulation from the subjects that are taught or practiced in the field, is an inherently creative place, and there are many potential sites for creativity embedded in the professional act of teaching.

A fourth assumption is that we have constructed many barriers and inhibitors to creativity. Higher education seeks to satisfy many purposes and goals and some of these conflicts. Barriers include: staff and student attitudes/resistances/ capabilities/interests; organizational – structural, cultural, procedural; time and other resources; government policy…

But it is not enough for educators to overcome such barriers through their own ingenuity and persistence, ultimately, organizational systems and cultures themselves have to be changed. Such changes have to be led through sympathetic, inspiring and energetic leaders. A fifth assumption is that we will not change the conditions for creativity in higher education unless we can persuade the leaders and decision makers that it is worth doing.

Paradoxically, our sixth assumption is that we can all do something about this state of affairs.

We live in a world where change is exponential and we are trying to tackle the ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) of preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t know are problems yet.

The world needs people who can combine their knowledge and talents in creative and adventurous ways to work with such complexity to find better and more sustainable solutions, create value, enrich our societies and cultures, and enhance their own sense of identity and wellbeing in the process.

Compared to some of the world’s wicked problems, the problem of creativity in English or any other higher education system may seem trivial. But I would argue that the problem of creativity in any education system is fundamental to enabling mankind to grapple with the wicked problems that emerge from all the social, cultural, political and technological and complexity that surrounds us on a planet that itself is full of complexity.

The problem is that higher education values above everything else individual academic achievement while preparing people for a lifetime of cooperation and co-creation. Our educational programmes demand conformity and prescribe learning outcomes that only value learning that we expect, while we espouse the desire for originality in the products of learning. And our emphasis on formal learning and explicit knowledge at the expense of the tacit and informal is at odds with the epistemologies of successful practice in work environments.


So, what is the problem?

1.     …It is more a sense of dissatisfaction with a higher education world that seems, at best, to take creativity for granted, rather than a world that celebrates the contribution that creativity makes to academic achievement and personal wellbeing.

2.     Our problem is not that creativity is absent but that it is omnipresent. That it is taken for granted and subsumed within analytic ways of thinking that dominate the academic intellectual territory.

3.     Although teaching and designing courses are widely seen as sites for creativity: teachers’ creativity and creative processes are largely implicit and are rarely publicly acknowledged and celebrated.

4.     Although we expect students to be creative, creativity is rarely an explicit objective of the learning and assessment process (except for a small number of disciplines in the creative arts). Creativity is inhibited by predictive outcome based course designs, which set out what students will be expected to have learnt with no room for unanticipated or student determined outcomes. Assessment tasks and assessment criteria that limit the possibilities of students’ responses are also significant inhibitors of their creativity.

5.     Many teachers find it hard to translate the generic language and processes of creativity into their subject-specific contexts. Conversely, many higher education teachers have limited knowledge of creative approaches to teaching even within their discipline.

6.     … any conversation about creativity raises many issues and barriers in the work environment that people believe inhibits or stifles their attempts to nurture creativity.

7.     Moving outside the academic world, many teachers, particularly those who have only known the academic world, find it hard to imagine life outside the academy, and to appreciate that success in the trans-disciplinary world does require people to be creative in ways that are not determined by ways of thinking and being in their discipline, and do involve creativity through collaborative enterprise.

8.     the sheer complexity of the concept of creativity is itself a potential barrier to a) persuading the academy that we can support learners’ creative development and b) enabling the academy to operationalise the idea in any meaningful way.  


[Greene, 2006] identifies at least 60 personalised models that are in the minds of creative people when they create. From his study Greene concludes that anyone treating creativity as one thing (for example: businesses seeking environments to support creativity) is not only failing to support most of it, but is probably hurting more creation than it is helping.

A second lesson that might be learned from Greene’s work is to encourage learners, through well designed thinking tools and facilitated conversation, to reflect on and develop their own models of how they are creative.

QCA [Qualification and Curriculum Authority – the schools system regulator and main R&D enterprise)] (2005) suggests that creativity involves pupils in:

• Questioning and challenging

• Making connections, seeing relationships

• Envisaging what might be

• Exploring ideas, keeping options open

• Reflecting critically on ideas, actions, outcomes


The creative process involves: thinking or behaving imaginatively. That such imaginative activity is purposeful: directed to achieving an objective. That these processes must generate something original and the outcome of the process must be of value in relation to the objective. QCA

When we contextualize abstract notions of creativity in the world of a higher education teacher, through a question like ‘what does being creative mean when you design a course?’ teachers begin to give meaning to their own creativity in the contexts in which they work (McGoldrick, 2002 and Oliver, 2002):

– creativity as personal innovation – something that is new to individuals. This is often about the transfer and adaptation of ideas from one context to another;

– creativity as working at and across the boundaries of acceptability in specific contexts: it involves taking risks; creativity as designs that promote the holistic idea of ‘graduateness’ – the capacity to connect and do things with what has been learnt and to utilise this knowledge to learn in other situations;

– creativity as making sense out of complexity, i.e. working with multiple, often conflicting factors, pressures, interests and constraints;

– creativity as a process of narrative-making in order to present the ‘real curriculum’ in ways that conform to the regulatory expectations of how a curriculum should be framed

Jackson and Shaw (2006) reveal that academics associate a number of features with creativity regardless of disciplinary, pedagogic or problem working context. For example:

       Being imaginative

       Being original

       Being curious with an enquiring disposition – willing to explore, experiment and take risks

       Being resourceful

       Being able to combine, connect, syntehsise

       Being able to think critically and analytically

       Being able to represent ideas and communicate them to others


Alltree et al (2004) identified several conditions that appear to facilitate students’ creativity:


• having sufficient time and space in the curriculum to allow students to develop their own creativity

• having sufficiently varied and diverse working situations to enable all students to be creative

• allowing students the freedom to work in new and interesting ways

• challenging students with real, demanding and exciting work

• designing assessment which allows for outcomes which are not narrowly predetermined

• fostering a climate within a module, programme or department which encourages experimentation, risk taking, observation/awareness, evaluation and personal development for both staff and students

• continuing academic debate within the discipline, and dialogue with the various stakeholders, about the nature of the subject and the role of creativity within it


An analysis of twenty-eight accounts of teaching that was deliberately trying to encourage students to be creative in a range of disciplinary contexts (Jackson, 2004) revealed the things that higher-education teachers do to promote students’ creativity.

To summarise, teaching for creativity requires a pedagogic stance that is facilitative, enabling, responsive, open to possibilities, and collaborative, and which values process as much as outcomes. Teachers operate in strong cultural and procedural environments that have significant impact on what they can do as teachers to promote students’ creativity. In spite of, or perhaps because of, these constraints, teachers who care about creativity are able to overcome these barriers to create, through their pedagogy, curricular spaces and opportunities for learning that encourage and reward students for their creativity.


About Learning and Tweetting

Recently, I began using Twitter. I’ve known about it for years, but was frankly too afraid to try it myself. My pursuit to maintain some level of privacy in my life, had led me to the conclusion that social networking is just not for me.

For years I’ve been the “lurker” – enjoying the benefits social networking offers without actually contributing to it. I had a Facebook account only so I could see my closest friends’ photos and updates – and never put anything up there myself. I read numerous blogs and have learned hips from them, but have never bothered to write my own. I even avoided typing anonymous replies to posts I enjoyed. All, until the past couple of months. 

As I was starting a new research project (about teaching, learning and design) I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague regarding “open research”. If you have yet to encounter this concept, the main idea of it is that you perform parts of your research in an open-online environment (e.g. a blog). At the university, we tend to keep a lot of what we do behind the scenes, and only when we reach the final “answers” we were looking for – we publish them.

This behavior may lead to well-polished studies and results, but those are usually shared only through the academic channels of journals, books, or conferences. The unfortunate part of it is that a lot of the first stages of research, as literature reviews for example, are performed behind closed doors. 

“Open-research” suggests that by conducting as many parts of your research as you can openly, you can contribute to the community while receiving back from it. For example, if I write about what I’m researching/exploring I hope to create synthesis that would be of interest to others, while learning from their comments, discussions and links to further resources I wouldn’t have thought of or found myself.

So, going back to my small “social media revolution” – I opened this blog, and as I said in the beginning – I also recently started using Twitter. I did so when I wanted to get some feedback and tips regarding my blog, and thought to myself I should try and see if someone out there, in the #design community on Twitter could help me?

The pressure was on. As I was about to send out my very first tweet, I felt both anxious and excited at once. What is going to happen next? Who will be able to help me? What would they say?

And so I tweeted. That’s it – it was up there for the whole world to see!

Or………. was it?

By the time I typed #design in the search field to see my first post in its glory, I discovered 2 highly embarrassing facts:

1. The post wasn’t there. It took me a while to find that it was only showing the Top tweets (which naturally, my first post wasn’t a part of…).

2. When I chose to see All tweets (rather than only the top ones) I discovered that my post was already long down the list of tweets and, as we can all assume, probably wasn’t seen by anyone other than me.

Disappointing? I’m not sure… Something in me was quite relieved to discover I didn’t have to dive into the rush immediately, but rather take some time to learn the rules of this foreign territory. And so I started my Twitter journey.


After spending 1 hour on Twitter I can now say the following:

1. I can probably do this all day, every day. (How scary!!!)

2. I just had one of the most intensive learning experiences of my life! I’ve been exposed to more resources, ideas, projects, people and initiatives than I could ever imagine. I’ve deepened my understanding of concepts I was already exploring and was exposed to many new ones. (How exhilarating!)

3. Working in the field of Educational Media, I was familiar with the idea of Twitter being used in classes and conferences as a platform for discussions between participants/students. I have always found that to be rather annoying to be frank, and didn’t see the benefit of people typing their thoughts through this platform instead of raising their hands and speaking out to encourage in-class/in-session discussions. However, after exploring Twitter from a different angle, and learning so much, I can now see that it may have many possibilities to enhance teaching and learning. That is, if it is being used in a slightly different way if I may suggest (mainly, not as a discussion tool for people who are sitting in the same room together).