As I noted yesterday, I’m trying out theme days on my blog. My hope is to encourage more frequency and variation in my reflection. In sticking with my alliteration, I’m going to try to tackle technological reflections on Tuesdays. Today, I’m thinking about how technology is developed: the design process.
I have written a lot previously on the humanities philosophy of technology and will definitely return to such issues (e.g. How technology and society interact, how technology shapes our thinking and behavior, etc). However, I’ve been thinking more and more about engineers and designers and how they do their work and I’m struck by effort placed into identifying a “design process”. I don’t think a single design process exists and I think telling kids there is one has problematic implications.
First, science education has claimed for a very long time that no single ahistorical scientific method exists. Opening up four different science textbooks reveals four different “the scientific method”s. Observing the work of actual scientists demonstrates a wide variety of approaches. Yet, science is not “anything goes”. There are principles of investigation that guide scientists thinking. However, these principles are the object of study for philosophers of science, so it is not surprising that even scientists embrace “the” scientific method.
Similarly, it makes very little sense that all designers/engineers would approach their projects in the same way. Some might begin with an already made product while others might begin with a sketch and still others might begin with a problem. Some may develop a model and others might first do market research. Some may not ever engage in market research. Some designers may create without ever modeling. Some engineers may use computers in their design, some not. Some create by adding and connecting materials, others design by removing materials. Some design/engineer to create tangible products and some work with ideas and thinking heuristics. Clearly, there is no single design process.
If there is no single design process, why do teachers teach kids that there is a design process? In my experience, most teachers cite that having kids use a set of steps simplifies the task and serves as a way to help kids organize their thinking. I can understand this desire to provide structure, but it is inauthentic and takes thinking away from the students. Those of you have developed a design process of your own (many tech-y teachers have), think about how valuable it was for you to figure out what process works for you. Why would you take that away from your students? If the design process is supposed to help our students be more creative, why on Earth would we not let determining a design process also be creative?
Instead of teaching kids our (or “the”) design process, I believe we can help them develop their own process. For example, what if we asked, “If our goal is to solve ____ problem, what might be some ways we could get started?” and “What are the pros/cons of each of these approaches?” The resulting discussion will demonstrate to kids that there is no right way to start as well as the importance of reflective thinking when making decisions in how to get started. Then, as students continue through their design/engineering, we can support their decision-making by asking questions like, “I notice you are debating whether to add _____ feature, how could building a model/prototype help you decide if the feature will work?”
While our desire for structure is understandable, I believe we misrepresent design/engineering and take away aspects of student thinking when we introduce kids to “the design process”. While design and engineering is often meant to increase creativity, using a single design process might actually remove aspects of creative thinking.