From the Director: Design Thinking in Real Time

As faculty combine synchronous and asynchronous elements, define daily schedules, set mutual expectations for communication, and provide some vehicles for assessment — our transition to remote learning seems like a large scale design thinking project.
Our journey into remote learning frequently feels like building the plane as we learn how to fly it right. You’d be hard pressed to find another example of a shift so abrupt in the usually hyper-careful educational universe. One day, and probably of urgent necessity not in the immediate future, we’ll reflect on insights gleaned and implications from this massive natural experiment. But even today we might find templates or structures to help put our decisions in some kind of order. I lucked into one of those while availing myself of chances to read more than schedules typically permit.
Alex Pang, a onetime USN student ('70s-'80s vintage) and longtime Silicon Valley observer, published Shorter just this winter, following on The Distraction Addiction and Rest—all of which comment on the way we lead our 21st century lives, complete with messages about intentionality and openness to new ways of seeing familiar situations. The subtitle for Shorter illuminates its purpose: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How. A manifesto in praise of a four-day work week or a five-hour work day follows, and while it didn’t translate for me (big surprise), his methodology prompted connections to our recent experience.
Like any good denizen of Palo Alto, Alex finds meaning in the creative sequence known as design thinking, a multistep discipline that emerged from interdisciplinary innovators at Stanford, in a practice honed by inventors at IDEO and other tech meccas in the Valley. Eventually codified in 2005, to the consternation of some early adherents, in Stanford’s (lower case intended—aka Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), this strategy centers on a progression of human-centered steps for solving all kinds of challenges.
*Two quick asides—Dave Owens, now director of Vanderbilt University’s futuristic engineering crossroads The Wond'ry, former USN trustee and dad of two alumnae, worked at IDEO in its early heyday and even got me the golden ticket to visit, which certainly planted a seed many years ago. And summer gatherings at Stanford, for heads of Malone Scholar Schools (including USN as the Tennessee recipient) featured afternoons with Bernie Roth, one of the founders and a beautifully provocative figure.
With that backdrop, the design thinking sequence typically reads as follows: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and assess. Versions and variants of that hexagon abound, resistant to simple definition (as big ideas rendered in bumper sticker form tend to be by nature), but the core concepts trace back to that foundation. A quick word of insufficient explanation, though, based on my own limited exposure: start with understanding the specific problem or opportunity people face, then reframe and research all relevant elements to be considered, then brainstorm possible solutions without self-imposed limits, then construct possible solutions in basic form, then bring those models forward to relevant users and constituents, then seek feedback … and take what’s been learned to improve and run the cycle again.
Maybe this occurs as a powerful insight because of my own social isolation, or maybe it’s the intensity of the work we’ve been busy doing, but it sure seems like we’ve been engaging in, however consciously, a big design thinking project. The reality of a need to invent remote learning at USN hit like a tidal wave, growing in a hurry and covering everything we do. Then we started on a design path, understanding the often-conflicting preferences and genuine needs of families, of teachers, of students, of the educational world. And we called schools literally worldwide, searching for insights and lessons that we didn’t have to learn by hard experience.
What you’ve seen so far is the ramp up to something that we hope can be sustainable for weeks to come, as needed, incorporating prototype elements, combining synchronous and asynchronous elements, defining daily schedules, setting mutual expectations for communication, and providing some vehicles for assessment—all in support of learning in a time of inherent unpredictability and social strain. And starting last week, we’ve been asking about how what we’re testing is working, with an eye on how we can do better.
Seeing this in print, understanding the weight of our responsibilities and the accelerating pace, reminds me of how overwhelming it might easily seem. But that’s not a helpful way forward. Instead, if we could embrace the reality of being in the middle of a process that would be impossible to have staged without the crisis at hand, we can alleviate some of the pressure to be right the first time—a perspective we don’t come by easily. And we will learn things about time on task, and student agency, and curricular connections, and human interaction, that we may never have discovered otherwise.
The commitment to process and to iterating needs to guide our steps and I think, having watched our remarkable faculty dive in despite any number of challenges they’re facing on many fronts, we could be making some history. We may, in hindsight, be doing work that our Demonstration School forbears would find worthy of the example they set many decades ago. We may inspire others in turn, by design.
For those of us observing religious holidays this weekend, a special wish for extra family connections and time to reflect. And to the entire USN community, special thanks for the way you’re looking out for one another and for those around us.
Stay well and keep staying home—it’s working,
    • Director Vince Durnan

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