Rethinking project-based learning in a changing higher education landscape: design thinking as a paradigm for media making

I am going to outline some ideas I have been playing with over the last year or so. It is still early stages for my exploration of these ideas and hopefully, at some point in time I will get to do some real research into this area. As outlined in previous blogs, for me, research often starts with the writing of an abstract, presenting at conference and then onto a final paper. So, some of what follows kind of follows the general structure of an abstract (see my previous post on the topic) but is further elaborated in order to capture more of the context for the ideas I am presenting.

One of the things I have noticed over the years is how certain forms of good practice get locked into disciplinary silos. I can give a few good examples such as: the use of live projects was common in fashion as a subject discipline as long ago as the early 80’s yet it wasn’t really adopted into media practice education until the early 00’s; blogging has long been a tool that photography as a subject discipline has utilised, yet it is only now crossing over to other creative practice disciplines. Eventually these ideas do break out of their silos and other subject disciplines often benefit from that conceptual diaspora. In my own work as a researcher I have tried to undertake a similar process by drawing on ideas about projects from organisation studies and other areas in order to better inform what I do as a media practice teach.

Design Thinking, as a pedagogical paradigm appears to be undergoing a similar process of de-siloisation. Design Thinking is an approach to the development of skills in creativity and innovation that is well established in the fields of design and architecture. It has similarities with other pedagogic approaches such as problem-based learning (PbBL) in that some of the core features of Design Thinking include the posing of ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems, solution-focused strategies, abductive reasoning, and practical prototyping of solutions. In the primary and secondary educational sectors (especially in the USA) Design Thinking has been used to promote creativity, team working and autonomous learning. There is clearly a synergy here with the objectives of media practice education. The approach also offers some possible solutions to common challenges when developing student projects at the ‘ideation stage’, one of which is functional fixedness, a psychological terms which refers to the tendency to reference the familiar rather than innovate and create (see my paper on the subject for more on this).

In the design field, the use of Design Thinking is an essential part of the process of developing and delivering projects. This is synonymous with the use of projects in media practice education. The deployment of projects as a means of structuring learning in media practice education is also long-established and aims to achieve similar goals, even though it is often overly focused on assessable outputs rather than the learning experience. Such that projects become mere administrative containers for structuring activity and their use lacks a firm pedagogic foundation. As an approach which places creativity, innovation and critical thinking at its heart, Design Thinking offers a potential way into thinking through the experience of project working for media practice students that enhances learning and places process at the heart of its pedagogic discourse.

Design Thinking, from what I already know (and this may be limited), is a means for developing divergent thinking skills and encouraging innovation and creativity. Standing in contrast with that of convergent thinking with its tendency towards evaluation of existing solutions to arrive at an option for the result of a project or inquiry. Divergent thinking celebrates complexity, curiosity, elaboration, flexibility, fluency, imagination, originality and risk taking. The term “divergent thinking” refers to that strategy of solving problems characterized by the proposal of a multiplicity of possible solutions in an attempt to determine the one that works. Divergence is typically signified by the capacity to produce many, or a greater number of complicated or complex ideas from simple triggers. Divergent personality characteristics include – curiosity, nonconformity, persistence and readiness to take risks. Whereas, the term “convergent thinking” refers to that strategy of solving problems characterised by the bringing together different ideas from different participants or fields to determine a single best solution. Convergence is typically signified by the capacity to identify through logic the best readily available solution to a problem. Convergent personality characteristics include – sees things in terms of black & white, seeks out the familiar, conforms to normative values, adheres to certainty.

Convergent and divergent thinking are both thinking strategies are used to determine solutions to problems. It is understood that problems are solved through a blend of convergent and divergent thinking. Divergent thinking brings out the best outcomes when it is used for open-ended problems that enable creativity. The focus of divergent thinking is on ideas (creative solutions). Whereas, convergent thinking is ideally suited to determining an answer by way of evaluation of available stored information. The focus of convergent thinking is process (correct solutions). As I have said above, Design Thinking appears to focus on the development of divergent thinking as a skill set and not only that, it values process as much as the end result or output of a project. Two of the key issues I have previously identified within media practice and project-based learning: the need to scaffold the ideation phase of projects, and need to find away to refocus away from end point connoisseur assessment towards a form that values process and sees practice as a form of critical thinking.

So, that is the theoretical framework as it stands. I am working well outside of my comfort zone in subject disciplines for which I have no training and in which I am not fully conversant. I do feel like I may be reinventing the wheel and wonder if I am making some fundamental mistakes in trying to draw on this kind of interdisciplinary material. I often see this myself at conferences, academics new to a topic to which I am familiar, evangelising and claiming new insights. Fair enough, it may be new to them and it is good to see them making new discoveries for themselves. However, I am reminded of an incident at a conference which was attended by a ex-tutor of mine from my undergraduate days. A media sociologist, and highly notable expert on audiences he had come along to this conference on mission to explore the world of anthropology and anthropologists. I sat beside him during a presentation on media audience by another academic, also of some standing, who quoted extensively from the work of my ex-tutor. At the conclusion of the presentation my ex-tutor exclaimed to me “I wonder which Ladybird book he has been reading”.

I do wonder if I have been reading too many Ladybird books!

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