The Integration of Design and World: More on Design Thinking.

This post responses to Anne Burdick’s invitation concerning the presentation: Design without Designers (found in the comments of my last post).  I will address the question, why would educational theory build on design concepts or how do I see the relation between education and design? I will look at three areas:

  • Erasing the distinction between art and science
  • Artifactual cultural aspects of psychology
  • The trans-disciplinary nature of ideas

Erasing the distinction between art and science

I see general changes in the practice of science along the following lines:

  • The critique of positivism (for promising more than methodology could ever deliver)
  • The critique of postmodernism (for fetishizing certainty; i.e. If positivism fails than scientific judgement cannot be trusted at all.) and
  • More acceptance for addressing real world problems (where problems tend to be interdisciplinary and often involve mixed methods).

The result is that many of the walls and silos of science have been reduced including the distinction between art and science.  In example, I often refer to judgements based on validity.  Although validity uses rational and empirical tools, building a body of evidence and achieving a combined judgement is more like telling a story.

Artifactual cultural aspects of psychology

The work of (or derived from) Vygotsky is popular in psychology and education.  It has also proved consistent with, and complimentary to the recent findings of the “brain sciences”.  While there are genetic and hardwired aspects of psychology, the structure of our minds can be said to reflect, to a great extent, the structure of the social and artifactual world that we live in.  The design of the world is more than just a decorative environment to an autonomous mind, it has an impact on who we are in both development and in how we interact with it in our ordinary lives.

Our delineation of the subject matter of psychology has to take account of discourses, significations, subjectivities, and positionings, for it is in these that psychological phenomena actually exist. (Harré and Gillet, 1994, The Discursive Mind and the Virtual Faculty)

The trans-disciplinary nature of ideas

Ideas never seem to respect the traditional academic disciplinary structure the way that methods and theories did during most of the 20th Century.  In the mid-90s a graduate school mentor pointed out that you could read many books at that time and have no clue to the discipline of the author without reading the back cover.  Psychologist, educators, literary critics, philosophers, sociologists and yes, designers, they all often seem to be speaking in the same language about the same type of things.

In Conclusion

  • The distinction between art and science is dissolving.  Method is important, but it does not rule.  Achieving a scientific break-through is analogous to creating a work of art (even though it still uses rational and empirical tools).
  • The design of our world is not just decoration, it reflects who we are and who we are reflects the design of the world.
  • Tools (artifacts, concepts, theories, etc. . .) are needed to act on the world.  Where these tools come from is less important than our ability to make use of them.

So in the above ways, design and design thinking is everywhere.  I do think designers should be more present in my own thinking as both a technical adjunct and as a foundation of both my thought and of the academic curriculum?  Yes, I do!  What do you think from a designer’s perspective?  How does the thinking of designers and current design curriculum fit into the above ideas?

Cartesian Problems in Communicating about Designing and Design Thinking

Interesting article – Thinking About Design Thinking – by Fred Collopy blogging for Fast Company.  Fred considers, “As (Design Thinking) is a way of talking about what designers can contribute to areas beyond the domains in which they have traditionally worked, about how they can improve the tasks of structuring interactions, organizations, strategies and societies, it is a weak term”, because it makes a “distinction between thinking and acting.”

As Fred points out Design Thinking is beset by the Cartesian Mind – Body problem, which is frequently being rejected today.  One form of rejection is found in the idea, “thought” has it’s genesis in “action”, like how you learn to walk and then you learn to think about where you want to go.  A similar idea (attributed to Bakhtin) is that Cartesian thinking unnecessarily divides being from becoming, where the abstractions of disembodied thought never fully capture either the actions of our lives or the moral aspects of those actions.

This is especially important for education that often has it exactly backwards, trying to teach you how to think in order to go out into the world to act.  Education would be so much more valuable if there were no dichotomous walls. (i.e. classroom/world, schooling/working, or even the idea that education = a 4 year quest for certification instead of an ongoing quest for knowledge.)

Review of Jacobs’ Management Rewired: Chapters 1 & 2

Working my way through Charles Jacobs’ Management Rewired.  I have some reservations about his findings, but he does a good job to frame psychology and education’s relationships with business in specific and with practice in general. The next few post are directed to a chapter by chapter listing of first impressions.

Chapter 1 focusses on emotion over logic in decision-making.  I think this chapter is potentially confusing.  First, his card game example does not prove emotion is better than logic.  What it does suggest to me is that the emotional parts of the subjects minds picked up on the underlying logic implied in the game before the reasoning portion could state it.  This is more in line with Malcolm Gladwell‘s line of though in his book BlinkThe emotional mind was able to understand the logic of the game before the logical mind could express that logic.

What does this mean?  Well, we should pay attention to our gut.  However, the very existence of science is because our gut response is so often wrong.  Jacobs does do a good job of expressing the holistic way that the mind works and to suggest that practice should reflect the function of the mind.  For example, we may have a sound logic behind a practice, but that practice will be much more effective if we are emotionally behind it.

In chapter 2, Jacobs talks about the primacy of perception.  We can’t experience the world directly, we experience it through our minds perception and the world we experience may not be remotely similar to other peoples perception. Therefore, idea, theories, paradigm, metaphors and the like play a big role in our perception.  This idea also reflects what I believe about measurement / assessment.  You can’t understand what your measuring if you don’t base your measurements on theories.  The theoretical world and the empirical world are in a dialectical relationship.  You might think of them as 2 sides of the same coin.  I’m greatful for how Jacobs gives voice to this idea.

Jacobs also echos a theme in chapter 2 that I attribute first to Vygotsky, the relationship between lower mental functions and higher mental functions:

Lower Mental Functions (LMF): (are) inherited, unmediated, involuntary, . . . Higher Mental Functions (HMF): are socially acquired, mediated by meanings, voluntarily controlled and exists in a broad system of functions rather than as an individual unit (from the Lev Vygotsky Wiki).

LMFs (memory perception, emotion, etc. . .) can be controlled to a certain degree when they are mediated through HMFs which are Jacobs’ stories, paradigms, metaphors or theories.  The one caveat over Vygotsky is that the fMRI studies Jacobs is referencing do give us a much clearer sense of what these mental functions are, how they function, and how they are related to each other.  Vygotsky thought of LMFs as being isolated from each other, something that current knowledge and (I believe) Jacobs would refute.

Side-bar I am becoming somewhat uncomfortable with the way that Jacobs uses neuroscience.  These fMRI studies are important and enlightening, but as an educational psychologist, I see a much broader field of knowledge (like the above reference to Vygotsky).  Neuroscience seems to be used as a rhetorical device like science often is.  In example, newspaper articles will often read “studies say” when they want to indicate that the authority of science behind their conclusion, even when their conclusion is not scientific.  Neuroscience is a relatively new field that most people know little about and referencing it can give one a certain authority that psychology would not supply.  Yet, there is little in neuroscience that is really useful without taking it back to a general understanding of psychology and (in some cases) education.  I don’t begrudge Jacobs, you have to find a way to sell your ideas, but I do step back and look closely at the way he uses neuroscience in framing his (rhetorical) arguments.