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Problem Solving Through Design

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In a problem-solving-through-design model, professors cannot preestablish a curriculum. Even the idea of teaching design sensibilities as a topic in the curriculum is problematic because design is not an object of study; design is a mode of inquiry and exploration.


The posting below looks at integrating project design across more than one course. It is Chapter 5, Problem Solving Through Design BY Wayne A. Nelson, in Problem-Based Learning in the Information Age, by David S. Knowlton, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. David C. Sharp,

University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast, editors. The book is part of the Jossey-Bass NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING series Number 95, Fall 2003, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. [] Copyright ? 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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To design is to solve problems. The author describes a model of problem solving through design that can be used to restructure courses, programs of study, or entire institutions.

Although problem-based learning (PBL) can be successful in individual classrooms, I am advocating a broader and more sweeping implementation of PBL that can extend across courses, degree programs, or even institutions. Specifically, I advocate the notion of PBL through design. In this article, I begin with a description of the relationship between design and problem solving. Next I offer an example of how I implemented "problem solving through design" across three graduate-level courses. Finally, I offer considerations for implementing a model of problem solving through design.

Connection Between Design and Problem Solving

Designing is a problem-solving process, and design problems are usually described as open-ended, unstructured, or "wicked" (Rittel, 1984). Whether designing something highly technical, like a computer-based flight simulator to train future pilots, or something far less technical, like a centerpiece flower arrangement for a formal table setting, we cannot design without inherently thinking and working in a problem-solving mode. Through both design and problem solving, we are focused on "changing existing situations into preferred ones" (Simon, 1996, p. 130).

Across disciplines, designers tend to share a common problem-solving process that is an open-ended analogue of the scientific method (Newell and Simon, 1972). Designers solve problems by employing a cyclical process of problem identification and analysis, research, and inquiry that leads to the ranking of design priorities, testing multiple solutions through prototyping, and evaluating the design artifacts against performance criteria (Davis, 1998). To conceive this cyclical process in slightly different terms, we can note that design typically flows through major stages: naming (identifying main issues in the problem), framing (establishing the limits of the problem), moving (taking an experimental design action), and reflecting (evaluating and criticizing the move and the frame). Sch?n (1991) notes that designers reflect on moves in three ways: by judging the desirability and consequences of the move, by examining the implications of a move in terms of conformity or vio!

lation of earlier moves, and by understanding new problems or potentials the move has created. Regardless of how we describe the process, the point is that designing, like problem solving, is based on systematic processes and situational "rules of thumb" (Perez, 1995) that should lead to purposeful and practical outcomes.

Example of Classroom That Uses Problem Solving Through Design

In a recent semester, I incorporated a problem-solving-through-design method into three graduate courses in instructional technology-an instructional design class, a software development class, and a project management class.

In the past, I had taught these courses using traditional approaches, including the use of in-class exercises based on decontextualized examples, readings from texts and journals, and final projects as a basis of evaluation. In these courses, collaboration was minimal. I recognized a huge limitation of this traditional approach. Because courses are removed from practical and authentic contexts, students come to see the content of courses as isolated stages of a process, not as integrated activities within a single process.

To "transform" these classes using a method of problem solving through design. I compiled several problem scenarios that included possibilities for real and simulated interaction with clients. I also designed a set of performance expectations that established major deadlines and described my ideas of various working relationship among the three classes. As I introduced the various problem scenarios to students at the beginning of the semester, I invited each class member to volunteer for problem scenarios that were personally appealing, although I monitored the process to ensure that at least one student from each class was on each design team. Once all students had volunteered for a team, I distributed the performance expectations document, members of each team collaboratively worked to devise processes of design that would result in suitable artifacts.

Because each team was autonomous, no single description of the events that semester could fully capture each team's approach to design. In general, members of the project management class were in charge of the various projects. The project managers worked with the clients to establish project goals and tasks. Members of the design class assisted project managers in completing a needs assessment and analysis. Members of the design class also developed a design plan that members of the project management class presented to the client for approval. After the clients approved the various design plans, members of the software development class produced prototypes based on the plan created by the design class. The prototypes were tested with target audiences. The project management class then produced an evaluation report and held a culminating meeting with the design team to reflect on the process and outcomes of the design project.

Because students were enrolled in three different courses that met on three different nights, communication within each team was a potential problem. Project managers maintained Web sites for each problem scenario. These Web sites allowed all team members to view work schedules, drafts of design plans, and prototypes. Team members could communicate with each other and the client through e-mail. An important feature was that, using the Web sites as guides, each group, for the most part, was self-directed and self-sufficient.

I served as a consultant to the teams at various points of difficulty, as a "client" when quick decisions were necessary regarding project goals or vision, and as a team member when production problems arose. By the end of the semester, students had successfully completed seven projects, and students remarked that the process, while arduous, was also meaningful, fun, and afforded them opportunities to learn in ways that were different from those in traditional graduate classes.

Recommendations for Implementing Problem Solving Through Design

So far in this article, I have made a connection between design and problem solving. I also have described my attempts with implementing a problem-solving-through-design model across three higher education courses. In this section, I offer a vision of an environment that would fully support such a model. To implement a problem-solving-through-design approach, professors should reconceptualize curriculum as problems, places students in the role of designers, and reconfigure classrooms as design studios.

Curriculum as Problems. In a problem-solving-through-design model, professors cannot preestablish a curriculum. Even the idea of teaching design sensibilities as a topic in the curriculum is problematic because design is not an object of study; design is a mode of inquiry and exploration (Davis, Hawley, McMullan, and Spilka, 1997). Instead of a contrived curriculum presented through an artificial context, design tasks are supported by learning on demand, where learning goals emerge from the situation at hand. In other words, because design problems are ill structured, professors cannot determine a standard curriculum until students actively devise methods for addressing the design problem.

Although a predesigned curriculum is irrelevant in a problem-solving-through-design model, professors are necessary and vital to students' success. Professors serve as facilitators and share their expertise as experienced designers. Facilitators can help participants establish individual and small-group goals through the use of performance contracts (Rieber, 2000). The facilitator also can moderate evaluations, helping and encouraging learners to offer feedback to their peers. Most important, however, professors must serve as experienced designers by helping students formulate alternatives to solutions as students design.

Students as Designers. In a problem-solving-through-design model students become designers. Designers work collaboratively and use conversation, argumentation, and persuasion to achieve consensus about perspectives and actions that might be take to solve a design problem (Bucciarelli, 2001). Conflicting viewpoints are debated, and differences of opinion are negotiated. In this way, dialogue transforms individual thinking, creating collective thought and socially constructed knowledge within the team (Sherry and Myers, 1998). To further a shared understanding of the problem to be solved, designers create representations to solidify their design ideas (Hedberg and Sims, 2001).

Beyond working collaboratively, designers tend to be self-organized both individually and within their collaborative groups (Thomas and Harri-Augstein, 1985). Designers accept responsibility for their own learning by identifying their own purposes, setting goals for learning, implementing learning strategies, and identifying appropriate resources and tools (Fiedler, 1999).

Classrooms as Studios. To organize and manage design activities, professors can create an environment that is more akin to a studio than to a traditional classroom. Design studios are common in fine arts, architecture, and other fields that emphasize design (Orey, Rieber, King, and Matzko, 2000). Studios provide a learning environment in which participants use design tools and processes to complete real-world, and often self-selected, projects.

First, a design studio supports the use of appropriate design tools to craft models, drawings, narratives, and other representations of solutions. In many situations, professors may find that design activities provide excellent opportunities for the integration of computers into the classroom (for example, D'Ignazio, 1989; Liu and Pedersen, 1998). In other contexts, a consideration of communication tools can facilitate good design. As I note in my problem-solving-through-design example, students were officially registered for different courses, so a Web site became a valuable tool for promoting organization among students, and electronic communication tools became important tools for fostering clear communication.

Second, design studios support the use of processes that assist students in the design task. In general, students work independently and within teams to design a viable product that will solve their problem. For many students who have experience as designers, the idea of reflection may be natural and innate. But professors should consider building into the studio environment processes that will promote reflection among students. Professors need to scaffold reflection through concrete activities. For example, designers often maintain sketchbooks and diaries to support reflection (Cheng, 2000; Webster, 2001).

Also, professors can use numerous evaluation processes in design studios. They can conduct informal "desk critiques" on a regular basis. These desk critiques serve to provide students with cursory feedback about their work products. More formally, design studios imply the use of "juried" presentations of works in progress. In juried presentations, groups summarize their processes and showcase their products to professors and students who are working on other design projects. Juries provide an opportunity for formative peer review. In studios, summative evaluation often comes in the form of portfolios or formal presentations to faculty committees, other students, and possible even real-world clients.


>From students learning through the design and production of multimedia (Kahn and Taber Ullah, 1998) to students learning science by designing and testing solutions to problems (Harel and Papert, 1991), problem-solving-through-design tasks have become an effective model for teaching and learning. For students and professors, the use of design in the classroom presents new challenges and fundamentally alters their roles. In accepting the challenges of incorporating design into the classroom, professors create new learning experiences that are more appropriate for students rather than relying on tradition exercises or lectures from a textbook.


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WAYNE A. NELSON is a professor of instructional technology and chair of the department of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.