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Hacking the Classroom: Beyond Design Thinking

with 15 comments

Design Thinking is trending is some educational circles.  Edutopia recently ran a design thinking for educators workshop and I attended two great workshops at SXSWedu 2013 on Design Thinking:

Design Thinking is a great skill for students to acquire as part of their education.  But it is one process like the problem-solving model or the scientific method.   As a step-by-step process, it becomes type of box.  Sometimes we need to go beyond that box; step outside of the box.  This post provides an overview of design thinking, the problems with design thinking, and suggestions to hacking the world to go beyond design thinking.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is an approach to learning that includes considering real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand ( The following graphic was developed by Design Thinking for Educators to explain the process of design thinking:


As a further explanation of this process, here is an exercise by the d.School about how to re-design a wallet using the design process.

Here is another take on the design thinking process as applied to learning within a community setting:

“What does it take to create education in this age of imagination?” was the theme of the following Ted talk.   Imagination, play, and social interaction become important to the learning process.

To further learn about design thinking, visit:

Problems with Design Thinking

Bruce Nussenbaum, in a Fast Company article, Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?, discussed the benefits of design thinking but also noted it has become a type of flavor of the month for corporations.

Design Thinking broke design out of its specialized, narrow, and limited base and connected it to more important issues and a wider universe of profit and non-profit organizations. The contributions of Design Thinking to the field of design and to society at large are immense. By formalizing the tacit values and behaviors of design, Design Thinking was able to move designers and the power of design from a focus on artifact and aesthetics within a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society. We face huge forces of disruption, the rise and fall of generations, the spread of social media technologies, the urbanization of the planet, the rise and fall of nations, global warming, and overpopulation.  Design Thinking made design system-conscious at a key moment in time.

There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation.  CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes (

I fear a similar outcome for design thinking within educational settings.   As I stated in the introduction, design thinking, being a type of problem-solving model, is it’s own type of box.  It attempts to solve problems via a specific process in order to come up with a new solution or product.  John Media, in If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?, emphasizes the limited perspective that design thinking can create:

Designers create solutions. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is. The questions that artists make are often enigmatic, answering a why with another why. Because of this, understanding art is difficult: I like to say that if you’re having difficulty “getting” art, then it’s doing its job.

Paul Pangaro, a technology executive, who combines technical depth, marketing and business acumen, and passion for designing products that serve the cognitive and social needs of human beings, further critiques design thinking in his video, The Limitations of Design Thinking.

If we stop with design thinking we won’t solve those problems that those in design thinking say they want to solve.    Paul Pangaro

Hacking the World

All of this leads to the question of what types of learning in today’s classroom would help students acquire knowledge, skills, passions, and attitudes for living, working, and playing in today’s world.  Design thinking is one process for creative problem solving, but to really survive and thrive in a world of such constant and rapid change, kids need to go beyond design thinking and be able to hack their world.  Not only is it important to be able to use a creative process to solve problems, it is equally important to be able to identify problems to solve. As humans living within systems that are safe and comfortable for them using the tools and strategies that are familiar to them, it becomes difficult for many to step outside of that comfort zone to critically analyze these systems to identify problems and to discover better ways of living for themselves and for others.

Hacking is a way to do so.  Hacking can be defined as:

Hacking is research. Have you ever tried something again and again in different ways to get it to do what you wanted? Have you ever opened up a machine or a device to see how it works, research what the components are, and then make adjustments to see what now worked differently? That’s hacking. You are hacking whenever you deeply examine how something really works in order to creatively manipulate it into doing what you want.

The real reason to be a hacker is because it’s really powerful. You can do some very cool things when you have strong hacking skills. Any deep knowledge gives you great power. If you know how something works to the point that you can take control of it, you have serious power in your hands. Most of all, you have the power to protect yourself and those you care about (Hacker High School).

In an NPR article, At This Camp, Kids Learn To Question Authority (And Hack It), Michael Garrison Stuber, whose daughter participated in the camp, stated:

“Why would I do this?” he asks, while laughing. “Fundamentally the world is about systems. And we work within systems all the time, but sometimes systems are broken, and we need to be able to subvert them. And that is a life skill I absolutely want her to be able to have.”

In developing hacking as a skill, an attitude, and/or as an approach to construct and de-construct the world, it is more than just hacking in terms of computer science.  In order to hack the world, we need to tear it apart, deconstruct it and analyze its components parts and how they operate in relation to one another within various systems.  This is a mental, social, emotional, and whenever possible, a physical process.

The following icebreakers are designed for web design, but they could also be used to establish a climate of thinking outside of preexisting mindsets which, in turn, becomes a goal of hacking: to develop alternative mindsets.


To get a broader perspective on helping young people become white hat hackers (folks who enjoy thinking of innovative new ways to make, break and use anything to create a better world), see:

Although I am currently looking towards hacking as a way to facilitate creative thinking and positive (world) change, it also has the potential to become a more standardized process as is the issue with design thinking.  Hacking, but its very nature, should force learners and learning to the limits, but attempts to scale any movement can inadvertently and unintentional create the type of standardized, procedural system it is trying to avoid.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 11, 2013 at 12:24 am

15 Responses

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  1. I like your points here about hacking, and it’s helpful to have an explanation of what hacking might mean outside of the usual “digital” context–a broad idea of analyzing, deconstructing, examining parts and relationships with other parts in systems.

    When I think of it that broadly, though, it reminds me of philosophical thinking (okay, I teach philosophy, so perhaps I’m biased). In philosophy we dig deep, break ideas and practices apart into their component parts, examine them, evaluate their validity, consider their interconnections with other parts, and determine whether, where and how change might be needed. Is doing philosophy hacking? I don’t know; the description here just reminded me of what we do. But hacking sure sounds way more cool than doing philosophy!


    March 11, 2013 at 6:17 am

    • Nice observation! It is a type of philosophy. I think the big difference, though, is that, whenever possible, it involves a hands-on/physical action.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      March 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      • Ah, I see. You’re right–that’s not such a big part of philosophy. I think it should be, ideally–philosophical thinking and evaluation should lead to action in the world–but it’s certainly not integral to the process. Thanks for this thought-provoking post (and many others I’ve read, but haven’t commented on)!


        March 11, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      • Two philosophers who inspire me are Ludwik Wittgenstein and MM Bakhtin. I would characterize their approaches as very “hands on”. (You could call them the anti-Kants.) This direction in philosophy could inform a design approach.
        Also, your use of the concept of scaffolding places you in an approach that seems to draw on Vygotsky. I like Alex Kozulin’s take on Vygotsky in his book Psychological Tools; especially the Bakhtin inspired idea of Life as Authoring with the self analogous to an emerging literary work.
        “Literary work becomes a model for the reconstruction of the emergence of the human self, while specific rules of literary discourse inform our understanding of the narrative thinking of the individual” (Kozulin on page 136 quoting Jerome Brunner in “Actual Minds; Possible Worlds”)


        March 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm

  2. Design Thinking reminds me of teaching kids the writing process. You start by imposing the process and even structures on the students. This gives them scaffolding to cling to as they begin to develop as writers. We teach different modes of writing and the nuances of each mode. Then, we hope kids will develop their own processes, find what works for them, and ultimately break the processes and structures. This is when their writing takes flight and blossoms. I’m all for Design Thinking. I don’t think it is meant to be implemented in a box, at least, that was not the original vision or how I have interpreted it. Hopefully it can set educators free within their school to make real, meaningful change and make an impact within their schools. Hopefully it opens a door to more creativity and innovation, just like when kids learn to create their own writing processes.

    Sarah Blattner

    March 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm

  3. As a teacher of design I struggle with this one. What we see is that in an effort to quantify what design thinking is we carry out studies of designers in action, we then extract some common traits or stages in the so called design process and start to define design by comparison to this process. As Sarah says, using this as a scaffolding process to lead children to the ideas and thinking patterns that mark out design as a distinct human activity is fine. Once we imagine that following the process is going to make us designers or even make us achieve some radical new approach to our work we have lost the point. Using the box ticking approach to design thinking is at best conscious competence whereas functioning designers have moved into the stage of unconscious competence and it is there that the tacit skills and understandings transform the activity. Great post and thought provoking as always.


    March 12, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    • Thanks for the comment, Gerain! I wholeheartedly agree that children should be taught the design process as I also believe children should be taught the scientific process. I also believe they should go beyond this process to learn how to dissect, analyze, and locate sometimes invisible problems in their worlds. This post is my attempt to hack the design process so that folks use the design process more strategically and intentionally.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      March 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm

  4. […] See on […]

  5. So Jackie do you think that Design Thinking could be a step into a different way for kids to think, design, and think and then move to Hacking the World? Is it a scaffold to where you want to push students and educators to go?

    Julie Graber

    January 19, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    • Thanks for the question, Julie. As I stated in the post, I believe design thinking is a great process to teach the kids. I guess it depends on the educator as to whether design thinking can be used to hack the world. I look at design thinking as building a better box and hacking as going outside the box to imagine and create “things” that are often unimaginable. What are your thoughts?

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      January 19, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      • I like the hacking the classroom idea as I think many students would take off on that. The teacher could get “out of the students way”. However, we have too many students and too many teachers that still want a step-by-step process as they are steeped in traditional ways of thinking and working. My question to you was generated by the reality that we face. Do you see Design Thinking as a stepping stone?

        Julie Graber

        January 19, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    • It depends – if both teachers and students get stuck in any lock step process including design thinking, I don’t believe that “true” outside of the box hacking can occur.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      January 19, 2014 at 9:56 pm

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