Wible, Scott. “Using Design Thinking to Teach Creative Problem Solving in Writing Courses.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 399-425. Print.
Scott Wible describes an upper-level course in a professional-writing minor in which “design thinking” is central to the course design and outcomes. In Wible’s view, the processes inherent in design thinking lead students to more creative responses to problem-solving assignments.
Wible notes that the 2011 Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing, by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teacher of English, and the National Writing Project, includes “creativity” as one of the “habits of mind” for successful student writing, defining it as “the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas” (399-400). Wible cites scholarship advocating creativity as an important writing outcome and advancing strategies for encouraging it (400). Adding reviews of composition scholars and others who promote design thinking, Wible presents design-thinking as “a human-centered process” that derives its effects from intensive interactions with stakeholders as well as an emphasis on learning as a way of expanding the invention phase of composing (400-01).
In the “large suburban public university in the Northeast” (403) where Wible directs the Professional Writing Program (425), students complete a “series of linked assignments” focused on identifying and proposing a solution to a problem (403). Wible became concerned that traditional assignments did not inspire students to conduct serious inquiry or to think creatively, but rather allowed them to seize on preconceived notions of the ideal solution and then, as noted by Carolyn D. Rude, “approach their remaining work as an exercise in defending that thesis” (404).
In contrast, Wible argues, design thinking uses a set of writing exercises or genres to preclude early closure and engender the kind of thinking needed to address what Richard Marback calls “wicked problems”: those that are “highly contextualized, value-laden, and solvable in more than one way” (404-05).
In Wible’s representation, design thinking encompasses five modes: Empathy Mode, Define Mode, Ideate Mode, Prototyping Mode, and Test Mode (405). These modes, embodied in written genres, provide students with templates for exploring the complexities of a problem and opening pathways to innovation, enabling them, as encouraged by Linda Flower and John Hayes, to “create ideas, not simply find them” (402).
Wible’s class was commissioned by the Office of Faculty Affairs to develop a video for new faculty at the university. Envisioned as a basic introduction to university life, the project as enriched by design thinking, in Wible’s view, recognized and addressed the needs of this group with deeper understanding and effectiveness (405).
An overriding principle behind the five modes and the genres through which they are implemented, he reports, is the need, in the words of “entrepreneur educator” Steven Blank, for students to “get out of the building,” (qtd. in Wible 407), recognizing that effective problem solving does not result from “huddling in a conference room” but rather from “empathy research” that involves firsthand engagement with stakeholders. This kind of research assumes that the inquirer is ignorant and in need of exploring the problem in unfamiliar contexts beyond traditional research (407). The genres facilitate this kind of inquiry.
In Empathy Mode, Wible reports that students present the new faculty stakeholders with a set of “User Empathy Cards” containing “activities and experiences likely common” to the new faculty; respondents sort the cards into priorities, an exercise that elicits conversations leading in unexpected directions (408). Students compose follow-up “empathy questions,” again beyond the expected, to elicit “detail-rich, value-laden stories” that encompass multiple facets of respondents’ situations (409).
The Definition Mode, Wible explains, results in “User Empathy Maps,” which students create through collaborative sharing of their notes, with salient points listed quickly and briefly on sticky notes. Emerging trends in these lists lead to the map, which includes the categories “Say,” “Think,” “Do,” and “Feel.” He gives the example of “academic loneliness” expressed by new STEM faculty trying to develop research agendas (411).
The synthesis afforded by the map leads to the POV Statement, a template in which a specific “user” is said to “need” a certain outcome based on conclusions from the mapping process. Wible contrasts these statements with project statements from a more typical course, in which a solution would often be embedded in the definition of the problem (412). The goal, he writes, is to capture “the emotional depth and breadth of a person’s experiences rather than only their material needs” (413).
Instead of proposing “import[ed]” solutions in the Ideation Mode, students use their POV Statements to compose “How Might We” statements that define the needs, then move on to an intensive collaborative brainstorming session. Wible emphasizes what he considers effective brainstorming, in his case, characterized in part by using the limited space afforded by sticky notes to capture ideas without getting bogged down in developing each one (415).
This process leads to “Idea Selection.” Wible urges moving beyond the commonly applied criterion of “feasibility,” which he argues results in “many imaginative yet undeveloped ideas get[ting] lost” (415). His students broke into teams charged with producing videos, with one considering feasibility, but two others looking for the idea “most likely to delight the user” and another considering the “potentially ‘biggest breakthrough’” (416).
In the Prototyping and Testing Modes, students presented possible “rough” solutions to their respondents and gathered feedback. This step, offered in multimodal genres, led to further revision. Genres included “[a]nnotated sketches,” and “role playing.” Because they had been asked to create a video, the students chose to create “eight-panel storyboards” (418). Wible continues to emphasize how the design process results in deeper knowledge and creative insights about context and needs:
The aim of creating and testing prototypes . . . is not to seek confirmation about a solution idea but rather to bring designers together with users to think with and through the prototype-as-tentative solution. . . . (418)
Students finally “pitch” their solutions, but Wible argues for moving them away from foregrounding their product to foregrounding their learning. They synthesize an “Innovation Story” and a “Learning Story” that detail how they created their solutions through the design modes (419-20).
Wible promotes the value of writing as a means to explore and focus the learning resulting from the use of design thinking and advocates integrating the methodologies students encounter in their varied majors with design processes (422). He reports critique that, unless specifically structured to include it, design thinking can overlook learning from past cultural moments, including “humanistic and social research that happen through reading” (423). He notes that design principles should not be seen as monolithic solutions for better writing outcomes but rather as part of a pedagogical strategy to inspire deeper, more creative engagement in problem-solving methods.