Design thinking: eating our own dog food

Have you ever heard the expression “eating your own dog food”? Eating dog food is not something I’d encourage most people to try. Myself, I have a mercifully short history in this regard: at one point, the scientist in me was interested in whether or not I could distinguish the chicken-flavored Milk Bone dog biscuits from the beef (I couldn’t). But that’s not what we’re talking about here, thank goodness.

It’s not actual dog food
We’ll only be discussing symbolic dog food in this article. The phrase “eating one’s own dog food” is borrowed from the tech industry and goes back to 1988 when a Microsoft manager used it in an email, encouraging employees to increase their internal use of the products they were developing for the public. Fast-forward into the new millennium, and “dogfooding” is a verb that one hears in Silicon Valley and even from an innovative teacher — “I’m dogfooding this new research project that I’m planning for my students next semester, and I think they’re going to love it!” Translation: I’m not just assigning this project, I’m doing it myself.

We already know how to do this
If the idea of “dogfooding” was something of a revelation for the tech industry, I think it’s been a part of what education has been about for a long, long time. We dogfood as we read and annotate literature in preparation for asking our students to do the same. We dogfood as we develop problem sets and accompanying answer keys that provide students with feedback. We dogfood when we prepare a science lab, running an experimental set-up to make sure students will have reasonable data from which they can draw conclusions.

Teachers, although they may not use the expression, are very comfortable with the process of eating their own dog food.

Design thinking
Poly teachers who have heard the term “design thinking” may be wondering what the story is there. Design thinking is both a philosophy and a methodology, and its actual practice varies somewhat depending on who you talk to. One of the most successful proponents of design thinking is Stanford University, where their design school (“d.school”) has been doing this kind of thing for years. The steps in Stanford’s d.school include :

  1. Empathize Take the position of a client, user, or subject who has a problem or issue of some sort. Have a conversation with someone about their experiences, and ask open-ended questions about those experiences. Be sure to ask lots of “why” questions about their experiences.
  2. Define
 Take what you’ve learned and summarize it into client needs, or identify insights that you’ve gained into the client’s problem. Based on what you’ve learned, state your point of view on the problem. This clear and concrete definition of the problem is what you’ll be trying to solve.
  3. Ideate
 Brainstorm solutions, without evaluating them. Think of interesting ideas, impractical ideas, novel ideas, radical ideas. Draw sketches if it helps. The more potential solutions, the better. Then, share your ideas with the client and get their feedback. Based on their response to your ideas, generate a solution that you want to pursue.
  4. Prototype
 Create a prototype of your solution, either a physical object or an experience with which the client can interact.
  5. Test
 Try out the prototype with the client, and see how it works. Try not to be defensive as you accept feedback on the design.

If you’re a teacher, some of this may start to sound familiar. Having students clearly define their problem or area of interest, brainstorm strategies for solving the problem, revise their work, thinking, or essay as they go along, and accept constructive feedback in the interest of improving the work all fit right in with this paradigm. The ideas espoused by design thinking may not be completely new for some educators, but the vocabulary of that philosophy and methodology gives us a way of better communicating the process with each other and with others.

Dogfooding design thinking?
Here, too, I think some, perhaps many teachers who have been in a classroom for any length of time already have a hard-earned, intuitive sense of the design thinking process. If you’re a teacher, take a look at those five steps listed above, and wherever you see the word “client,” think of yourself. As a teacher myself, I empathize with my students, I identify the challenges that face me (designing curriculum, designing lessons, designing learning experiences), and I brainstorm ideas on how I want to enhance my students’ ability to learn these lessons. I reflect on my ideas, settle on a strategy, and test it out in the classroom. Finally, based on how things go, I decide to keep the lesson for next year, refine it somewhat, or perhaps even toss it out if it has not met my students’ needs.

It’s a natural process that teachers use as they develop their craft over time. As an educator, no one needs to prove to me of the value of dogfooding. I’m already there. I’m already doing it.

Where do we go from here?
If are already using some of the principles of design thinking, the next step is to develop lessons that teach out students how to do the same thing. We need to create opportunities for them to do their own design thinking.

We need to teach them design thinking.

There has been a growing call for education reform in this country, and a recognition that our students — in addition to knowing content — need to become more adept in their ability to use modern strategies and tools: collaboration, social and business networking, open and/or disruptive innovation, and others. With design thinking in mind, teachers set up lessons that typically follow the steps listed above. Students are asked to identify challenges faced by others, define problems and brainstorm solutions, and then create and test those solutions. How a teacher actually implements this process in his or her own classroom depends on a number of factors, including subject area, flexibility of course curriculum, comfort level of the teacher, and administrative support.

Regardless of how any individual educator chooses to use innovative thinking strategies with his or her students, incorporating a context of design thinking into lessons is something that has enormous value to our graduates. The Polytechnic School philosophy speaks of our commitment to have students leave the school “prepared to meet the complexities of a changing world.” Teachers already understand on an intuitive level the benefits of this style of problem-solving. Now it is time to share it in an explicit way with our students.