Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Metacognitive learning through a design thinking framework

I have written a few times about the design thinking model that I use, lightly adapted from George Kembel's:


Brian McNely and I wrote a paper about how we observed a team falling into a failure mode of looping like this:


That experience inspired me to start using this model as an exercise in CS222. Around the beginning of the third three-week iteration on the final project, I take a day where I begin by introducing this model. Then, I ask the teams to annotate their paths through the phases, starting with their project pitch, and annotating major milestones such as the ends of iterations. This is a great metacognitive exercise that gets students thinking about how they have been proceeding. Inevitably, I get a student who reports that they did it "wrong" by starting in somewhere other than empathy or by jumping between phases, but then I explain that we're not using this in a prescriptive way, but as a tool to help us think about our processes.

In this semester's CS222 class, we did this exercise last week Friday, which was the first week of the final iteration. This is the only photograph I have of the event, but rest assured that this is representative of the kinds of diagrams the students generate.


I usually tell the story about the study that McNely and I did, pointing out that sometimes we software development types get stuck in "ideate-build-test" loops without stepping back and remembering for whom we are building this thing. The arcs in students diagrams tend to have a similar shape, often skipping over the empathy step entirely (which is understandable since it's not really connected to our course learning outcomes).

On Friday, though, I saw something I had never seen before. The They recognized that they had made this transition early in their project:last team to present their models showed that they had a strong arc like this:


That is, they observed that they identified the real problems within a specific demographic, but they never actually decided which of those problems they would solve, and how they would do so. Instead, they went right from identifying the problems to programming. Having looked at their code in two formal evaluations and some information evaluations, I think this is astute: it perfectly describes the failure mode that they fell into. The team is pulling itself together in this last iteration, and I hope that this exercise is formative to that process.

As I was talking to my class about this model, I had a moment of inspiration where I realized there may be disciplinary differences in how one gets trapped in subcycles. This is only a hypothesis at this point, but I think I've seen this before in my multidisciplinary classes:


I see programmers fall into the trap where they think of something, build it, think of something else, build it, and so on, without ever meaningfully evaluating it or really returning to the user's needs. The humanists--such as English and History majors--tend to think about the problems that exist and think of solutions, then think of other problems, then think of solutions, and so on, without actually building anything to validate their ideas. I wonder if teaching this model early would help students to frame their processes in a useful way and help them catch themselves unproductive spiraling.

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