Cropped Headshot 8/24/2015

Designer Interview: Doris Wells-Papanek

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd collaborates with educators, practitioners, and learners to design and research learning experiences. She has coached educators and learners of all ages, authored multiple papers, and presented at national and international conferences. She is the founder and director of the Design Learning Network, which promotes the K-12 design learning process through individual members, as well as international partners and organizations. Anchored in an action research, human-centered, and sustainable approach, the aim of the network’s efforts is to mindfully enhance overall educational experiences for all educators and students involved. Wells-Papanek holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instructional design with a focus on action research from National Louis University and a bachelor’s degree in product and environmental design from the Kansas City Art Institute & School of Design. Clients include companies such as Autodesk, Xerox, Apple, Lotus, Hewlett-Packard, Siemens, Philips, and Intuit – along with learning organizations such as the University System of New Hampshire, University of Lincoln UK, Council for British Teachers UK, Kansas City Art Institute, Blue Valley North School District, Perry School District, Perkiomen Valley School District, Revere School District, and Lake Forest School District.



What is design learning and why is it important?

Design Learning offers K-12 educators and their students the opportunity to embrace the creative problem-solving process alongside design-based learning strategies as a “pedagogical” approach to teaching and learning best practices. 

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Students learn to effectively collaborate in teams as co-leaners alongside their teachers

The Design Learning Process engages students as they develop the creative mental tools required to learn how to become confident and creative problem-solvers, act as purposeful makers, take ownership of their learning, and make good choices. The goal is to prepare learners for careers that have yet to be invented within a world of constant societal changes.

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The power of Visual Spatial Reasoning is embedded into each Design Learning experience

How can we enhance our understanding of the design learning process in K-12 education?

The Design Learning Process is anchored in action research – a reflective study of one’s own practice by way of inquiry-based learning. Alison Crane, an accomplished design learning facilitator and design teacher from Blue Valley North High School, sums up her experiences by sharing:

“As I have experienced time and again with the Design Learning Process, we witnessed total engagement and excitement from every participant. The final presentations give each student the chance to be heard, develop confidence, and prove to themselves and the entire audience that their ideas were important.”

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Learners quickly adapt to being critical and innovative thinkers as they imagine many possible solutions

As students engage in the Design Learning Process, they often experience a transformation of how and why they learn as team members:

“Every person was involved and knew exactly what was going on the whole time. Everyone poured themselves onto this idea. My favorite was when we came up with our ideas and shared them with the rest of the group.”

“When I went around checking out other projects, I was really amazed at the ideas that everybody had created.”

“I learned that you must listen to everyone’s idea to get the best product.”

“I learned how valuable communication skills and collaboration skills are.”

“I learned about how to share ideas with my group members and listen to other's ideas as well. I wouldn't change anything about my experience because I really enjoyed getting to know the people in my group and working with them. My favorite part of the day was walking around looking at other groups' designs and ideas.”

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Students benefit from instructional guidance as they learn how to collaborate and learn in innovative ways

What do you think is the best way for schools to teach design learning?What do you think is the best way for schools to teach design learning?

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Design Learning Network Symposium 2015 in Boston challenged teachers to explore new territory

Keynote speaker Dr. Bob Greenleaf invited Design Learning Network Symposium 2014 participants to explore effective ways in which to assess the level of impact the creative problem solving process has on student learning:

With all resources for education labeled “research based” it is a challenge to sort just what constitutes high impact on learning. Meta-analyses have shed some light on the elements of effect size that can be instructive for our work with youth. Everything is research BASED. What outcomes can be effectively research DRIVEN with high impact?

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K-12 educators engaged in new approaches to integrate creative problem solving into the classroom

With each event, activity, and project – membership of the Design Learning Community continues to grow. As a working group of like-minded yet diverse disciplines, members of the community frequently interact electronically as well as meet in person during our fall symposium, community-based design learning challenges, etc. Event agendas include hearing from leading experts on topics such as creativity, problem-solving, innovation, the brain and learning – along with design learning integration best practices, competencies to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, developing global perspectives, etc. 

How can teachers integrate design thinking into the K-12 subject areas?

In partnership with Autodesk Education and Granite State College, the Design Learning Network is currently co-developing an Education Technology Integrator Certification Program. Our joint mission is to:

Inspire, prepare, and equip P-12 teachers as leaders with required competencies to integrate and assess high-impact, creative problem-solving learning strategies, and effective technological tools (low-to-high fidelity) into the classroom, based on student learning needs.

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Alison Crane Introduced the Makings of an Extraordinary Kansas City Design Learning Challenge 2015

The Design Learning Process is a highly flexible approach to integrating problem-based learning, creativity, innovative thinking, and purposeful making with a focus on STEM. For example, Emily Pilloton of Project H co-authored an Autodesk Design Academy project that invites learners to use their imagination to design a useful yet attractive structure to enhance the life of chickens integrated into an urban setting.

Based on this compelling problem set, K-12 teachers can easily expand into multiple learning perspective explorations within various classroom settings:

  • Science learners study the chicken’s reproductive system to optimize living conditions for egg production
  • History students investigate the top influences of change over time on chicken coop design
  • Math learners calculate the optimum volume and area require to house 2 to 20 chickens
  • Physics students contemplate the best bedding material to maintain a balanced thermodynamic equilibrium
  • Art learners design a coop that is responsive to the natural setting while nurturing the needs of the chickens
  • English students construct a persuasive essay to convince community members of the benefits of coops

Anchored in the research of Dr. Betty Garner, the Design Learning Process is highly flexible, action-oriented, and inquiry-based – intended to ignite young people as they engage in meaningful and timely reflection as they learn, think, and do.

  • Explore: What do I want to know? 
    Learners gather new information by engaging in a sensory-based exercise to explore key concepts and skills
  • Describe: How am I going to find out what I need to know?
    Students define the problem by asking critical questions, collecting data, and investigating mindset dispositions
  • Explain: What sense did I make of what I found?
    Learners build understanding by making sense of findings, brainstorming ideas via divergent thinking, and creating a plan of action
  • Demonstrate: What am I going to do as a result of what I found out?
    Students show understanding by visualizing ideas, constructing iterative design solutions, and presenting learning outcomes
  • Evaluate: How do I evaluate what I learn and do?
    Learners reflect and evaluate the learning process by considering improvements and imagining new applications of their new understandings
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Learners need time to gather information, create relevant connections, build and show new understandings

How can we access design learning and mindset outcomes?

The Design Learning Process invites learners to use carefully chosen creative strategies and tools – similar to that of a designer. For example when students investigate a problem, they often study the Growth and Fixed Mindset Dispositions of those involved. Based on Carol Dweck’s research from Stanford, we have found tremendous benefit to empowering young people to make thoughtful and informed decisions. 

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Students are more likely to gain wicked insights once they understand of their own mindset disposition

When we are flexible in our thinking, we are more likely to see the possibilities and go outside our comfort zone. We become more willing to embrace our sense of curiosity, use our imagination, and engage in divergent thinking. These types of explorations are more likely to produce creative and innovative solutions. Formative assessments are conducted to evaluate student growth and capacity to empathize. The goal is for learners to gain new insights into the benefits of facing adversity rather than avoiding.

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Learners benefit from gathering insightful feedback prior to submitting final innovative solutions 

Progress toward learning targets are continuously monitored throughout the Design Learning Process by way of brief formative assessments to capture PRE-, during, and POST- growth-oriented student data. Based on reflective analyses of student work, teachers are prepared to adjust instruction midstream based on all learners’ needs with close attention to those who are struggling as well as ready to move at a faster pace. Evidence of learning comes in many forms including progress toward learning targets via activities and artifacts.

What do you think is the future of design learning?

Imagine for a moment that schools were designed to ensure students learned how to use divergent thinking to tackle wicked problems and seek innovative solutions. What if learners no longer were expected to find the one “correct” answer, rather produce multiple ideas, and encouraged to flip a problem around to understand many perspectives and points of view? How might we better support learners to develop the capacity to use their creative and innovative thinking skills to learn about the world around them and beyond – including contrary positions to gain wicked insights into a problem? 

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Learners of all ages collaborated in Jobs in the Year 2050 International Design Learning Challenge 2014

Students today are faced with many levels of uncertainty as they prepare for the future, including facing the probability of applying for jobs that do not as yet exist. 

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University of Lincoln, UK hosted wicked brainstorming sessions with over 500 primary students


Learn more about the Design Learning Network.