I practice breaking default settings in higher education through design thinking. As a business educator, engaged learning pedagogy has become my rule-breaking rally cry to reimagine what a classroom could be. Engaged Learning, sometimes called experiential learning, service-learning, or community-based learning has continuously gained popularity in higher education over the past decade.
Since 2008, my students have engaged in more than one hundred community-based projects and more than fifty unique client organizations. I constantly ask, “how can I bring the outside world into my classroom, and how can my students go out into the world?”
Through Engaged Learning, I’ve discovered students’ desires for deeper relationships with their clients. Students recognize the limited capacity for how much trust and connection is possible during a structured semester or quarter, so we emphasize how the current client relationship helps students evaluate their approach with future, professional client relationships.
Mainstream perception suggests higher education does not align with career and industry expectations; this long-term, seismic gap between theory and practice always lingers. Engaged Learning breaks that dominant misconception. It proves what a college class could be and attempts to answer the question, “how might we design classroom experiences that mirror real-world expectations?”
In 2019, I combined experiential learning pedagogy with a mindset shift. Students’ actual needs motivated me. The default assumption that undergraduates enroll in a course because they want to take the course needs a rethink. For example, not all students who take undergrad Marketing Research want to be marketing researchers, so the marketing research process might never stick; the learning may not happen.
How Might We Engage Design Thinking?
However, what can stick is a mindset. Accentuating how to think and not what to think met students’ actual needs, not the perceived needs outlined in a syllabus. More specifically, by adopting a design thinking mindset, students practiced how to ask and experience ill-structured questions about our world’s grandest challenges, the most wicked problems facing society.
For our purposes, we defined design thinking as need-finding through empathy that leads to innovation. As the students lived our definition on behalf of their Engaged Learning clients, I too practiced living this definition for my students. Together, we always had our clients’ end-users actual needs interacting with our heads, hearts, and hands.
Now, in 2020, undergraduate Engaged Learning needs design thinking more than ever before. Headlines in higher education scatter the internet, declaring College Kids are Freaking Out about their Infected Campuses to Distracted Minds: Why Your Students Can’t Focus. Design thinking in Engaged Learning was built for this crisis moment.
Design hero Milton Glaser famously said, “We are always looking but never see.” We look right at the absence of design thinking in business schools and yet don’t see how to fit design thinking into the curriculum. As internships rescind and the entry-level job market spirals, I see experiential learning and design thinking as a smart recombination – an innovation – that business students actually need.
Meet our Summer 2020 Retail Rulebreakers!
To address students’ actual college classroom needs, let’s meet Engaged Learning design thinkers from a Summer 2020 Retail course. As a six-week, online writing-intensive elective, Retail students aim to profile retail strategy as art & science through a writing-intensive process.
I hook this class to the grand challenge question, “How might retail right size its physical footprint?”
Retail Rulebreakers ideate, imagine, and write about improved retail systems, efficient operations, and branding that aligns with consumers’ most essential personal and household needs. These rulebreakers audit retailers’ strategies, review classmates’ written drafts and produce their claims in formats inspired by Topics Insight.
Spencer Bailey audited Clare, an emerging (and energizing!) DTC paint brand. Alina Prioteasa audited Fenty Beauty at a time when renewed DEI focus swept more established beauty brands. Athena Gall also reviewed beauty retail in her Aveda audit. Alexis Meyer took on Rothy’s, one of Future Commerce’s Nine by Nine Brands. Nida Ahmad also discovered the importance of retailing strategy in the footwear sector in her Allbirds audit. These Retail Rulebreakers imagined concrete ways to break default retail systems.
Putting it All Together: Heads + Hearts + Hands
Retail Rulebreakers finite stories linked above now sponsor a new story’s beginning. Their individual profiles of national/global retailers allowed our class to simultaneously collaborate with an experiential learning client. We applied lessons learned from writing about national retailers to the actual needs of a local, grand question challenge.
With heads for business and hearts for the world, our hands are ready for rule-breaking action.
Design Thinking to Break Some Invisible Rules!
A Grateful Beginning
Let’s begin this story with gratitude.
There is no greater luxury than how we share our time with each other. I am grateful that you are a Topic Insights reader, sharing your daily website superhighway with an online community at its brightest beginning.
I am profoundly grateful for Ralf Quellmalz, Leader & Co-founder of Topic Insight. For anyone who has worked with Ralf – either face-to-face or remotely – his sharp eye for social impact combined with his softened gaze on humanity’s vulnerability fuels his head for business, a heart for the world, and hands for elegant writing. With gratitude, I cherish weekly Topic Insights updates, knowing each email digest provides opportunities to observe how Ralf leads with courage, dignity, and compassion.
Gratitude feels satisfying, especially at the beginning of a story. And, I’ve shifted storytelling’s default settings. Beginning a Topic Insight story without an actual topic? I instead began with heartfelt acknowledgment. Our world needs boundless gratitude. It also needs rulebreakers, ready for storyline twists and, most importantly, breaking those invisible, default settings that often grip our decision-making. How might we be a grateful community of rulebreakers, ready to break default assumptions?
After all, it is way more fun to break some invisible rules with friends too, so more gratitude to Topic for inviting us all, as friends, to their rally cry.