What pedagogy can teach us about learning and design thinking

I have the good fortune to be co-teaching two courses at Northwestern University with the talented Teresa Torres, whose work with teams and leaders in the product world is changing how they connect the dots between user research and product design decisions.

We co-lead the Designing for Organizational Effectiveness Certificate program that is part of the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change. We also co-teach Co-Creating Change, a new course for leaders that is part of the Executive Learning and Organizational Change program.

In each, our goal is to help practitioners and leaders apply some of the more powerful practices from the world of design to broader organizational challenges. We both appreciate the fundamentals of design approaches – empathy, continuous learning and discovery, divergent and convergent thinking, experimentation, etc. We also appreciate that these fundamentals did not emerge entirely from contemporary “design thinking” or agile methods (h/t John Dewey).

But we also know that design thinking and agile methods provide important momentum to change the way we act on organizational challenges.

We can continue to pretend that our old methods actually work: Let’s select a program, put together a plan, and execute that plan. And then wonder why the plan never achieved the outcomes we desired.

Or, we can assume that change and continuous adaptation is the plan.

Teresa wrote about this recently in Adopting a Continuous Discovery Mindset Across the Organization.

In this post, I want to explore the role that learning plays in the continuous discovery mindset.

Applying a design approach to any organizational challenge relies deeply on a team’s ability to learn. Every step along the way requires probing and testing to understand, checking assumptions, exploring different ways to look at a situation, and reflecting on the entire experience.

The challenge for business leaders: How do you encourage your teams to continuously learn – to really explore and understand – while doing the actual work?

To do this requires being able to focus on the “learning track” underlying the design process, and to better understand our role in setting the conditions to facilitate a culture of learning across a group of people with whom we have some influence.

It is a challenge. But we know how to address it from our experience in higher education.

As educators, the challenge we have faced for many years is: How do you create a learning environment where people are doing authentic, real-world work, while deeply learning from the experience? What we understand is that both the doing and the learning take dedicated focus.

How to do this is a question answered by the discipline of pedagogy – broadly, the philosophy and practice of designing learning and of the practice of teaching.

The pedagogical frameworks, practices and insights I share here are those which emerge from the point of view that learning, knowing and doing are inseparable. Learning requires doing. Knowing requires a knower (it’s not just content). And this is especially true within our workplaces.

The challenge for leaders and for educators alike is to understand our role in creating an environment where doing and learning are simultaneous activities, and each creates value for the other.

Problem spaces rather than problems

As leaders, we need to push our teams to take on more autonomy and more responsibility for continuously learning when we adopt design approaches in the workplace.

This is the exact same shift educators make in designing courses and learning experiences when we adopt practices from what is broadly referred to as problem-based learning.

Here is an example.

Let’s say we wish to design a course for learning and development professionals about leveraging the internet for learning. There are many ways to engage in learning on the internet – taking free courses, viewing videos, searching content, etc. This creates new challenges for learning and development professionals who in the past developed their own training programs and content for use by employees in their organizations. What should they do with all that content on the web?

A traditional way of designing a course about this topic might be to call the course “10 ways to learn using the internet” in which an expert instructor proceeds through 10 ways to use web content for learning and development. In this design the instructor has defined both the problem and the solutions. The problem is understanding different ways to learn on the web. And there are 10.

Another approach is to create a course called “Learning in a world of content abundance.” At the beginning of the course, the instructor sets up a problem space to explore. “Access to content is no longer an issue for anyone who wants to learn about something. How does this change our role as learning and development practitioners? What new opportunities are there to provide value for individual development?”

This is a much more ambiguous and challenging topic. And more authentic for the targeted learners – people who must rethink their role as learning and development professionals.

You can look at this type of problem-based learning approach as shifting from “teaching” to “co-learning.” Your goal, as the designer of a learning environment and teacher, is to invite learners to explore a problem space in which you also participate as a learner.

This requires instructors to let go of their traditional role as experts dispensing wisdom. It also requires learners to shift their role from simply being passive receivers of wisdom to more active participants in exploring a problem space, and to do the difficult work of discovering and justifying possible answers. It’s no longer a game of trying to anticipate what the instructor wants and providing the expected answer.

What we have learned by using this problem-based approach as educators is the art of defining a right-sized problem space. The problem space must be open and ambiguous enough to invite curiosity and exploration. But it also must have clear boundaries, so that at the end of our time learning together we can come to some resolutions to the problem space we explored.

In adopting design approaches within our workplaces, we talk about moving from output-based management to outcomes based management. It is analogous to the shift made by educators who adopt problem-based learning. “Outcomes” gives workplace teams more autonomy to explore potential solutions. It helps if the outcomes are right-sized. If so, we open up a space for co-learning.

This ability to see and define problem spaces is the starting point for setting an environment where doing and learning are inseparable in the workplace.


Now that we’ve defined an appropriate problem space, we must set our teams (or students) on a journey to explore it. Think of it as inquiry, and inquiry is tough work. A compass helps.

Educational research gives us that compass: a contemporary learning approach for higher education called the community of inquiry (based on the research of Garrison, Anderson and Archer). Its roots, however, go back to educational philosopher John Dewey. Dewey first advocated for the idea that educators (for the benefit of society) must approach learning and doing as inseparable, and the process of inquiry as continuous. His work influences a rich and deep collection of theory and practice in the fields of education and learning.

Let’s first look at inquiry as a linear process – problem, exploration, integration, resolution – in which learners are thinking and feeling different things during each phase of the process.

The thinking/feeling elements I describe in the table below are common challenges and enablers to learning along the way. In any role that involves leading learning via inquiry, the key is to understand these challenges and when to “let it go” as just part of the process or to intervene by facilitating or supporting to move more toward an enabling mindset.

PhaseWhat it’s aboutLearner thinking/feeling – Challenges to learningLeaner thinking/feeling – Enablers to learning
ProblemDescribing the problem to allow for multiple plausible solutionsThis is out of my ability to solve/I don’t have anything to contribute. Or,
I’ve got some solutions in mind.
We all have something to contribute. Let’s see where this goes.
ExplorationDivergent thinking, information gathering and exchange, framing and reframing the problem, brainstorming, suspending judgmentNow I’m really confused. Nothing seems connected. I’m lost. Or,
I see the answer. Let’s just do that.
I’m confused. Nothing seems connected. That’s ok at this point. I am confident insights will emerge as we work the process.
IntegrationConvergence, synthesizing and connecting ideas, defining solutionWe have a lot of information – how do we bring it all together? Or, we don’t have enough information, how can we define a solution?We’re going to make some subjective judgments – but we have more evidence than we did before. Let’s use the evidence we have; we’ll learn more in testing.
ResolutionApplying solution idea and testing, learning more about the problemThis didn’t work entirely as expected. How do I convince people this is right?This didn’t work entirely as expected. What more did we just learn about the problem space?

Understanding inquiry as the “learning” track underlying design process gives us a framework to better understand our role as leaders, leading a process in which learning and doing each create value for the other.

Learning as a community activity

Think about the teams we lead who use design approaches to co-create solutions with our stakeholders (employees or customers or both).

The design process benefits from including team members and stakeholders with diverse expertise and experiences. It benefits from team members who actively listen to each other and to stakeholders, but who also think critically, question assumptions and then somehow converge on a set of ideas to test. And when they test – they are willing to tear up their ideas, start over again, and embrace the experience as generating more insight into the problem space.

This is learning, within a group setting. To set the conditions for it to happen requires that we think about it in just that way. Our role is to set the conditions to facilitate a culture of learning across a group of people with whom we have some influence.

This is the same challenge faced by educators who follow a pedagogy of problem-based learning. Instructors are not the center of learning. Neither are activities and content. The center is the group, or community of learners, and the culture of learning instructors facilitate.

There are powerful reasons behind this. Individuals learn more when they feel they are supported by a community of peer learners. The community focus also embraces the role of peer-to-peer learning – and diversity of thinking – in making sense of complex issues.

The payoff in establishing a learning culture within the community is when the community becomes its own learning engine, generating insight and progress on its own.

To shift focus to the community requires setting conditions that establish trust and psychological safety while at the same time valuing critical thinking and performance toward our goals.

Again, the community of inquiry work gives us a framework fit for this purpose. The framework defines visible indicators of a healthy community of inquiry across three inter-related factors :

  • Social presence – visible emotional expression, expressions of collaboration and cohesion, and risk-free, open communication.
  • Cognitive presence – the evidence of thinking in each part of the inquiry process (problem, exploration, integration and resolution).
  • Teaching presence – facilitating dialogue and discussion, and direct instruction. Note that teaching presence can be exhibited by members of the community, not just the instructor.

In classroom and workplace settings these factors can help us focus our attention more effectively.

For example, we know that the exploration phase of inquiry generates confusion and tension as team members look deeply at a problem space. As learning leaders, we should expect to see and hear expressions of thinking (“let’s look at it this way…” “why are we getting different perspectives here?”) and also emotion (“this is frustrating…” “I’m totally lost…”).

We should see this as normal, expected and even desirable. If the team is not struggling they may not be thinking deeply enough about the problem. But at the same time we need to be attuned to signs of positive social presence – “I need to just think out loud here so let me share what I’m thinking” – that will help the team work through the emotions surfaced by facing a lot of ambiguity. As leaders and facilitators, our actions at this stage might focus on reinforcing the positive collaboration or cohesion of the group, or the open expression of frustration, or recognizing where we must just “trust the process” to move us forward.

Making work visible

Etienne Wenger is the learning theorist who first recognized and defined communities of practice as a social learning structure. Communities of practice help practitioners make sense of their world. And among the important sense-making elements is the role played by artifacts – the tools, concepts, methods, visuals, etc. that we create.

“Artifacts without participation do not carry their own meaning,” Wenger writes. “And participation without artifacts is fleeting, unanchored and uncoordinated.”

We see this play out routinely in the practice of design. Visuals such as journey maps or experience maps help design teams make sense of employee or customer experience, for example. Team members who participate in the development of such maps understand them with deeper meaning than outsiders. The test? Just ask someone who worked on developing a journey map to explain it, and compare it to what you understood on your own.

This is not to discount the value of visuals or other explicit forms of sharing in communicating to stakeholders outside the “community.” Rather, it is intended to highlight the importance of making work visible as a vital element of learning.

As educators, we use this understanding to add depth to learning at both the community and individual level.

At the community level, visuals, documents and other explicit artifacts co-created by a group or community have the advantage of putting diverse expertise and experiences together to create a snapshot of how the group is making sense of some complex problem or opportunity.

At the individual level, we know that sharing something visibly with a community is different than keeping it private, or sharing it only with an instructor. There is a different level of social tension (“how will my peers view my work?”). But we also know that overcoming this social tension is critical to developing the trust and psychological safety necessary to create the conditions for the learning culture we desire within the community. If I can safely “learn out loud” and know the community supports my efforts, my incentive is to reciprocate.

In leading learning, understanding the role of making work visible provides a tool for helping facilitate a community-based culture of learning.

Doing and reflecting

As educators, we understand one of our most important roles is to design moments of reflection for students. We want students to question their assumptions, to consider different ways to look at a problem, to step back and make new connections between seemingly unconnected pieces of information. These can be minor moments where we are looking at one small element of a problem. Or major ones, where we step back and consider how we completely reframe the way we think about a problem or challenge.

Design approaches, when they are based in an inquiry process, set the stage for doing exactly the same. Exploration of problem spaces allow us space to question our assumptions about the problem and to consider alternative views of it. Testing of proposed solutions gives us feedback that may force us to question our assumptions and reset. And as we learn more about our problem or opportunity spaces through exploration and testing, we also have the opportunity to step back and look at the larger picture to examine why things may be as they appear.

Understanding how reflection may be deeply integrated with doing is one of the key mindshifts educators make as we design environments where doing and learning are inseperable.

As facilitators, we recognize when the inquiry process itself will generate moments of reflection (exploration, testing, etc.). We pay attention to those moments and decide when and how to add a nudge, or to validate the sometimes messy practice of exploring alternatives. But we also make sure we design time for group members to step back and reflect on the whole process, the knowledge they applied, the results, and their assumptions.

Putting it all together

When you see learning as inseparable from doing, the boundaries between formal classrooms and workplace settings become fuzzier. The best instructional strategy is to design a space in which class members and instructors — as co-equal learning partners — can experience exploring a particularly interesting topic. The course is simply a container, a contract among those co-learning partners involving time and topic.

The processes and practices associated with a design approach create similar containers. As instructors and as workplace leaders, we have influence over setting the problem space, facilitating the inquiry process, creating a community, making work visible and nudging continuous reflection.  

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash