Trying to develop mental habits? Try a Macro-project approach

If you read this, you probably think a lot about design and creativity…and all that thinking has resulted in patterns in the way you see and think. These patterns, often called mental habits or dispositions, help you to be more creative and to engage in design thinking and design processes as a default when facing a problem. But…what about your students, or clients, or employees? How can you help them develop these habits of thinking? In education, problem-based, experiential learning has become quite popular, and a design-based approach comprises many of these efforts. Often focusing on real-world projects, design provides students the opportunity to work through various challenges that highlight processes and replicate problems students will ultimately encounter in their respective design fields. A critical key to productive engagement in this approach to education is the development of habits of mind, in this case design thinking habits like generating lots of solutions (divergent) or pursuing other perspectives (multi-disciplinary) or noting the balance between desirability, viability, and feasibility (integrative).

Like any habits, habits of mind form through deep and persistent engagement, critical feedback, self-assessment, immersion, and continuous practice. Often academic or workplace trainings, particularly those that are project/problem-based, are (a) self-contained, (b) within a single discipline, (c) complete by the end of the semester or session, (d) not owned by the students or employees, and (e) of limited engagement with professionals outside the classroom or workplace. This model frequently fails to engage learners beyond the criteria of the project and parameters of the training, and provides limited opportunity to develop mental habits.

Consider a different approach – a macro model of developing mental habits. A macro model project approach looks beyond the artificial constraints of the typical education or training scenario, and offers a deeper and more extended engagement in exercising the habits of mind you seek to develop. In my work at the university, we utilize the macro model approach through an annual project undertaken by three professors from very different disciplines. Students are charged to design an interactive, educational exhibit for a major international trade show. The project moves beyond the traditional semester, and runs as a yearlong endeavor consisting of all phases of the design process from initial brainstorming to user-research, prototyping, implementation, and evaluation. Professors coordinate various activities across multiple university courses and student organizations. A diverse core group of students work on the project from start to finish, and subgroups of students move in and out of the project.

This approach – one that disregards traditional academic time and discipline constraints, and comprises numerous subprojects (and sub-problems) within a larger project – is more completely owned by student leaders who emerge within and outside the classroom context. Students benefit from engaging with other students and professionals outside their discipline, and who are critical in helping to solve design challenges in a more comprehensive manner.

As we strive to engage social and other ‘wicked’ problems, aspiring leaders, educators, and designers increasingly find themselves part of a multi-disciplinary collaborative team that requires both creativity and leadership – a role that requires a broader understanding and cognitive skill set beyond their respective field. Macro-project engagement can help develop persistent habits of mind including deep empathy, purposeful ambiguity, persistent divergence, engaged collaboration, and a desire to work in an integrative setting. In what creative manner could you transform your trainings into a macro model?

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