Teaching "Creative Confidence": The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University
Imagine a different type of undergraduate education, one that completely breaks from the division between general education and the major. In fact, there are no majors in this system, nor any of the disciplinary boundaries that majors entail. Instead, students declare a “mission”—a statement of intent to address a real-world problem—and take a broad range of courses that will help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their missions. Students also have the opportunity to work collaboratively with faculty in “Impact Labs” around the world, where they can apply their knowledge in real-world settings.
This is not a real vision of undergraduate education—yet—but the product of a thought experiment carried out by graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and professional designers at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, known informally as the d.school. The Stanford 2025 project emerged from a yearlong series of courses at the d.school in which students imagined new developments in on-campus education that would keep it relevant and innovative in the twenty-first century. In addition to the Purpose Learning vision of education described above, students imagined designs for an Open Loop University, Paced Education, and the Axis Flip.
But while the visions of Stanford 2025 might not be real programs, many of the ideas they embody—an emphasis on collaborative, project-based learning; the application of interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to real-world problems; close mentorship from faculty and professionals—are very much part of the d.school approach to education This approach, like that of many other AAC&U member institutions, is consistent with AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge, which calls on higher education to ensure that all students complete Signature Work: sustained projects that draw on interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to address real-world problems that matter to the student and to society.
Skills, Not Majors
The d.school does not offer any degree or major; rather, students from any of Stanford’s colleges are eligible to take classes at the d.school, which offers courses for graduate and undergraduate students and for visiting professionals. The goal is not to train new designers in the traditional sense, but to teach “design thinking,” an approach to creative problem solving that students can apply in whatever discipline or field they pursue. Most of the d.school’s instructors, too, come from across the Stanford faculty, bringing a range of disciplinary expertise and teaching approaches. These Stanford faculty members are joined by visiting practitioners from many fields who serve as cofacilitators and advisors.
In addition to standard ten-week, credit-bearing courses, the d.school offers non-credit “pop-up classes,” which last only a few weeks or days and are taught by volunteer faculty. Some d.school classes are focused on developing the basic elements of design thinking, while others apply these skills and concepts to specific fields such as finance or public policy. All these courses, though, address three major learning outcomes, says Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the d.school.
First, the courses aim to help students learn a set of methods for designing thinking (gaining empathy, building frameworks for nonobvious insights, prototyping). Second, they inculcate a bias toward action: “take quick steps forward, build a prototype, and if that doesn’t work, revise and make another; you’ll get better feedback and learn more that way.” Finally, Stein Greenberg says, these courses help students develop “creative confidence”: “sensitivity to needs and problems in the world, and the confidence to think they potentially have the skills to tackle those problems.”
Achieving these learning outcomes requires a different pedagogical approach from that of the standard college classroom, she continues. “All our courses are project based, experiential, and hands on; all involve work with real-world partners; and they all involve projects that address topics and issues that are meaningful to the stakeholder, so students are working on messy, real-world problems without clear disciplinary boundaries.”
Students work toward these outcomes through multiple project cycles. Most courses begin with a short-term project, completed in one class meeting, that introduces students to a few basic skills, such as brainstorming and empathetic interviewing. Subsequently, students will complete a weeklong project, and finally a larger project that might take up the rest of the semester. “We try to teach fluency in a range of skills and mindsets, and for that we need to expose our students to as many cycles of problem solving as possible,” Stein Greenberg says.
Even when introducing students to new skills, d.school courses focus immediately on practice and immersion. Lecture, to the minimal extent it is used, is a “debrief” that comes after or provides models for practice. In order to teach empathetic interviewing, for example, Stein Greenberg invited a designer to conduct such an interview live in front of her students. After the interview was finished, students could ask the designer questions about what they had seen; then, in the same class period, students conducted their own interviews.
Not only are all d.school courses project based, but all projects are team based. Students come from all of Stanford’s schools, and project teams always comprise students from different educational backgrounds. “The ability to put students into multidisciplinary teams is one of the biggest assets of the program,” Stein Greenberg says. Some students immediately pick up interviewing skills, for example, while others may be better at visualization and prototyping, and they have to help each other in order to complete their projects. “As teachers, we set up these conditions,” Stein Greenberg says, “but the students learn from each other.”
She also says many students report that, after working in these teams, “they realize how deeply they’d internalized the norms of their academic disciplines; being in these projects, they become more aware of that, and they learn new approaches. They challenge each other, and it makes the experience richer.” Which is not to say that navigating this process is easy, she adds. But learning to collaborate with people from different backgrounds and with different approaches to problem solving is part of the educational experience. “They’re going to be collaborating like this for the rest of their lives—this way they learn how to handle it, rather than run away from it.”
“There is room in every field for design thinking,” Stein Greenberg continues. “Stanford graduates who took classes in the d.school end up applying these skills in all kinds of ways that we never could have imagined.” She describes a pair of Stanford Law graduates who, drawing on what they learned in the d.school, developed a new method for conducting and organizing legal research in ways that make case law and precedent less opaque through visual representation. Another student, building on the work of a d.school class that focused on childhood diseases, developed small, coiled catheters that could fit easily in someone’s pocket, allowing for unobtrusive transport.
Faculty, like the students, come from across Stanford’s seven schools; and like the students, they work collaboratively. All classes are taught by multidisciplinary teams that, in addition to traditional scholars from Stanford, include professional design staff and a range of visiting practitioners. Working with practitioners on the real challenges faced by their organizations is a key element of all d.school courses, and recent partners have included JetBlue, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Teach for America, and the cities of Mountain View and Palo Alto.
Scaling and Transporting Problem-Based Education
Faculty often bring their courses to the d.school without changes to the course numbering used by their home departments, so additional funding or course releases are rarely an issue. Many of these faculty then take the pedagogical techniques they learned at the d.school back to their home departments. The techniques are starting to catch on across campus, Stein Greenberg says, and the d.school has had participation from a broad range of departments across Stanford's seven schools.
The school is regularly contacted by faculty and administrators from other colleges and universities—up to fifty institutions each year—asking to visit and meet with d.school faculty to learn about their teaching approach. The d.school now hosts tours of its space every week, and it has posted many of its teaching materials and facilitator guides on its website.
Stein Greenberg says that the design-thinking approach can be used on any campus, and she has been excited to see the arrival of new interdisciplinary programs and centers at institutions around the country that are employing similar methods. She cautions, though, that such efforts “need to be organic to the ideas and intersections happening at any given institution.”
“We’ve learned that when you teach creative problem solving, no two challenges are the same—there’s no exact recipe for creative work.”