015 // Designing Learning Question by Question

Image with text. Text reads: Ideas from Dawan for people who think and solve like a designer.

Early in my journey as a designer, I started noticing ways the work was calling for good teaching and understanding how people learn. There were small learning moments, like preparing workshop participants to apply their expertise in new ways. There were large learning moments, like training a design team to get the most out of a new design method. At the same time, I also noticed that things worked well whenever people understood the question they were trying to answer.

Problem finding is at the heart of design. Problem framing looks into the exact nature of the gap between the world we have and the world we want. Next is seeking the problem or problems that, if solved, will transform the world. Framing the problem well gives you a chance to pursue a solution likely to generate the outcomes associated with that new world. There are the big frames that drive a team’s work across a design process arc, and the small frames that help everyone work through exploration, experimentation, and conversation instances.

Each of those small frames is asking the same question: “What question are we trying to answer?”

I’ve watched teams produce better work when working on a clear question. I’ve watched the light return to undergraduate and graduate students’ eyes when we found a way to state the question they were trying to answer.

I’ve watched how projects and learning improved when people traveled a path of connected questions. I started focusing more on questions as a way to accelerate and deepen learning. I saw patterns and opportunities as my clients and students helped me learn which questions worked. I pulled it all together in Fluid Hive’s Question-based Learning Model.

Framework. Fluid Hive’s QBL Model starts with a target: a framework for expert application. The framework captures the action-outcome zones experts inhabit while applying what they know. What is an action-outcome zone? Examples of zones are medical diagnosis, prospecting in sales, and sketching in portrait painting. Each zone is made up of related actions and the outcomes they generate. Finding the framework means asking, “What are related-action zones most experts in this area become skilled in?” Fluid Hive’s Design Thinking 101 courses teach across five activity zones: framing, exploring, generating, prototyping, and cultivating. In our most advanced learning experience, Fluid Hive’s Innovation Design Studio, we teach a See-Solve-Act Framework for thinking and solving like a designer. Seeing, solving and acting are each action zones.

Questions. After crafting a framework, the next step is searching for the smallest set of questions that, if answered, would accomplish the expert’s goals in each action zone. The action zones identify what someone would need to do to achieve expert performance. The questions begin to embed the essence of that performance, and expert-knowledge, in the learning model. The questions focus the learner on the things that matter most, give them a defined problem to solve, and help develop the habit of thinking and asking like an expert.

Fluid Hive’s Innovation Design Studio creates a complete innovation system with 50 questions spread across seeing, solving and acting. The first Design Thinking Question is, “Why do we think this innovation, problem, opportunity or challenge matters?” This first question looks at whether this problem is worth solving. The learner sees where to focus and the beginning of a sequence of actions defined by questions. An innovator using this question sees what they and their team need to do first. I use this Design Thinking Question to dive deeper into the question-based learning framework and watch how it accelerates the path to expert thought and action.

You may have read other Ask Like a Designer articles and wonder why the first question isn’t, “What problem are you trying to solve?” When people are starting to think and solve like a designer, that question is enough. The Innovation Design Studio takes everything to another level. To do the work with depth and rigor that one question becomes 27 Design Thinking Questions that guide you through the action, research and experimentation required to frame a problem, opportunity or challenge as a question worth answering.

Motivations. Why answer? It isn’t enough to know which questions to answer and in what sequence. Learners need to understand why each question is worth learning to answer. Innovators need to understand how to value the time and effort they will spend answering. Each Design Thinking Question has a brief statement of what is gained by answering the question. In the See-Solve-Act Framework, these are called Innovation Traps. Here’s the Innovation Trap for the Design Thinking Question above:

The Shiny Objects Trap — Latching onto an exciting or ambitious project so fast you miss more valuable uses of your time, energy and resources.

This particular trap comes from observing what novice innovators often do or are pressured to do. Understanding the Innovation Trap can help people avoid it and convince themselves or others to invest time in answering the Design Thinking Question well.

Answering Step by Step. The steps walk through how to answer the question. For the DTQ we’re using as an example, here are the steps:

  1. Describe your innovation problem, opportunity or challenge (Innovation POC).
  2. Understand what’s sparking interest in this Innovation POC.
  3. See your better tomorrow.
  4. Show what you know.

In the Innovation Design Studio, each step above is described in detail so learners know exactly what to do to answer the Design Thinking Question. Fluid Hive’s question-based learning model accommodates training for performance with steps like those above. The steps are the same in academic settings, but with annotations and citations for learners to explore and develop.

Answer Checklists. Having the questions, knowing why they are worth answering, and knowing the steps to create answers allows the learner to learn expert thinking and acting patterns. When encountering a question for the first time in a question-based learning experience, the learner needs a way to evaluate when a question is answered well. They need expert judgment. To give the learner standards to evaluate their work against, the question-based learning model embeds expert judgment in checklists learners can use to evaluate their work. Here’s the checklist for the Design Thinking Question we’ve been exploring:

You’ve answered Design Thinking Question #1 when you can:

  1. describe your innovation problem, opportunity or challenge (Innovation POC).
  2. explain why you are choosing this Innovation POC.
  3. describe what you expect from your better tomorrow.
  4. show the evidence you have (and need).

Practice. Some lucky learners have a chance to grow into and demonstrate proficiency via a project, practicum or clinical experience. Most learning experiences stop after the learner demonstrates an understanding of material and how to use it. Learning doesn’t stop when a course ends. Making the abilities we teach part of how learners think and act requires practice. Instead of leaving learners to figure out how to practice, all learning experiences should be designed with practice in mind.

In Fluid Hive’s question-based learning model, each question has one or more Practice Tools — templates learners can use alone or with others to answer each DTQ. The Innovation Design Studio also includes Practice Pathways so learners have a flexible guide to practicing and developing their new skills while applying them in innovation projects.

Question-based Learning Research
Fluid Hive’s Question-based Learning Model allows expertise to be transformed into frameworks for learning and application. The model accomplishes training for expert performance that can be expanded into rich academic experiences. Additional research is needed to:

  • Compare learner success using our question-based learning model to other learning models.
  • Compare performance outcomes across learning models.
  • Evaluate practice pathway adherence and efficacy.
  • Test ways to design the practice tools.
  • Explore the difference between instructor-led and self-paced learning with our Question-based Learning Model.

The Innovation Design Studio is the first example of how Fluid Hive’s Question-based Learning Model might improve training and learning. Through research and expanding the subjects taught using Fluid Hive’s Question-based Learning Model, I hope to contribute new possibilities for how we learn and achieve high performance.

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