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News > Context Fall 2022 > Opinion -Think With Your Hands: (Re)Designing Education

Opinion -Think With Your Hands: (Re)Designing Education

The kind of making formerly found in art and shop classes, once a staple in American public K-12 education, has re-emerged within school classrooms.
Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School
Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School

By Andrew P. Phillips, Chair, School of Design Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, A String Theory School

A problem is something met with which bars my passage.
It is before me in its entirety.
A mystery, on the other hand, is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not before me in its entirety.

— Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having, 1949

The kind of making formerly found in art and shop classes, once a staple in American public K-12 education, has re-emerged within school classrooms. It has returned under the banners of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math), Project Based Learning, Makerspace, Design Thinking, and Design Education. Each of these pedagogies link design thinking with making-centered technologies in situated communities of practice to weave complex patterns of explorative learning.

Twenty-first century skills are often referred to as ‘problem-solving’ skills, which require a fluidity and flexibility in how one approaches inquiry. They use an abductive mindset rather than a deductive or inductive one. Instead of seeking a specific answer to resolve a stated problem, a problem-solving mindset nimbly seeks possible solutions, with the preferred response refined through iterative acts of inquiry and reflection. This is essentially the design thinking process, whose methodologies, advocates claim, build problem solving skills in students and teachers alike.

‘Design Education’ pedagogies, however, go further than merely deploying design thinking. They borrow from professional design practices and emulate their problem-finding processes to articulate ‘designerly stances’. British design researcher and educator Nigel Cross has written extensively about design education in his efforts to introduce its practices as a third academic platform in the British education system. In “Designerly Ways of Knowing,” Cross argues that design education complements traditional math/sciences and humanities platforms while addressing a gap in teaching critical thinking skills. His term for describing this third problem-solving mindset, is ‘designerly ways of knowing’.1

It is my belief that re-designing education in the twenty-first century benefits from incorporating acts of tangible making—drawing and modeling—like those practiced in the professional design fields. In these practices, making is more than part of the problem-solving process. It is the primary conduit for inquiry, evaluation, and communication. Its artifacts are externalized evidence of a thought process, produced within a situated culture, and reflective of investigative dialogues between a maker’s mind, hand, and eye. The material artifacts which result are thus imbued with thought, inscribed by the maker into the object through the act of making.

The US Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills developed a set of core competencies and dispositions, known as 21st Century Skills. They promote both engaged learning and problem-solving acumen, at the center of which are the ‘4 Cs’: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication. These principles underpin multiple literacies including information management, media and technology skills, flexibility, leadership, initiative, productivity, and social interaction. ‘Design Education’ advocates claim its methodologies and practices support student attainment of these competencies and dispositions because they are inherently transdisciplinary as they engage open-ended questions and ‘wicked problems’. Design Education is a signature pedagogy able to cultivate twenty-first century critical thinking skills. Its transdisciplinary curriculum is fundamentally different from cross-disciplinary curricula, such as STEM and STEAM. These retain the separate teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; however, a transdisciplinary curriculum is the point of origin, the center from which inquiries extend toward what needs to be learned and understood. Rather than a Venn diagram of overlapping interests, Design Education is a hub, with spokes into other academic subject areas. Inquiry is driven by need rather than mandate.

For example, in my 8th grade applied arts class, students interview an adult about a small, meaningful object. The students then proceed through a design process to create a container for this object. Over time, and through an iterative process of drawing, sketching, and prototype model building, they encounter and address a host of criteria and problems: dimensions, fastening methods, material behaviors, physical and optical access, the story of opening and closing the container, making technologies (both analog and digital), and graphic representation. Each of these inquiries, in turn, extends toward an academic subject be it math, material science, biology and ergonomics, literacy, or technology.

Fortunately, during the last three decades, design thinking and education practices have emerged in several K-12 settings, including the Fallingwater Institute, design-ed (, Design Learning Network (, Design Research Society, and the Design Interest Group (DIG), a special interest member group within the National Art Education Association (NAEA). All advocate for the capacity of Design Education to support the learning of 21st Century Skills. Yet, their message has not found broad acceptance in mainstream K-12 settings. In April 2021 the American Institute of Architects (AIA), recognizing both the need for a more diverse pipeline and the educational benefits of introducing the profession in K-12 settings, released two informative guides targeting students and school counselors. Albeit useful, these guides offer young students limited direct experiential understanding of the profession. Moreover, in the absence of more holistic guidelines, contemporary Design Education curricula remain local, ad hoc, and organic. Offerings are either an exception to the school’s main curriculum or a boutique pedagogy provided by external consultants, operating parallel but not integral to the standing school curriculum.

There is much enthusiasm for re-designing education by adopting design thinking, even if there remains a lack of clarity in how to do so. This makes existing programs vulnerable to a fate like CHAD’s (The Charter High School for Architecture + Design). Founded by the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA in 1999, CHAD’s mission was to increase the number of minorities in the design fields so that our professions might start to resemble the world at large, rather than remain a privileged, white, male dominated enclave. From the corner of 7th Street and Sansom Streets, for 20 years, CHAD served over 600 students annually from 53 zip codes. Teaching at CHAD for 11 years and as Director of Design Education, my faculty and I built a robust curriculum. Most students arrived in the 9th grade with no prior design experience; often their Philadelphia middle schools did not offer art. They arrived testing between 4th and 6th grade levels for math and literacy and CHAD was expected to elevate their proficiency to grade level. This insurmountable task was part of the Philadelphia School District’s ill-conceived rationale for closure.

Without portfolio or application requirements, many students did not enroll into CHAD for the design curriculum. Yet, thrust into a design-based curriculum, students discovered a different intelligence—that of their hands, found through making. By their senior year, students majored in Architecture, Fashion Design, Fine Art, Graphic Design, Industrial/Product Design, or Photography. They matriculated into college design programs around the country, often with substantial financial aid or full scholarships. Alumni are now contributing members of society in or parallel to design professions: Quinta Brunson, of the acclaimed television series Abbott Elementary; Quil Lemons, celebrity and fashion photographer; Sean Canty, Assistant Professor of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

The Philadelphia School District (PSD) gave little credit to CHAD for fulfilling its equity-centered mission: to increase access to design education for immigrant communities and communities of color both of whom remain significantly. In 2020, mid-pandemic, the PSD closed CHAD, in part based on test scores. With the closing of CHAD, this access no longer exists in Philadelphia.

Should the K-12 design education movement continue to grow, which appears likely, engaging how best to integrate its practices and requirements into existing K-12 settings is essential. No widely accepted guidelines or frameworks exist in the United States for adopting design thinking and education in K-12. The workings of a typical secondary education, whose day is governed by class periods and bells, inhibits adoption of such practices. Because the benefits of design education remain unclear to those outside the field, it is unpersuasive to the very schools and districts whose students may most gain from this way of learning. These impediments harm under-resourced schools which perpetuate antiquated technocratic curricula and schools highly constrained by secondary education high-stakes testing. Clarifying its practices, illuminating design education’s pedagogical utility, and identifying impediments to broader adoption will enable a re-designing of education, offering more students the opportunity to think with their hands.


1. Nigel Cross, “Designerly Ways of Knowing,” Design Studies, 1982 3 (4), 221-227.

Andrew Phillips is the Chair of the School of Design at Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School and was the Director of Design Education at the now defunct Charter High School for Architecture and Design.


The mosh pit. Miranda Davis and Santino Borgesi prepare their final models for dDay presentations. Kyla Fox and Kayla Goodwin finish fabrication on their container for a precious object. Frank Farmer, Simon Morris, and Michael Landy build exhibit panels for dDay. Julia Rudi and Samantha Di Angelo are also pictured. Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, 21 May 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School

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