Conceptualising, evaluating and enhancing a design thinking curriculum using a critical realist perspective
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This research involved the design, evaluation and enhancement of a design thinking curriculum for first-year, undergraduate product design and business students, using critical realist ontological perspectives, and an approach that integrated a critical realist theorising methodology within case studies that formed units of analysis in action research cycles. Design thinking was conceptualised as a set of practices that enables people to explore, reframe and propose solutions to complex and ill-defined problems across a range of contexts. Successful exercise of the practices and specific skills (mechanisms) associated with design thinking requires students to have relevant conceptual, procedural and conditional knowledge, specific mindsets and sensorimotor capabilities (attributes). A curriculum was defined as a set of views about the features of a learning environment that would enhance the probability of students’ successful learning. The project was founded on the researcher’s interest in design thinking and the use of rigorous research for curriculum design, evaluation and enhancement purposes. It also took account of a review of literature, which indicated gaps and limitations in design thinking education, including application of critical realist ontological perspectives and the use of integrated critical realist, case study and action research methodologies to assist the iterative development of design thinking curricula. A critical realist paradigm position was utilised because it aligned with the researcher’s ontological and epistemological beliefs, and interest in identifying the mechanisms of entities in a learning environment that may influence students’ development of design thinking expertise. An initial ‘ideal’ design thinking curriculum was designed and enacted within a course for two product design students and a course for business students. For each of these case studies, tendencies in students’ response to the learning environment were identified drawing a mix of qualitative and quantitative data that were gathered using student interviews and questionnaire surveys, reviews of student project portfolios, and ongoing researcher observations and reflections. Explanatory theory concerning the relationship between students’ learning responses and the learning environment (influenced by the curriculum) was then developed using a critical realist theorising methodology that included abductive and retroductive reasoning processes. The theory focused on entities in the learning environment (e.g., students, teachers, learning resources and tools) that have mechanisms which are possible causal explanations for learning responses, as well as the attributes of entities (e.g., agency, cognitive maturity, font size and colour) and other conditions (e.g. timing) that might account for the exercise and outcomes of these mechanisms. This theory, which took account of potential context (case) differences, informed decisions about subsequent changes to components of the curriculum. The modified curriculum was enacted in another action cycle with further groups of product design and business students to evaluate the explanatory power of the theory and the practical adequacy of its use for curriculum enhancement. Three of these action cycles were completed. The findings indicate strong positive tendencies in all students’ responses to the curriculum across the three cycles. The research identifies influential causal mechanisms, attributes and other conditions, and highlights ways of adjusting the curriculum to acknowledge differences in students’ design knowledge and learning histories. Critical realism-based conceptualisations of learning, learning environments, curriculum and design thinking are presented, along with proposals for a ‘signature’ learning environment for design thinking, a comprehensive design thinking expertise framework and an end-of-project ‘ideal’ curriculum. A critical discussion is provided of issues and opportunities associated with the use of a critical realist perspectives and and approaches in higher education curriculum research.