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What Can Design Thinking and Making Offer Technical Communication Pedagogy?

Johnson-Eilola and Selber (2013) considered problem-solving as a productive characterization for it acknowledges the extent to which our field contributes to technological development and its use, the interpretation of rhetorical situations, and the design of viable solutions based on context, complexity of the tasks and their characteristics. Making and design thinking offer a social and materialist dimension to such problem solving in technical communication. To date, most literature cites constructionism and constructivism as underlying principles for maker and design based instruction (Donaldson, 2014; Vaughn, 2017). Constructivism is more prominent in writing studies history, which is grounded in the works of Jean Piaget (1952, 1957, 1973), Lev Vygotsky (1978a, 1978b), and Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966, 1996). A constructivist approach to epistemology' holds that meanings are created based on our constant interactions with the physical, mental, and social worlds we inhabit, and we negotiate those meanings by building and adjusting our internal knowledge structure and organizing our perception and reflection on reality (Swan, 2005). Whereas constructivism is a theory of knowledge that sees learning as an active, social process in which students reconstruct knowledge rather than simply receive a transmission of knowledge from a teacher, constructionism is a theory of learning that suggests that the internal construction of knowledge is most readily achieved when the student is also engaged in the active construction of a personally meaningful and tangible product (Papert, 1980, 1993). For constructionists, emphasis is put on creating and discovering, and tapping into the learner’s natural inclinations toward problem-solving.

Design thinking and making are pedagogical etforts that involve creating opportunities that let students attempt to solve problems that are complex in nature. The constructivist-constructionist nature of making and design thinking acknowledges learning as something that comes from the learner’s question or impulse and is not imposed by the instructor. This empowers learners to connect with everything they know, feel, and wonder, stretching themselves into learning new things, and liberating them from their dependency on being taught (Blikstein, Martinez, & Pang, 2015). Both design thinking and making also stress that students learn best by creating tangible objects through authentic, real life learning opportunities that allow for a guided, collaborative process which incorporates peer feedback. A signature activity in such process is fondly known as the “design challenge” (described in the next chapter), which typically revolves around complex social problems that requires the participants to work in cross- fimctional teams and exercise the design thinking methodology—empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. We have affirmation from industry practitioners that design challenges can promote collaboration and critical problem-solving, and are becoming a staple creative activity in the UX profession (“Why you should,” 2018).

The material dimension of situated problem solving has been a notable focal point in writing studies scholarship (Haas, 1996; Haas & Witte, 2001; Rifenburg, 2014). Programmatically speaking, design thinking and making enable a “multimodal pedagogy” that Andrew Bourelle, Tiffany Bourelle, and Natasha Jones (2015, p. 309) forwarded. Taking heed from Claire Lauer (2009), who contended there must be “an understanding of design-as-process and the situated choices and strategies students need practice developing” (p. 237), Bourelle et al. (2015) showed that a multimodal approach to technical communication pedagogy can prepare students for future industry projects. By emphasizing materiality and rhetorical choices in the problem-solving process, making and design thinking in the technical communication classroom may achieve these goals.

A Note on Methods

The three succeeding chapters feature multiple case studies that used mixed methods— e.g., interviewing, survey, ethnography, and collaborative autoethnography—for data collection and analysis. Whenever available and appropriate, I include verbatim quotes from participants of my studies to draw attention to their voices. As a qualitative researcher, I am most invested in identifying emergent points of interest through particular instances rather than making generalizations through large data sets. The findings from the ensuing studies provide unique insights about the affordances of design-centric practices in pedagogy and the profession.

Each highlights an aspect of design and making that could enrich our existing work. Together, they help paint the bigger picture of design thinking approaches in technical communication. Readers may notice that I do not draw specific conclusions from the studies—whether we should or should not employ certain practices—because that is not the goal of this project. Instead, I am motivated to reveal what happens when we integrate design thinking with our classroom and workplace, and to offer suggestions for those who are interested in experimenting with such integration. Afterall, design thinking celebrates a pioneering spirit and embraces both success and failure.

 
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