From unknown solutions to urban discoveries

From unknown solutions to urban discoveries
September 19, 2018
Trista Sobeck

How a doctoral student is solving wicked problems in an urban environment

Imagine being part of a process that allows you the freedom to solve a challenge with no predetermined “right” answer. If there were answers to choose from, they still would not be correct because you would be missing a key component — empathy — and your thinking would be severely limited.

The process —design thinking   has roots in product creation and improvement and is increasingly popular for solving modern challenges, including planning communities, creating startup companies, examining health care services and now, creating schools that are designed for learners in specific urban areas.


Urban Discovery

One such place is located in downtown San Diego, California, and is home to Urban Discovery Schools. It is a free public charter school system serving grades transitional kindergarten (T/K) through 12, comprising Urban Discovery Academy T/K–8 and IDEATE High Academy 9–12. In addition to teaching the requisite subjects typically found in any school, it also emphasizes design thinking, project-based learning and social responsibility.

With a significant waiting list, the school system has recently announced that it will be expanding with an additional two-acre campus with three integrated school facilities, to make a meaningful contribution to downtown San Diego, its community members and children.

The new campus, called the Design Thinking Education Center, will host a second T/K–8 location, an expanded high school campus and a design thinking community learning and project center.

Shawn T. Loescher, chief executive officer of Urban Discovery, is not only a community leader; he also holds several degrees in education, holds clear credentials for teaching and administration, and is currently a doctoral candidate at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. He will graduate with his EdD in Leadership and Innovation this December.

Loescher is currently running a groundbreaking school and working to solve complex social, economic and infrastructure problems with urban environments. And he’s also a career educator. “I began my career as an educator as a teacher’s aide at the age of 17 — a path that led to pre-K–12 teaching, adjunct professorship, administrative work and cabinet-level school district leadership in a diverse group of settings, schools and education systems domestically and abroad,” he says.

His resume doesn’t end there: Loescher has presented to the California Senate Education Committee on the topic of career readiness and post-secondary preparedness, and he has been responsible for the implementation of many grants. Now, he serves as chief executive officer of Urban Discovery which is a designated significantly expanding charter school system based upon design thinking with a focus on education and urban issues.

Design thinking and education

Loescher explains that there is a growing demand for professionals who understand the theory, methods and practices of design thinking. “Design thinking is an in-demand skill that is essential to advance our innovation economy, address the critical social issues of our time and those that we will face in the future,” he explains. “It is about creative problem-solving that fully acknowledges the complex interconnections of people, context, products, services and society.” 

But the question remains: Exactly how does design thinking fold into solving systematic challenges that exist within our education system, especially in urban settings where equity may be sparse or not even exist? “We have often been focused on a solution to the problems we are facing," explains Loescher. “This is what has sometimes been referred to as the ‘silver bullet syndrome.' 
At its core, design thinking rejects this idea and situates the problems we face in education and in urban settings as being highly connected to other issues."

The concept of the Wicked Problems Theory by Rittel and Webber proposes that any complex social problem is a symptom of another complex social problem.


“Design thinking creates a framework for how we might approach those issues using empathy rather than listing readily available solutions and options,” explains Loescher. Look at the idea of student achievement as an example. “To address student achievement, design thinking asks how we know what we think we know and if there are other ways that we can empathize with what we are seeing,” he says.

It supports an integrated approach to learning. While there is still math, science, engineering, arts, technology, English, cultural studies, social studies and music, each subject is taken into account with the others.

“This style of learning has students making deeper connections within subject areas, across subject areas, and developing the critical thinking skills they need to be ready to address the issues they will find in a complex world,” explains Loescher. 

"The action research approach that we use and that Shawn has experienced in the program is relevant to the kinds of iterative, real-world design thinking practices that are being used in this innovative school setting," explains Danah Henriksen, a professor of Loesher's in the EdD program. "In particular, one of the first concepts our students learn about in the program is that of 'wicked problems,' which are the messy, complex, shifting and value-driven societal issues that we face in education. This is a powerful way to understand problems in practice, and it's exciting to see Shawn taking the critical theory that he has learned here into professional problem framing," she adds.

Wicked problems

Loescher continues, "Education alone cannot work through issues that face urban environments — poverty, homelessness, segregation, access to transportation or even quality health care. We believe design thinking can lend a framework that is focused on understanding through empathy before assuming there is a definition or a solution for a problem we are working on."


One of the more attractive attributes of design thinking is that anyone anywhere can use it. “Design thinking can be used within any school structure as a way of addressing curriculum, instruction, student achievement, operations and community issues,” Loescher says. What you will end up with is a possible solution that you can prototype, refine and test. “It is about taking research-based action that orientates the context around the people that comprise it,” he concludes. 

Education is complex in that it touches so many facets of society. Loescher explains that design thinking easily allows for anyone who wants to solve a community-based problem to turn to our schools and institutions that are working on new ways to increase the experience for all stakeholders, including children. 

Want to learn more about the doctoral degree that inspires Loescher to continue with his work? The EdD in Innovation and Leadership is specifically designed for practicing educator-leaders.