Teaching Design Thinking: Units and Advice from Educators
By Kelby Zenor, Rubicon International
Teaching kids to think is a fun but challenging topic. Students need to be able to take in ideas, process them, and then distill them into new ideas. However, how students learn to think can be vastly different, and unique to the person teaching them.
This idea spurred us to look for “how” teachers get students to think, broaden their scope of understanding, and problem solve. We were amazed at the diverse inclusion of the Design Thinking Process into units of instruction. We found everything from teachers who teach whole courses on the process, to units within Social Studies, Art, Science and Tech courses that integrate it into core content.
Some of us might remember that groundbreaking Nightline episode (I am dating myself with this reference, aren’t I?) on IDEO, and the process they used to design new products. For many educators still learning to incorporate Design Thinking into their curriculum, there is a high probability that they have seen and even showed this video to students. From university programs (thank you, Stanford) to TED Talks, resources that support educators in learning how to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test their thinking with students are abundant.
Below, we asked a few teachers to share how they have brought Design Thinking into their courses. We also asked what advice they would give a teacher looking to start using the process in their curriculum, and what they find really engages students.
Learning from Failure
Chris McCullough – Ridgewood Public Schools, NJ
Insights: Taking risks, learning from failure, and seeking critical feedback from users are core elements of the course. However, these are also things that high school students seem to really struggle with. These elements not only require students to step outside of their comfort zone, but can also be rather different from how some school programs might function. It took longer than expected to get students to embrace these elements. I would suggest really framing these concepts as critical elements, and to structure class (and assessments) to reflect the values of risk taking, learning from failure, and collecting valuable feedback. This class should feel and operate very differently from what might be considered “traditional”.
Why a Course: Schools need to provide students with the skills necessary to succeed in today’s world. Design Thinking helps individuals become better problem solvers and team members, while also fostering their creative minds. These abilities are becoming increasingly critical in our flatter world, where access to information is freely available to everyone. Our global community now needs individuals who can analyze information, identify problems, work collaboratively, collect valuable feedback, and think creatively to solve problems. Coaching our students to be “Design Thinkers” will help set them on a path to see themselves as “doers” that can create and positively add to society.
Stretching Students’ Imaginations
Laura Gleeson – Bayview Glenn, Toronto, Canada
Insights: My advice to any teacher who is just beginning to use Design Thinking with students is to dive right in. Design Thinking has changed the way I develop my lessons, and I have seen a different side of my students and the way they think. For example, students are asked to use empathy in the first step of the model, and put themselves in others shoes. Through the model they can define their ideas, and really make them specific. Teachers need to get their students excited about the idea of design. Design can be creating something unique that doesn’t exist yet in the world, but also simply creating a modification for something that already exists, in order to make it better. Working from brainstorms, to warm up activities before the real breakdown of the Design Thinking model is taught, is important. A good starting point is finding a problem your students can solve through the use of the Design Thinking model.
Student Engagement: The way I engage my students with Design Thinking is through igniting excitement over the term “design”. Having students realize that many occupations and subjects require design of some sort is a good starting point. I also make sure to do several Design Thinking warm-ups before getting into the theory behind Design Thinking. For example, having class brainstorms about “the number of ways to use a paper clip” or “the number of ways you can use a coffee cup” has the students thinking outside of the box. This is quite an amusing activity, and requires them to stretch their imagination and break traditional views they may have of these items. Answers to the brainstorm start very basic and grow from there: a coffee cup being used to hold hot liquids, to a coffee cup can be used as a small house for a field mouse. This outside of the box thinking is important before an assignment is introduced. The assignments I create also engage the students because I make them applicable to their daily lives, and I find they are more motivated to create a unique design because of that. My assignment topics change frequently, but range from solving a problem at the school, to designing something to enhance an area of their life. For example, students created a Kleenex box holder, which stuck to the roof of the car with a piece of Velcro because the Kleenex box in their car always got stepped on. The students identified a problem, and created a solution, which they eventually 3D printed. I have found that students enjoy taking their thoughts and ideas and refining them, and that actually creating something physical they can hold and really test is the best!
Susan Vala – Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, NJ
Insights: Advice I would give, as I have experimented with various ways to present the concept to students, is to make sure to spend some time on understanding the steps in the design thinking process. Using video clips of examples of empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test is a good way to start. Using the terminology as frequently as possible also helps. Have students tell about the steps in their own words.
Student Engagement: My thoughts on how my students will engage in Design Thinking, is that everything we “make” or design should be with purpose and empathy for another. We have many technologies, both high tech and low tech as well as varied materials in our space. However, making for the sake of making is not the focus. An example that I use: A student told me that she wanted to 3D print a cat. My response was: What if you could make something to help a cat – to make life better for a cat? We use “what if?” often. Looking for real-life opportunities to help others is also something we hope to do.
Process Not Product
Ashley Hayes – Shanghai SMIC Private School, China
Insights: It took time and training for students to get comfortable with design thinking because there is no one answer or defined solution. Often they would seek feedback by asking “Is this right?” I had to step back and give them the control, which gave them the space to develop confidence in their ideas. I would tell any teacher just starting to use design thinking to treat your students as real designers and give them the freedom to make mistakes. Some of the most innovative ideas came from students who tested out many different solutions and learned from trial and error. Additionally, I would tell teachers to put emphasis on the process, rather than the product. So much of what students can learn from design thinking is intangible; such as problem solving, communication, and collaboration. Emphasize this to students and make these things part of your assessment.
Student Engagement: I used design thinking in an 8th grade art class and connected it to one of our school goals of campus beautification. Students worked in small groups to answer the question “How can we improve the school campus to better fit the needs of students in the 21st century?” They began by interviewing other members of the school community and used this research to develop ideas for their project. Once they defined their project goals, they made a prototype by creating a 3D model from various types of paper and cardboard. These designs were later reviewed by members of the campus beautification committee who incorporated students’ designs in to the redecoration of the locker area.
Stay Focused on the Process
Ruairi Cunningham – Gems International School, Al Khail, United Arab Emirates
Insights: I would allow the students to give their thoughts as always. However, it needs to be carefully managed so that it doesn’t turn into moaning about what the school does, or does not, have.
Student Engagement: On the whole, the students really engaged with the idea of thinking differently, and it was an enjoyable unit.
Empathy and Problem Solving
Shane Diller – The Steward School, Richmond, VA
Insights: I’d tell that teacher to be okay with being uncomfortable with not being an expert. The unit is really fueled by kids. The trick is not to tell them how to do design thinking, but to push them in it. Constantly ask “Why?,” and make them take things a step further. But also, make them take a step back. The teacher is there to share their experience with the world. So, while kids may hone in on a problem to tackle, they may narrow their focus entirely too much. Have the teacher help them look at how the problem fits into other pieces of their life.
Student Engagement: One activity I have students do is to list a problem they’ve been having, and then partner up. Their partner, let’s say Person B, will interview Person A about Person A’s problem. So they don’t solve their own problems, somebody else has to. They also had to take a design thinking step “Empathize, Design, Ideate, Prototype, Test,” and make a visual representation of it in the form of a “thinking cap.” For it to be successful, people would have to look at that piece of headwear and clearly recognize the word or step it is designed to indicate.