Design Thinking: A Catalyst for Classroom Change

Design thinking is a powerful way to teach students how to become thoughtful, engaged problem-solvers and future leaders.

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Design Thinking in the Classroom

Design thinking is a concept that originated in the 1960s, when it first emerged in the field of architecture design (hence the name). The idea centers on employing a unique process to identify and solve problems through core steps: empathizing with our target audience, defining the problem, ideating possible solutions, prototyping a solution, and then testing that solution to find ways to iterate and improve.

In recent years, design thinking has caught fire among educators who understand just how much we need to prepare our students for an uncertain future. While we cultivate problem-solving skills among our students, we must also cultivate problem-finding abilities. And while we can encourage our students to achieve excellence, we can also coach them to think about how their efforts can serve others in their community.

Design thinking is a powerful way to accomplish this. In its focus on defining and solving problems, design thinking reminds us to put the person we’re serving at the center of our decision making.

In the classroom, we can teach students to become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders – not just by expressing themselves and their opinions but by listening and learning to those around them, and developing something to improve their lives. As educators, we can also invigorate our learning communities if we consider ourselves designers, dedicated to building off small prototypes that are meant to improve the experience of our learners.

So how can you begin integrating design thinking into your classroom?

Build first.

You don’t have to start the process from the top with interviews or observations. I have found students new to the design mindset will get impatient with the “thinking” component.

Instead, start by presenting a challenge for your students and ask them to “build” a solution to it. For example, you can always ask your students to quickly prototype a new layout for your classroom, or you can challenge them to create a new organizational system for classroom supplies. After they build a prototype, have some of your students observe how others are using the new layout or system. That’s when you’ll incorporate the empathy-driven aspect, and you’ll also get them thinking about how they might iterate their designs based on how they see others responding to them.

Tap into regularly scheduled activities.

While I love a six-week long design project that integrates with my learning standards, you don’t need to jump straight into adding design thinking into your lesson plans.

Look at your students’ schedules and determine if there may be an opportunity to evaluate or improve. Perhaps you always feel rushed during the morning process of getting students settled and starting class. Could they help design a different morning routine? Or, if you have a holiday like Valentine’s Day coming up, engage students in empathy-driven design to create a gift to take home to a family member or friend.

Center projects around student passions.

Teachers consistently design for their students. Invoke design thinking by exploring what makes students excited.

For instance, if your kids are excited about an upcoming class guest, challenge them to think about what would make that guest enjoy their experience. Have them prepare questions to ask the guest before he/she arrives to inform your planning, role play or storyboard scenarios for how the class could interact with the guest, prototype how you will set up the room, and finally, ask the guest for feedback after the visit. Alternatively, maybe library time is a highlight of their day. Can they deploy their emerging empathic abilities to design a recommended reading list for younger students?

Keep it simple.

You don’t need a huge budget, 3D printers, or fancy supplies to incorporate design thinking into your classroom. In fact, you can amplify the creativity you ask of your students by giving them everyday office supplies to prototype their design solutions. Some of the most creative and interesting design solutions I’ve seen students develop have started as models made out of paperclips, post-it notes, and crayons.

Tap into the design thinking community.

There is an expansive design thinking community online, which offers many great resources. Here are just a few to get you started:

  • Stanford offers an array of toolkits and starter projects for you and your students to get acquainted with design methodologies and mindsets.
  • The Teacher's Guild by IDEO is a community of teacher-designers who collaborate on design challenges relevant to improving student experience.
  • Leadership+Design offers empowering learning experiences for educators who want to develop the habits, skills, and mindsets of designers and innovators.
  • You can also follow the #dk12chat conversation on Twitter.

While exploring new teaching styles can be challenging, design thinking is both invigorating and liberating for all involved. And the best part: We can have a lasting impact on our children if we cultivate the habits, mindsets, and skill sets that they can learn through this process.


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Author Bio:

Joe Romano (@romano47) is a Library Media Specialist at Annie Wright Schools, where is also teaches Humanities and Architecture and Design.

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