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How to use design thinking in the classroom

Design Thinking: The phrase has become ubiquitous at education conferences and during professional development. With the rebellion against standardized tests and “one-size-fits-all” schools, design thinking has become, for some, the antidote to the industrialization of education.

But when we drill down to how design thinking is actually demonstrated in schools, we often find nothing more than annual challenges to create towers out of spaghetti and marshmallows. How can educators ensure that design thinking becomes a meaningful educational strategy, rather than just another passing trend?

What is design thinking?

You may find many versions of the process online, such as this popular graphic from the Stanford d.School. Though the vocabulary may vary a bit, the concept is the same - that design thinking is used to identify an open-ended problem and look at it from multiple perspectives. Then, possible solutions are suggested and prototypes developed and tested. Depending on the results of the tests, one may need to do several iterations of potential solutions before settling on a final project to present.

Read more: Thinking about design thinking in education

Why should we teach design thinking?

The advocates for teaching design thinking often explain that we must teach our children “to be creators, not just consumers.” For a long time, the school system has been centered around distributing information, and many believe that this is creating generations of compliant, inflexible thinkers.

Design thinking, when implemented well, can disrupt this system and empower our students to think independently.

How can we do this?

Design thinking should be taught explicitly and implicitly. Rather than being a lone unit in the curriculum, design thinking should be incorporated throughout a child’s school career with teachers modeling it and giving students multiple opportunities to apply it. Connections should be made often to real-life examples of design thinking successes and failures.

Define the problem: Teach metacognitive skills - thinking about your thinking

Have you ever had a student give you a creative answer to a math problem, or a literal answer to a writing prompt? These are students who may not be aware of the difference between convergent (logical) and divergent (creative) thinking, and are trying to use strategies that have already met with success - but on the wrong type of problem.

If you want to use Design Thinking in your classroom, make it a habit to help them identify what kind of thinking is required before they embark on any type of learning challenge. If your students are too young to distinguish between convergent and divergent, ask them, “Is this a problem that can only have one right answer, or can it have many?”

Empathize: Give students an opportunity to design for each other

Empathy is a key part of design thinking, but cultivating this skill in children can be challenging. It’s important to give students a mixture of opportunities allowing them to create for themselves and for others.

Read more: Teaching empathy for better learning outcomes

With younger students, I like to do a project in which they have to design something for one of their peers, whose identity is a secret. They each fill out forms with code names, favorite colors, etc…, and then each student gets another student’s form. They know that they are designing a bookmark, bubble wand, or other project for someone in the class, and they know someone else in the class is designing something for them. By making the identities secret, the students can only rely on the information on the forms to make design choices - rather than popularity.

Ideate: Practice brainstorming daily

As mentioned in this article, the concept of generating many ideas without judgement is very difficult for a number of students because they believe that only certain people can think creatively. One step to combat this is to show students how the regular practice of brainstorming can improve this skill.

Whether it is while the students are in line for lunch or part of an actual assignment, make it part of your schedule to have small contests that reward the quantity of ideas instead of quality (very challenging for beginner brainstormers!). This post gives some tips for some brainstorming games.

Prototype: Model mistakes and your reaction to them

If we want students to fully embrace the design thinking process, they must not be fearful of making mistakes. The classroom culture must support this all day every day - not just when they are designing. We can show students that mistakes are not the end of the world by pointing out our own, and giving positive examples of learning from those mistakes.

Students who are perfectionists and petrified of doing something incorrectly will have a hard time with design thinking, so it’s the educator’s job to give the consistent message that the only bad mistakes are the ones that we don’t learn from. Find here some inspirational videos that communicate this growth mindset.

Read more: What’s edtech got to do with growth mindset?

Test: Ask for feedback and make changes accordingly

It’s hard enough when students realize their own errors, but it can be even more difficult when someone else points them out. If students are in a classroom where they usually just receive “terminal feedback” (advice given when they are finished and are not given the opportunity to act upon), they will not be open to comments from others -- a vital part of the design thinking process.

Conversely, if the teacher gives timely feedback as students are working, along with encouragement to make changes throughout, learners see this as a habit that is essential to doing well.

It’s also a good idea for the teacher to regularly seek feedback from the students, and model changes that can be made based on their suggestions.

Present the solution: Have an authentic audience for projects

Students are more than happy to create projects for themselves, but they don’t necessarily subject themselves to high standards if they think their design will ultimately end up in the garbage or underneath their bed at home.

There is little inclination to do their best if A.)they don’t feel connected to the project and B.) they have reason to believe that the project is meaningless. Knowing that people outside the classroom, such as charities, industry experts, and members of the local community, will be the final assessors of what has been accomplished can be a strong motivator.

When possible, students should be using design thinking to create solutions to genuine problems, preferably ones that they have observed in their own lives. This gives a sense of authenticity to learning.

Read more: 9 Characteristics of authentic learning

Final thoughts

Some people may make the mistake that Design Thinking must involve technology such as 3D printers or robots. Although those things can, due to their novelty, engage students, they are not required. It is quite possible that many of our students may live out lives where they never interact with these objects outside of school.

What is necessary, however, is that they can be nimble thinkers who recognize when creativity is appropriate for a situation, and have the skills needed to employ it.