Design Thinking in the K-12 Classroom

Why is there so much interest in Design Thinking in the K-12 space? I am sure there are many valid reasons, but one surely has to be that it is a workable platform for moving children away from outdated, compartmentalized rote learning practices. Teachers want to be able to move children away from defined problem, process, and solution towards a concentration on a process involving creative thinking around problem definition, thinking critically through possible solutions, and finally evaluating courses of action leading to the most effective solution. In Design Thinking, students work through these critical questions:

  • Why – what is happening, and why?
  • What – what can be done about it?
  • How – how are you going to do it?

Problems in the adult world are becoming increasingly complex owing to a larger number of decision variables, multiple stakeholders, and uncertainty. Parents want their children to learn skills that are transferrable between grades, and that ultimately will be usable in various careers ranging from finding a cure for cancer to complex business quandaries. Design Thinking is, however, a fairly complicated process, and it shows itself most effectively when solving complex problems. It is valid to ensure that children have certain understandings and knowledge prior to commencing with the Design Thinking process itself. For this reason, I worked with my non-profit education entity, the Boulder Center for Interactive Learning at Dawson (BCILD), and the sixth grade team at the independent coeducation Dawson School in Lafayette, Colorado to ascertain what prior learning most effectively supports a Design Thinking endeavor.

Interacting with the Design Thinking Process

Our findings suggested that children need to have four attributes in order to most effectively interact with the Design Thinking process. They are:

  1. A capacity for empathy
  2. An ability to synthesize information
  3. A capacity to ideate
  4. A creative sense of how to prototype their ideas.

Developing a sense of empathy largely revolves around an ability to ask probing questions, listen to the response, and then craft cogent follow-up questions. Through this process, students get an idea of what the true problem or challenge is facing the individual or organization. Targeted and accurate questioning firmly places the student in the center of the dilemma. Having an ability to synthesize information is a process, and the learned skill is being able to gather information and choose a well reasoned course of action. Linking groups of relevant ideas gleaned from the interview process makes for successful ideation. Having a capacity within the group to listen to, and share, the ideas of all group members enhances this process. Lastly, developing ways to successfully and accurately share their story with others makes the entire undertaking worthwhile.

We found, however, some essential skills that students need to know prior to embarking on the Design Thinking process itself. Learning to present your ideas clearly and succinctly is truly a learned skill often perfected through extended practice. Students should take every opportunity to present their ideas in as many forums as possible in order to be able to strike the right balance for any particular audience. Additionally, being able to give and receive accurate and insightful feedback vastly enriches both the experience of the individual, and the group. A thoughtfully constructed, and diligently followed feedback loop hones participants to what is essential and eliminates fruitless dark alleys!

Students should take every opportunity to present their ideas in as many forums as possible.

Putting Design Thinking Into Practice

In order to develop this capacity to think deeply and holistically through problems, teachers need to engage students creatively with classroom manipulatives and exercises designed to extend students’ thinking multi-dimensionally. Here are a few engaging ideas:

  • Many children certainly benefit from working with classroom manipulatives that offer opportunities to solve a wide variety of problems ranging from solving simple mathematical 3D models to more complex bridge building exercises with requirement constraints. Such hands-on work offers students tactile ways to think through problems using more than pencil and paper. The idea behind this thinking is that students can, and should, learn to approach problems and challenges from many directions.
  • To illustrate how one might teach the skill of broad thinking, ask students to describe an orange. It is orange in color, somewhat round, usually sweet to the taste etc. Now ask students to describe an orange by what it is not. This is a vastly more complex task since students would have to know about fruits in general to complete this task. For example, an orange is not yellow, elongated, it does not grow in a close bunch as do grapes, it is not red, its skin is not easy to bite into etc. This demonstrates a way of thinking that encourages a complete understanding of the problem, and broadens the perspective of the student.
  • For older elementary students, ask them to describe Abraham Lincoln. They will describe some of the features we all know that identify Lincoln physically, politically, and historically. They might say top hat, beard, Civil War, emancipation etc. Then ask students to describe Lincoln by what he was not. Students need to have a far wider body of knowledge to set Lincoln aside from all other US presidents. They would need to say not a New Deal president, not a 20th century president, not a WWII president, not a Founding Father etc. Now, they start to get a broader understanding of US and world history merely by describing Lincoln by who he was not as opposed to who he was.

The innovative teacher is dynamic, developing engaging ways to encourage students to think deeply about the topics they are working with in the classroom. Those skills that are transferrable one grade to another, and that can be built upon and applied to complex situations, will serve students well as they prepare themselves for the future.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.

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