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8 Steps to Implementing Design Thinking in Your Classroom

Encourage deep problem solving with design thinking.

July 25, 2016
Robin Ulster
Educator/Curriculum Developer

CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Design thinking started as a way of thinking about how to creatively design indoor and outdoor spaces with an emphasis on solving problems in ways that benefit or increase interaction. To accomplish this goal, the process relies on empathy, brainstorming, and re-designing solutions, looping back repeatedly to try to see designs from the viewpoint of users. The business and product-design industries embrace design thinking because it provides a way to focus on user experiences -- now it’s time for our schools to embrace it! 

Hearts and minds pave the way for creative problem solving. 

As we use the design thinking approach in the classroom, we focus on key components such as empathy, the free flow of ideas, building prototypes, and gathering feedback, which results in creative solutions and ideas that might have never come to light otherwise. For example, in a design-sprint workshop this past spring, students were studying local and global problems and used design thinking to embrace creativity and solve some big problems!

As students worked on designing apps to solve some of these problems, they interviewed each other, sketched designs on index cards, and "tested" the usability and effect of their ideas.

This is how we do it.

In our classroom, we started a design thinking workshop where students started with lists of problems that they wanted to solve. As students worked on designing apps to solve some of these problems, they interviewed each other, sketched designs on index cards, and "tested" the usability and effect of their ideas. Our students worked by hand without technology in order to focus on being creative, as we didn't want students’ limited coding knowledge to interfere with their design solutions. After completing the initial app design, students adjust their sketches.

Student workOne great example was created by a third-grade student -- the concept app allowed parents and students to see who needs a ride and/or who had free space in their car. The app would use maps, social networks, and messaging to find the closest options for the users. If you offer a ride, you earn points, which can be redeemed later with other users. This app was designed to help solve the problem of global warming -- on a small scale.

Students applied their learning to create a campaign that would change behavior in the school.

In a workshop with seventh-grade students, we used The D.School at Stanford University project of designing a wallet as an introduction to design thinking. Students applied their learning to create a campaign that would change behavior in the school. Each student group tested their ideas (with permission from our principal) and analyzed their results, made adjustments, and reported back to the class. One of our most interesting campaigns was getting students to stop saying, "No offense," before they said something offensive.

Start implementing design thinking in your classroom!

To teach design thinking in your class, an easy first step is to use the free materials from the D.School, where students design something physical like a wallet. You can do it in 1-2 hours with your whole class. The hardest task is getting all of the materials ready. The lesson plans are very clear, as are the learning outcomes.

The next step is to make design thinking a part of your classroom. You don’t need to physically build things as long as students have materials to draw with. Here are eight steps to implementing design thinking in your classroom:

1.  Generate a list of problems students want to solve, which can be big or small, design based or issue based.
2.  Prepare materials to build and prototype with.
3.  Pair students up and have them interview each other about the problem. Asking questions and listening to answers is one of the most important parts of the process. Students might not interview each other at this point -- they might be paired up with the people affected by the problem.
4.  Give students time (but not too much time) to come up with some solutions to the problem, which they will sketch or plan out on paper.
5.  Pair up again to share ideas, explain, question, and take notes.
6.  Give students time to design and refine the prototype they chose with/for their partner.
7.  Pair up one more time for feedback.
8.  Make time for whole class or individual reflection.

This process can be completed in 90 minutes to two hours, or it can run for several days or weeks. If the problems you are tackling are complex and if students are going to actually build a solution, design thinking can transform a final assessment into a meaningful source of project-based learning.