The Versatility of Design Thinking

Emily Coleman
Emily Coleman
ELL academic support specialist; Ph.D. candidate in Strategic Leadership and Administrative Studies with Education concentration
Colorful design thinking icons on a black background.

What is Design Thinking?

As educators, we all strive to see continuous growth from every single one of our students. We encourage them every day to do their best and to challenge themselves by taking on more challenging assignments and activities.

Design thinking is a mindset that will change the way our students approach problems, for the better. Design thinking is a concept that has been used by many businesses and other industries for a very long time. They create spaces, products, and situations by always thinking about the experience their users will have. They put themselves in the shoes of their consumers and think about their problems and try to overcome them through the lens of the user.

More and more educators are now incorporating design thinking into their curriculum and daily lessons. Design thinking gets students to work in creative ways to solve real-world problems. Students end up creating meaningful, project-based assignments.

What is the Design Thinking Process?

There are five steps that teachers and students will follow during the design process. The hope is that the teacher will model and instruct the students through every step until the students just start solving problems through these stages on their own. When a student adapts this mindset, there will be no problem that will seem to challenging to attempt.

Step 1 – Empathize

We need to teach our students what empathy is and how we empathize with others. We need to use an easy definition and many examples so that they can understand and apply it to the problem at hand. Teachers present a problem to the students and ask them to think about how those affected by it might feel. We want our students to have the same feelings as the people facing the problem.

Step 2 – Define

Next, students are tasked with working with one another (partner or small group) to come up with a clear definition of the challenge or problem. This will make sure that the students are addressing the actual problem that is affecting the people at hand.

Step 3 – Ideate

Ideate is the time for students to brainstorm ways to solve the problem. Be sure to set boundaries or rules for this time so that all students can participate in a non-judgmental way. Remind students that even the craziest idea might be the one that will be best to solve the problem. Allow for the students’ creative juices flow during this time.

Step 4 – Prototype

Students and teachers will really enjoy this step. This is when the lesson comes to life. Teachers will ask students to look at the ideas they came up with to solve the problem during the previous step and choose one. They are then tasked with designing and building the prototype. Teachers can give students clay, manipulatives, magnets, or even just a paper to draw on for the students to come up with their creations.

Step 5 – Test

The final step is to test out the invention and explain how it is going to solve the problem. Students can verbally explain their drawing if it is not an actual prototype. This step is important because students will most likely have to test and go back to the prototype stage several times to get the final product. This is a great lesson for students to see why we have to test items and go back to the drawing board to get the product to where it needs to be.

Ways to Use Design Thinking in the Classroom

An authentic way to incorporate this into your classroom is by having students brainstorm problems in their cities, states, or even the world. You can have the mayor of your town come into your class to discuss issues that she/he knows exist. A teacher can ask other guest speakers to address his/her class.

The point of having students make the list of problems and choose one is they will feel ownership to the project and will be even more engaged. Once the class has selected a problem to work on, don’t forget to model the steps. The students need to be taught explicitly because this could be the first time they are tasked with becoming design thinkers.

Then, pair the students up and have them ask each other about the problem. Hearing another person’s perspective and thoughts about the problem can make students think about the problem in a way they did not previously.

Then, show the class the materials they will have access to when building the prototype. They can then begin working on their creation and sharing them with their partners. They should be encouraged to work and re-work their prototypes.

Finally, the guest speakers who came at the beginning of the lesson to talk about problems in the community and other community members should be invited to see what the students have created. Students will be very proud and excited to show off their designs to community members. This type of project-based learning is an amazing way to make school-community connections while getting our students to be truly innovative.

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