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Design thinking in education

Students blend empathy and experimentation to impact environment through design thinking
  • ON A ROLL—Design thinking has spread throughout St. Vrain Valley Schools after being introduced in a high school STEM academy. The Colorado district will open a new elementary school focused on the approach in the 2018-19 school year.
  • FRESH MINDSET—Students at Glenbrook High Schools District 225 near Chicago have begun to use design thinking as teachers adopt the philosophy that encourages both educators and learners to be in the moment, to work together, to be human-centered and to explore new ideas.
  • FRESH MINDSET—Students at Glenbrook High Schools District 225 near Chicago have begun to use design thinking as teachers adopt the philosophy that encourages both educators and learners to be in the moment, to work together, to be human-centered and to explore new ideas.

Advocates of design thinking in education know what you’ve heard. “Its hard to look at design thinking and not see it as a buzzword,” says Ryan Bretag, director of instructional innovation at Glenbrook High Schools District 225 outside Chicago.

“When we narrow down design thinking to just a bunch of steps that you can follow and there’s no depth to those steps, then we’re missing the whole point.”

Design thinking has been around since the 1960s but reached K12 education only in the last decade. Some call it a revolution in learning, while others see it as just the latest fad, better left to Silicon Valley charter schools.


Sidebar: 5 phases of design thinking


Part of the problem is that design thinking can be hard to define and even harder to use in the classroom in a meaningful way. Bretag—a believer in the benefits of the approach—says he often hears people who are trying to understand design thinking ask, “How is that any different from project-based learning or the scientific method?”

Many describe design thinking as both a process and a mindset, a way of solving problems and of seeing the world.

Sam Seidel, director of K12 strategy and research at Stanford’s d.school, a leader in design thinking, says it represents a way of applying creativity to complex challenges: Students learn to empathize with the people they are trying to help, to design solutions, to test and refine, and to embrace failure as a learning opportunity.

Along the way they begin to navigate ambiguity, experiment and interpret results. This inherently optimistic process shows students that anyone can make the world a better place, says Becky Peters, program manager at the Innovation Center at St. Vrain Valley Schools (32,000 students) in Colorado, which has taught design thinking for nearly a decade.

“Everything around us is designed, and everything can be redesigned,” she says. “That’s really what we’re doing in education these days—helping students understand that they can have that kind of impact.”

Not everything looks like a nail

St. Vrain Valley started teaching design thinking in a high school STEM academy. That spread to the academy’s feeder schools and then throughout the district, thanks to a 2012 Race to the Top grant for STEM instruction.

Each summer the district hosts Innovation Academy, a two-week program in which elementary schoolers visit a nearby IBM facility to work with staff on design challenges to solve environmental problems.

This fall, the district will open an elementary school centered on design thinking, with concepts such as empathy and innovation at its foundation, and administrative decisions—from the curriculum to the format of parent-teacher conferences to master scheduling—made using design thinking.

“It’s not that everything looks like a nail, and this is a hammer,” says Peters. “We’re trying to figure what we need and what’s the best methodology for approaching it. A lot of time design thinking happens to be that methodology.”

Design thinking can’t be taught in isolation, but it can be used in a range of content-specific classes, from the humanities to STEM. St. Vrain Valley students as young as pre-kindergarten have followed design thinking to create biodegradable drinking straws, habitats for embattled honeybees, soccer balls for blind people and a hat that relieves headache symptoms. When the city of Longmont was preparing to redesign the playground at a public park, fourth-graders at nearby Indian Peaks Elementary School interviewed park users and prototyped designs that city planners used to craft the real thing.

New interests equal success

While design thinking may be a polarizing term, these sorts of lessons—where students design and test solutions—have mainstream appeal, says Henry Mann, program director at FUSE, an online STEAM program developed at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“There are teachers across every kind of school you can imagine who are desperately seeking out these kinds of experiences for their students,” he says.

FUSE started in 2012 in six schools; it is now in 140, from schools in rural Michigan to tech-centric academies in Brooklyn. Students choose from 30 challenges—they can design a house, a roller coaster or a car, for example. They gradually become the subject matter experts with teachers acting as facilitators.

Importantly, Mann says, students are not evaluated by the number of challenges they complete or by the quality of their finished products. They are assessed on whether they developed a new interest or new expertise, or whether they exhibited a greater level of collaboration, critical thinking or other soft skill.

“We talk about failing forward and all these different buzzwords around failure and learning—‘growth mindset,’ for example,” Mann says. “That’s all well and good, but until we think about how we redesign the actual infrastructure of learning and how we measure learning, a lot of that is just not going to come to pass.”

Getting teachers to use this level of creative problem-solving—let alone getting them to teach concepts like creativity, ideation and empathy—can be a big ask. But the more they practice design, the stronger the required mental muscles become, says Stanford’s Seidel.

The d.school offers in-person and online trainings in design thinking, including a 90-minute “crash course” webinar—enough to get an educator excited about the new approach.

But, Seidel adds, teachers will need more exposure than the crash course to use the process with students in a meaningful way. That exposure can come through formal training, seeing the process in action or through real-world practice.

The furniture formula

It is not just students who can benefit from exercises in design thinking. Glenbrook administrators got their own crash course three years ago, when the 5,000-student high school district set out to buy new classroom furniture.

Officials surveyed teachers, flipped through a catalog and weighed choices such as  tables versus desks, and chairs that swivel versus seats with four legs.

“It failed miserably,” Bretag says. “When you run a traditional process, often preference supersedes purpose.” So they tried again, this time using design thinking, and ended up reimagining the problem.

The question went from “What furniture should we get?” to “How can we improve the student experience?”

They spent more than a year talking to students and observing how they sat in their chairs. New questions that arose included “What does it mean when they can’t fidget, or when they can’t stand up or move around while they work?”

The district also consulted neuroscientists, social psychologists and experts in well-being and creativity. “We said ‘OK, how might we build spaces that foster this degree of well-being?’ And that was the eye-opening epiphany moment,” Bretag says.

Next came four rounds of prototyping, testing and redesigning classrooms. It was a longer process than anyone intended, but Bretag says the results were better than they expected. Instead of trying out furniture types they thought might work, the end result was classrooms designed to promote well-being and active learning.

So far the design thinking is not taught explicitly in Glenbrook’s classrooms. But it is included in new teacher orientation, and the district encourages teachers to draw on elements of design thinking every day: to be in the moment, work together, be human-centered and be open to new ideas rather than accepting something simply because that’s how it has always been.

If teachers can embody those principles, Bretag says, that’s how design thinking can reach students.


Abby Spegman is a freelance writer in Washington. 

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