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Design Thinking: Lessons for the Classroom

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation
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The Design Thinking Process

While design thinking has its roots in the innovation/design sector, the process itself can be used anywhere. Indeed, it is a great tool for teaching 21st century skills, as participants must solve problems by finding and sorting through information, collaborating with others, and iterating their solutions based on real world, authentic experience and feedback. (It is also a great tool to develop and run a school, but that's a different post for a different day.)

I had the good fortune to participate in a collaborative workshop at the Big Ideas Fest, where we practiced design thinking with about 12 other educators over a three-day period. The idea was to give us a first-hand experience with design thinking, and to demonstrate how the model could work within the classroom.

Practitioners of design thinking have different steps depending on their needs. At BIF2011, we used these steps:

1) Identify Opportunity
2) Design
3) Prototype
4) Get Feedback
5) Scale and Spread
6) Present

In design thinking, you work through the steps together in small groups (or "Collabs" as they were called at BIF2011). Our task was to explore the question: How might we create ways to assess learning geared to making tangible progress toward meaningful goals?

With driving question in hand, each Collab is led by a trained facilitator. There are basic ground rules for working together (like saying "yes, and" rather than "yes, but" when disagreeing with someone), and using elements from improv comedy to help maintain a culture of positivity, risk-taking, support and flexibility.

This is important, as the goal is to break through the negative thinking that plagues the big, thorny issues, and to come up with one prototype idea for solving one aspect of the problem.

This right here is another novel idea! We're not tasked with fixing the whole system. This is an approach positing that small changes in the right places can have big impacts on outcome.

Six Design Thinking Steps

To solve these problems, we follow this six-step format from design thinking:

Step 1: Identify Opportunity

To deepen our understanding of the issues surrounding inadequate assessment of 21st century skills, our cohort split into two groups, each of which interviewed two educators: a public school teacher who wanted to assess soft skills in addition to state standards; and an independent school teacher who wanted a means of assessing kids that didn't interrupt their learning.

These interviews gave our group a specific goal: What system or product could we come up with to meet the needs of these two educators in assessing 21st century skills?

Step 1 in the classroom: Identify a big issue that is plaguing your school or community. Is there a fundraising challenge? A school resource issue? A civic concern or an environmental problem? You can also do a quick community needs assessment, but don't get too bogged down in this. The idea is to pick a need and move through the process. You can always iterate later.

Once you've identified your issue, invite two to three parents or other community members who are personally affected by this issue to share their perspective with your students. You can have them there in person or via Skype. Let students ask lots of questions. These are the people for whom the students will be designing solutions.

Step 2: Design Process

Here, we reviewed the stories in Step 1 and brainstormed solutions. We needed to come up with an assessment idea that was accurate and authentic, and it had to provide meaningful data to real world public school educators. With a "no idea is too stupid" mantra, we wrote brainstorms on sticky notes and posted them on a whiteboard. By the end of this process, we began to see themes emerge: it should give students feedback about where they are lacking and where they need to go; it should also be student-centered, longitudinal, with real time feedback. We organized the sticky notes into these bigger themes to prep for tomorrow.

Step 2 in the classroom: Once students have heard the issues facing their community via Step 1, give them sticky notes and pens and let them brainstorm solutions. Invite them to be inspired by each other and build off each others' ideas. Remember, no idea is too stupid! Once they've finished brainstorming, identify the main themes that have emerged, and break students into small groups to research their initial ideas. Here is where the "guide on the side" can really make a difference. The students may have some wonderfully creative but entirely impossible ideas! At this point, the teacher should guide them with real world experience to help ensure that they have a good start.

Step 3: Prototype Phase

Next, we review the themes and select one to prototype. This prototype need not solve all of the problems, just one aspect of the problem voiced by one of the speakers in Step 1. (Note the incredible discipline intrinsic in this process. At this point, we are focusing on one solution to one aspect of one problem.)

Our idea is an assessment "dashboard" called iGPS. This device would assess student progress much the same way a GPS in the car works; it pinpoints a student's current skill level, identifying target skill level along with specific waypoints to keep the student on the path to achieving the stated goal/skill level.

We used paper, markers, pipe cleaners and glue to make a prototype of our idea, which looked like a Googlemap from "where I am" to "where I need to be" plotted along a route that intersects specific skills. It was rough, but it communicated the concept.

Step 3 in the classroom: Get a bunch of creative materials together and let the groups flesh out their ideas into physical prototypes. As teams are creating, help them think through their prototypes: How will each feature help the people we interviewed in Step 1? Does this mesh with the research they did? How will the prototype work? Which materials are the best for the job?

Once they're done, tell students they're going be pitching their ideas to experts. Give them a chance to practice and refine their presentations so they're comfortable and confident!

Step 4: Feedback

Over lunch, all groups shared their prototypes to a panel of experts for feedback. All groups got to see everyone's presentations. Most prototypes were digital software tools, though not all.

Two experts from two different stakeholder groups offered their feedback: A) An educator who was looking for ways to make the idea more useful for a real-world classroom setting, and B) a social investor, who was looking to see if there was a viable market, and if the product would make a viable business.

Step 4 in the classroom: Invite people who are experts and/or stakeholders in the field to come to your school and have students present their prototypes to them. Ask each expert to review each pitch and prototype, and give students explicit feedback: what works with this idea, and what can be improved?

Step 5: Scale and Spread

Taking the feedback we received, we hone in even further on our prototype. To do this, our team breaks into four subgroups to address the questions raised. How can this assess both individual and group work? How does a student earn points (their quantifiable score)? What does the product itself look like? And finally, assuming our product is successful as an assessment tool for 21st century skills, what's the best way to market it to district administrators who will make the choice to adopt it? We answer these questions and quickly re-prototype to include these points.

Step 5 in the classroom: This step is yet another excellent opportunity to practice "guide on the side" facilitation. Help each group of students understand the feedback they got, and work with them to understand the best way to implement solutions. If there are multiple feedback points to be addressed, the groups can break into subgroups to address each point for efficiency. You might have students pick a project manager, and have all the subgroups report back to that person.

Step 6: Present

Most of the time, we go to these conferences and get fired up about all the great ideas there, and then we leave and nothing changes. The Big Ideas Fest culminated with a surprise. Three out of nine projects were selected to participate in the Big Ideas Fest in Beta, a new program which offers support to bringing these ideas to fruition. And furthermore, ISKME, the sponsor of the event, received a $50,000 matching grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support three groups with additional design workshops, access to ISKME's networks, services and other resources to help incubate their ideas.

So, after a grand total of six hours' total collaboration time, each of the nine groups had come up with some great prototypes, and three were going to get some support to build their prototypes into working products.

Step 6 in the classroom: Barring a visit from the Billionaire Fairy, you may have to get more creative for this final step. You might invite the community members you engaged in Step 1 of this process, as well as others in your school or community to hear the presentations and brainstorm actionable ways to bring the ideas to fruition in an authentic setting. You could present both in-person and online, or set up Skype calls with local businesses.

Are you using aspects of design thinking now? Or do you feel that design thinking might have a use in your classroom or school? How might it work?

Comments (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Betty Ray,

This Blog Post is inspirational, so I just checked out ISKME also...
See you more in 2012... and keep us posted... to be continued...

Happy Zappy New Year

Allen Berg
"Caretaker of Wonder"

Jim Sizemore's picture
Jim Sizemore
Physics & Engineering Professor, Tyler, TX

This looks like a rehash of the decades old engineering design process applied to student groups. However this process has a history of success and, thus, it's worth reiterating to those not familiar with it.

BTW, for math & science problem solving consider the SOLVE method (from Algebra Fundamentals). It helps students organize math and applied math problems.

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Dear Betty Ray,

Thank you so much for posting this! We are in the midst of rolling out a related effort using a design thinking and learning framework based on the work/research of Dr. Betty Garner (a former art educator). I am collaborating with a design society (IDSA) and an art educators society (NAEA), our goal - to create a direct link between college design students and art educators and their students. Below is a link to our project website and a brief description of this year's challenge.

All the best,

The primary purpose of the Design Learning Challenge is to expose children to design thinking and create an active awareness of the discipline of industrial design as a career option before students leave high school.

Embracing a Learn.Think.Do approach, Design Learning Challenge 2012 will focus on three primary submission categories: a Design Day Event, a Targeted Design Project, and an Industrial Design Awareness Campaign. College design students all over the United States will be challenged to co-create innovative and participatory design learning experiences anchored in design thinking and learning skills with students in grades 6-12.

Jeff Leaf's picture
Jeff Leaf
HS Tech Ed

I find it interesting how many different spins can be put on the same concept. What you call Design Thinking, NASA calls the Engineering Design Process. Since 2008, they've shown this process on their web site. I've been teaching 21 years and have taught this process from the beginning. I spent 20 years before that as an Engineer and used that process. The biggest problem in teaching this type of thinking is overcoming student brainwashing. They have never been allowed to think for themselves. They've become the best question answerers you can find. Unfortunately, they have never been allowed to ask the questions to move through a design process. When asked to actually think for themselves, they are scared. They ask, "What do you want?" or "Is this right?" before submitting. They are afraid they might not give me what I want. I want them to think for themselves, but that concept is foreign to them.

To eliminate the Sage on Stage, maybe we should do away with Education Colleges and train teachers in the Business schools to be Managers of Learning.

Rob King's picture
Rob King
Author of Inquire: A Guide to 21st Century Learning

Terrific article, Betty!

This process is quite familiar to innovative industries, and it should become familiar to students and teachers. Given that none of us can predict the future five years out (let alone ten), we all need to be watching for opportunities and converting them into actualities through design thinking.

At Thoughtful Learning, we use a very similar process--from opportunity to prototype to stakeholder feedback and refinement to presentation. In fact, we're just now going through that process with Inquire High School--and your article is part of the research going into it.

If you'd like to see what we've been doing with design thinking--which we call the Inquiry Process--you can click here:

Thanks, again, for such an inspiring article!

Rob King

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Below is an effort that John Maeda ( initiated in an effort to incorporate Art and Design into STEM - STEAM...

H. Res. 319 is the "STEM to STEAM" proposal that seeks to add funding for Arts and Design to federal STEM funding. That's why I signed a petition to The United States House of Representatives and President Barack Obama, which says: "H. Res. 319 is the "STEM to STEAM" proposal that seeks to add funding for Arts and Design to federal STEM funding. The Arts and Design are what tie together the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in K-12 schools. Help Art & Design educators gain access to much-needed grants, but also to recognize their importance in educating today's students for tomorrow's challenges!" Will you sign this petition? Click here:

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