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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Design Thinking Meets a Community Action Project

It's an exciting, creative time in our country. Running in lockstep with the technology boom is the maker movement, a whole legion of people interested in making and designing things themselves. There are builders, designers, tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers sharing their inventions, crafts and designs with a wider audience than ever before. Their work is accessible via websites, online magazines, hacker workspaces and maker fairs. This movement seems to be tapping into an unmet need that the technology world cannot satisfy on its own.

A New Era

For those of us who work in education, we naturally gravitate toward activities that engage our students in active learning experiences, so it's no surprise to find that teachers and students are some of the most enthusiastic fans.

Many schools around the country are incorporating design thinking strategies into their curriculum and developing maker spaces and "fab" labs to support this innovative approach to learning. Walk into any of these schools and you will notice a unique pulse to the classroom energy, a productive hum in the conversations, a palpable sense of possibility as students work to design and create something new, or something useful, or something beautiful.

A team of researchers from Harvard's Graduate School of Education was interested in finding out how design thinking strategies, the maker movement and tinkering affect students' learning. In 2012, a cohort of teachers and administrators from four schools located in Oakland, California attended Harvard’s Project Zero. Since then, these schools have worked collaboratively with the Harvard team to pilot research activities and meet regularly to analyze and discuss findings.

A few years back, I heard President Obama say in a speech, "The truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another . . . these extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world." Since my work focuses on connecting students with the community, this idea resonates with me on the deepest level. The phrase "agents of change" took on whole new meaning for me as the Harvard research team focused on looking at students' learning specifically in these three areas:

  • The capacity for students to recognize and appreciate the design dimensions of objects, ideas and systems
  • The capacity for students to be agents of change with regard to design in the world
  • The capacity for students to think and learn through tinkering

Tackling Neighborhood Needs

This past school year, students from four Oakland middle schools had an opportunity to learn more about the their neighborhood as part of our community action class -- a class that was designed to engage our students with the community in a meaningful way. They explored and learned about their school's surrounding neighborhood in order to develop a project that would meet a need in this community. They gathered information and data using direct observation, visual documentation, and by interviewing residents and business owners.

Through this in-depth process, students learned firsthand what was happening in the neighborhood and what the current needs of the community are. But before we stepped out to explore, we discussed the following questions:

  • What makes a community?
  • Who are the different stakeholders in a community?
  • What does every community need?

Then, after we learned about the rich history of our community, we divided the neighborhood into four quadrants. Students worked in small groups to learn about one of the quadrants in depth. While the groups were out exploring their quadrant, they documented their observations with photos, sketches and notes. We learned that each member of a community has a unique perspective and experience within the neighborhood depending on his or her role within the system: resident, business owner, customer, visitor, student and worker. In order to better understand these multiple perspectives, each group interviewed neighborhood residents and business owners. We even joined the neighborhood Yahoo Group to hear more voices from the community.

After compiling and analyzing their research data, student groups identified a need within their quadrant and developed 3D prototypes for projects to benefit the neighborhood. Some of these prototypes included a dog park, community garden, mini police station, and a crosswalk at a local intersection. Students presented their project prototypes at a gathering of school and community members. This process allowed the students to get input and feedback about their designs.

All students could benefit from more opportunities throughout all grades to explore different kinds of systems, from the concrete, everyday classroom systems to more complex structures such as the U.S. election system. In addition to these explorations, students need more opportunities to learn about identifying problems within these systems, as well as how to design solutions to these problems.

Getting Started

If you are interested in trying a design-related project with your students, here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. Prototyping sessions are crucial to the process. Students need ample time to think, create, build and rework their designs. Think more, not less.
  2. Provide a wide variety of prototyping materials that are practical, useful and inspiring.
  3. Allow time for multiple feedback sessions from peers, teachers and others in the community.
  4. Document the whole process: the discussions, the design process, the prototypes.
  5. Keep it authentic. Projects should remain firmly based in their research and findings.
  6. Keep an open mind and flexible attitude. Think long term.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator is the never-ending opportunity we have to learn from one another. The Harvard research team used what they learned from their work with the four Oakland schools to lead workshops for teachers, program coordinators and administrators at institutes this summer. Attendees gathered around tables filled with materials to collaborate, redesign, build and tinker. The teachers will be taking many new ideas and activities back into their classrooms this fall.

Are you ready to get started with your students? Please share with us your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

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