Design Thinking

Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking

While empathy is the first step in the design thinking process, keep your students focused on this necessary element as they move through definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
June 2, 2015
Heart made out of pink post-its surrounded by yellow post-its

In an age of creators, makers, and innovators, we hear of the concept design thinking too often. What is design thinking? More importantly, can design thinking help you as an educator in your classroom?

Design thinking is a concept that centers around applying creativity and innovation to our actions, decision making, and problem solving as human beings. More significantly, it focuses on the impact that this creative and innovative thinking has on individuals. As a concept, design thinking can be used pedagogically to enhance our teaching practices. As a tool, it can be used to foster and teach empathy in the classroom.

The core principles of design thinking are to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Teaching design thinking can be a powerful way of teaching students empathy in that it teaches them how to solve another person’s problems by providing creative and innovative solutions that relate to his or her needs.

To practice this with your students, identify a problem that you will need to solve in your own environment. As a class, you can choose to work on one problem and have students come up with individual solutions, or the students can choose their own problems and work their way toward identifying solutions through the steps below.

1. Empathize

Empathy is the first step in design thinking because it is a skill that allows us to understand and share the same feelings that others feel. Through empathy, we are able to put ourselves in other people's shoes and connect with how they might be feeling about their problem, circumstance, or situation. Some questions to consider:

  • What is the person feeling?
  • What actions or words indicate this feeling?
  • Can you identify their feelings through words?
  • What words would you use to describe their feelings?

These are just some of the guided questions that students can reflect on to identify the problem and how others are feeling about it.

2. Define

The next step is to define the above feelings and identify the main problem to be solved. It's important that, throughout this process, students use language that is identifiable, positive, meaningful, and actionable. Instead of focusing on the negative side of the problem and the lack of options, steer students to using language that is positive, empathetic, and will direct them toward solution-based thinking. Defining the problem is part of the process of shaping a point of view -- our own and others' -- about the problem. Therefore, the framing should inspire the group, the student, or the entire class to find solutions.

3. Ideate

This process is where ideas are generated. Students can learn empathy here when you teach them new and different ways to find solutions to a problem -- there is no single right way for a great idea. Here are a few strategies that you can encourage:

  • Mindmapping
  • Brainstorming
  • Sketchnotes
  • Bodystorming
  • Inquiry

This process helps students to see things from different perspectives. It allows them to step outside of what they might think is the obvious solution and instead generate ideas outside of their own realm.

4. Prototype

In the prototyping phase, students get to make and create the solution to the problem. Empathy helps them see that they're in the first step in a longer process. A prototype can be changed, altered, re-evaluated, and recreated many times based on the needs of the users (either the students themselves or someone else). This process also helps students to recognize that failing is part of learning, and that it's OK to fail. Failure, however, needs to be analyzed so that we learn and grow from our mistakes. Ask these questions:

  • Why did we fail?
  • What worked?
  • What didn't work?
  • How can we improve to help the user next time?
  • Is this solution feasible? Is it manageable?
  • Are these changes designed with the user in mind?

5. Test

During testing, empathy plays a key role in shaping of the user's experience. Focus on showing and not telling. This helps the users to create their own experiences, and also helps us to identify how to improve their experiences next time. The opportunity for empathizing is important at this stage, because one is able to see the user's experience and hear his or her thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Testing also helps to shape our point of view in relation to the user's point of view.

Design thinking to teach empathy can be applied to many problems that arise in the classroom and help encourage students on solution-based thinking -- a process that concentrates on positivity, feedback, iteration, and empathy. If you're interested in implementing design thinking in your classroom, visit Design Thinking for Educators for some free resources.