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  • Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

Design Thinking

Think about entering a classroom where students are actively engaged in solving problems and designing solutions. You would see students sharing suggestions, figuring things out, and evaluating solutions. The students would be motivated, responsive to different perspectives, and empathetic and responsive to human needs. This would be a classroom led by Design Thinking (DT). DT differs from traditional problem-solving in several vital components. The basics of Design Thinking are:

  • Empathize–consider others’ needs, not just solve the problem

  • Define–define the problem and create a meaningful and actionable problem statement

  • Ideate–encourage innovation through brainstorming

  • Prototype–identify and develop the best solution through multiple iterations

  • Test–evaluate prototypes and consider improvements

Design Thinking is a mindset that values perspectives and embraces failure. Students are encouraged to iterate and think flexibly, promoting innovation through outside-the-box thinking. Creativity and ingenuity are invaluable outcomes. In our ever-changing world, we must prepare students to become responsive to novel challenges.

Years ago, my school engaged in DT when we embarked on a school-wide learning event. We tasked our fourth graders as designers of the floor plan and organizers for the event. Their challenge was to fit 40 same-sized booths within the space of our gymnasium. The students measured the gym’s area and perimeter and then calculated the size of the display booths so all classes would have equal space to share their work.

The project was elevated when the students were asked to consider accessibility, crowd control, and safety concerns. For example, how would visitors know where to go? What about mobility issues or safety? Through brainstorming and prototyping, the students constructed 3D models of the gym with partitions and placement of class booths. The students’ ownership and involvement in the planning, preparation, and presentation of this multiday event was palpable as the transformed gym became a magical learning environment conceived and purposefully organized by students.

But why consider taking so much time out of the daily learning routine? The easy answer is that DT provides opportunities for deep, integrated, grade-level appropriate learning for all and helps develop essential thinking skills and problem-solving strategies while supporting the development of resilience and flexible thinking. With a well-defined problem creating the context for the “needs-to-know” learning, students can effectively communicate findings, share strategies, and evaluate results. As David Kelley, founder of the Stanford summarizes, “What we, as design thinkers, have, is the creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”

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