Welcome to the Design Thinking + Education = Awesome Blog and Podcast where I will share what I have learned about Design Thinking over the past 5 years in my effort to implement it in both my classroom and school.
How might we build a kite that flies? This question is one I asked my second grade class. When asking students a question like that one, it is always fun to see the initial confusion. It seems like the answer is pretty easy. Students start raising their hands and sharing what a kite looks like, they tell me a few materials they would use (when asked, but not initially), but it is quickly becoming apparent that while they have seen kites, some have flown them, nobody has ever really built one or thought about how to build one.
So, I start asking questions. I want to model for them how I would approach the question. What exactly will this part of the kite be made out of? What will you use for this part and that part? What do all of these parts do? How do they help a kite fly? How will you connect everything together? How will we know if it works? What if it doesn't? How will we know what the problem is? How do kites work anyway?
One of the kids shares a brilliant idea! We can do some research to answer these questions, build kites based on the research, and test them outside. Now, a plan has developed with some guidance, but still student driven and motivated. Now, we are ready to think like designers and start working through the design process.
So, what is the design process anyway? Well, there are many different version out there. The first one I encountered came from d.school.
This process starts with empathy and then moves in to defining the challenge. For my students, I lump these two things together and approach creation with understanding. I want my students to understand the product, solution, or system they are trying to create. I also want my students to understand those people for which they are creating. My process looks more like this:
My process was an attempt to make it a little easier for younger students to understand. It is essentially a scaffolded version of the design process. But, both encourage students to understand the people and challenge, imagine ideas to overcome the challenge, create the solution in order to test it with the goal of improving.
This process is why I think Design Thinking can be approached as both a pedagogy (not a pedalogy, which isn't a thing!) or as a framework for creating lessons, or even a creative process to help create awesome lessons. It does not have to be used as just pedagogy, just a framework, or just a way to create lessons.
The kite project was a lot of fun. It was interesting to get an insight into the minds of 2nd grade students to see how they think about creating. Most of them, at first, thought they could easily build a kite, and if I had let them, they probably would have just jumped in and used the materials I have in my room to start building, but most of them probably wouldn't have had much chance of flying. Even after we did some research, watched videos on how to build a kite with common materials, and tested the kites, about half of the students were not able to get their kites to fly. One thing that surprised me is that despite the fact that half of them were not able to fly their kite, they were still proud of their creation. The students still felt successful because they had learned a lot about how kites fly, built something they were proud of, and felt empowered to create other things.
Teaching the students to approach a challenge with understanding can be difficult. There are a lot of variables that come into play. The project itself, what they are building, learning outcomes, and other factors determine how to guide the students toward understanding. The understanding part of the process will guide the rest of their effort, so it takes a lot of work.
But how can students go about understanding? The kite project is a great example of what students can do to better understand what they are trying to accomplish. The better they understand, the better their creation. That is why I think is important to start with an Essential Question, such as How might we build a kite that flies? It invites students to ask more questions in response to the Essential Question. It also helps keep students focused, and it is nice to refer back to when conferencing with students. Students are naturally curious, and Design Thinking, and Essential Questions, help feed that curiosity and encourage it to grow.
When students ask questions, they need to be empowered, and guided, toward answering them. One thing my experiences have taught me is that often students do not know how to find sources of information, use those to learn, and apply that knowledge. Design Thinking helps teach students how to research.
The students researched how to make a kite, how kites fly (the science behind it), and found videos about how to make different types of kites. It helped for the students to do this work because when they brainstorm ideas, draw out plans, and actually build the kite, they are thinking about what they are doing and why. When I walked around the room and asked students why they were doing what they were doing and how it would help the kite fly, they could answer, but if they could not, I could direct them back to doing more research.
Understanding is about more than just research (or that type of research). Students also need to know how to understand people. A project I mentioned in the first blog, the backpack challenge, asked students to design a backpack for a partner. How better to understand what a person needs for their backpack than to ask them?
Interviewing is an important tool students need to be able to understand. When I did the backpack challenge the first time, I expected my 5th grade students to be able to just do it. I didn't think about the fact that they probably have never done an interview, or maybe did it once as part of an activity in class, and it was evident when I asked them to interview one another. They were not sure how to do it. I also didn't teach them though, so why would I expect them to know?
When I did the challenge again with 3rd grade students, I taught them how to interview to gain actionable information. One of the resources (in the resource section, and below) links to a d.school lesson on teaching interviewing, and I also put together a guide to interviewing.
Other ways students can understand: observation, data-driven research like surveys, and learning how to develop and use focus groups. One problem I have is that I personally don't know how to do some of this stuff, but we live in a world where some people are paid to do these things. Reach out to them! They can be very helpful in teaching you key points to share with students, and sometimes they will even come in and talk to the students.
One thing my kite project did not do well was teaching the students empathy. Part of understanding is learning about who will use the product. I could definitely do better next time to work this into the project. One way would be to have my students design a kite for a younger student, like a PreK or K student. Not only are they trying to figure out to make a kite a that would fly, but now they would have to think about the student for which they are creating. It also might encourage students to take it seriously as they are creating for someone else. They could interview to learn about design aesethetics that the student would like, but they would also have to think about how to teach the student how to fly the kite once it is constructed. Maybe they could make a video for the students to watch to help them understand how to fly a kite before they are out there with the students. Adding empathy add depth to the challenge and often depth means more learning.
I think understanding is the most important part of Design Thinking. It is also where the majority of the work should be. Brainstorming and creating are fun, but understanding is the foundation for the rest of the process. Without strong understanding, the brainstorming and creating won't be as fruitful. Students naturally want to dive right in and create, so it can be hard to slow students down. With younger students, I have found that structure is the key to slowing them down. Ideally, as students do it more, they learn to naturally create on their own and find value in understanding. The goal of Design Thinking is to teach students how to naturally and effectively create on their own. How awesome would it be to have students who look at the world around them and find opportunities to make it better through creation?
Pick a lesson, assignment, or project you already do and try to enhance it by focusing on understanding. Could you have the students research more, interview for understanding, start from a place of empathy, or create a way to test out an idea?
Create a lesson, assignment, project in which students focus on just understanding a problem. It could be a problem a student has in a novel, or a problem in history, or a problem around school. Identify the problem and have the students develop a plan on how they would create a solution and what that solution’s criteria would be.
Circle of Viewpoints Thinking Routine
Think, Feel, and Care from Agency by Design
Whose Life? from d.school
Empathy Map from d.school
Imagine a Student...
See-Think-Wonder Thinking Routine
Parts, Purpose, and Complexities from Agency by Design
Interviewing Skills from d.school
Open-Ended Questions from d.school
Advice for Interviewing
Brandon Bogumil is a teacher of Design Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Coding. He is also very passionate about Project Based Learning. He hopes that his experiences will help you learn about these ideas and grow into a beautiful butterfly! Thank you Brian Best for my banner and logo and for writing funny things!