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Collaborative learning

Students using the Nureva Span visual collaboration system

Empower your learners – 9 reasons to try design thinking in education

By Tricia Whenham
on May 31, 2016

Students can be amazing problem solvers – no matter their age. I remember a second-grader I taught many years ago. Some days it was a struggle to get him to follow the most basic classroom rules, but he always rose to the challenge when he saw a big issue that needed to be addressed.

Here’s just one example: after a class discussion about litter on the playground, all the other kids agreed to be more careful in the future. But him? With no encouragement from me, he founded an environment club and recruited his classmates. They designed posters that encouraged everyone to take better care of our spaces. He even came up with a new process for making sure the garbage cans were where they needed to be.

As design thinking has become a hot topic in education, I think of him often. Without being taught to do so, he defined a problem, came up with solutions and adjusted his approach. And he got most of the class to buy in, turning them into anti-litter crusaders who weren’t afraid to (politely) ask the older kids to do their part.

I only wish I had used this approach more broadly in my classroom. Here are 9 reasons to try design thinking in education:

1. It isn’t what you might think

When you hear the word design, it’s easy to assume it means coming up with striking images or new products. But design thinking – both in the work world and in education – goes far beyond the creation of physical objects. So while it might be a natural fit when it’s time for your students to build bridges or prototype Lego robots, design thinking is equally useful when you want them to take action on a pressing problem.


2. It combines structure and creativity

There are many myths about creativity, but I think the biggest is to place it in opposition to process. When we tell tales of creative inspiration – Archimedes shouting Eureka in the bathtub, for example – it’s easy to leave off all the steps that went toward the solution. Design thinking’s clear process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test – equips students to be better creators and innovators.

3. It builds empathy

When I was teaching, I felt like I tried everything to get my students to develop empathy. We passed around a talking stick and shared perspectives. We read novels and discussed how characters felt. But I never thought about how something like design could build these skills. And yet, getting students to create with others in mind is the ultimate in getting them to see beyond their own limited views.

4. It can start small

As design thinking has become an education trend, I’ve heard from naysayers who think that elementary-aged students simply don’t have enough experience to engage in empathy or define problems. I don’t agree. Young students may not be able to grapple with huge issues (how many of us can?), but they are well equipped to use the design thinking process for smaller ones – like my anti-litter crusader or these students who identified a problem in their school bathrooms.

5. It includes individual and group work

Many design thinking experts encourage individual idea generation before group discussion – and this is important. By building in time to document ideas individually and then coming together, all students have more chances to participate thoughtfully. The Span™ visual collaboration system is one tool that’s helping teachers hear all their students’ voices.

6. It gets students to take action

When I taught fifth- and sixth-grade, some of the best learning happened when my students prototyped battery powered machines and then designed and tested them. I wasn’t surprised – after all, what you find when you try something yourself resonates in a way that a lecture never could. This kind of experimenting, which is a big part of design thinking, stops kids from relying solely on outside sources of knowledge and puts the focus on forging their own understanding.


7. It develops a growth mindset

It’s rare that any design (or anything at all, for that matter) is perfect on the first try. So a huge part of the design thinking process is helping students embrace challenges and learn from failure – developing what Carol Dweck has termed a growth mindset. As students learn to give and receive feedback, from peers and others, the focus of school can shift from attaining excellence to continual improvement.

8. It’s important

I was struck recently by new research suggesting that the ability to work together toward a common goal may be one of the defining features of humanity. As our new digital connectedness has torn down barriers that in the past kept us isolated, we’ve never had more opportunities to come together. Teaching students that they have the ability to identify needs, enact change and learn from the experience at a young age might be one way we give them the tools to later grapple with the world’s biggest problems.

9. If you’re ready to get started, there’s help

Ready to get started? Luckily, there are many ways to learn from other educators that are walking this same path. Here are just a few resources to check out:

And don’t forget to share your experiences – leave a comment to tell us about your design thinking journey.



Topics: education Design thinking


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