Why design thinking isn’t just for techies

Build empathy and creativity with this dynamic problem-solving model

Ideate: What type of solution do you want to offer that person? A tech product? A script? A plan?

Prototype: What can you create for this person that will meet their needs?

Test: Go back to the person and ask them to test it out. Does it meet their needs?
(Source: Stanford d.School)

Now, let me break it down so you can see how it aligns with an inquiry cycle you’re already familiar with. I’ve included concrete examples and student artifacts to help you draw connections to your own teaching.

Step 1: Empathize.
When you make observations and ask questions using the scientific method, you are empathizing, which is the first step in the design-thinking cycle. In design thinking, empathizing with the person you’re helping requires you to ask questions to better understand the issue you’re attempting to solve. Empathizing helps us practice how to ask questions and engage each other in meaningful conversation without judgment.

A group of my second-graders wanted to explore the topic of deforestation. They started by writing questions so they could focus their inquiry and dig deeper. They asked, Who is deforestation affecting? Why do people cut down trees? How can people protect them? What happens when all the trees are cut?

Then, they used Post-it notes to document answers to their questions that they found in books and through interviews. This was a great opportunity to talk about primary and secondary sources of information as well as to practice asking questions without judgment.

Step 2: Define.
Once students collect the information (empathize), they move on to defining the issue. This is similar to a hypothesis in the scientific method. In design thinking, defining the issue means that you’re finding some strong trends in the information to make a “needs statement.” The information is showing you a strong need, and the statement will help students focus on a specific issue to solve for a person. Check out this second-grader’s needs statement:

“Racist person needs a way to mend their relationships to build a community with equal rights.”

Notice the verbs “mend” and “build.” It’s really important that the needs statement is actionable. Verbs are a key component to writing a needs statement.

Steps 3 and 4: Ideate and Prototype.
After students zero in on a specific “need,” they begin the ideating and prototyping phases. Similar to testing your prediction in the scientific method, this is when they create models to meet the need identified in the needs statement. In these phases, it’s important to give students a range of tools to get creative, such as a variety of paper, pens, recycled materials, tape, ribbon, and so on. The prototype can be anything from a drawing, a script for a play, a how-to manual, or a Lego model.

Design thinking allows students to use their imagination in creative ways. Students empathize deeply with someone they know or an issue they’re passionate about. As a result, your students are motivated to communicate, collaborate, plan, write, and revise.

Step 5: Test.
Finally, students test by connecting back to their user to get feedback on their prototype. During this phase, we practice how to receive feedback. We talk about not getting defensive, being open to suggestions, and asking more questions. This phase connects back to our discussion on empathy, which is the central driver of design thinking.

Give it a try!
My fellow teachers, please don’t be intimidated by design thinking. If you’re familiar with the scientific method, you can integrate this cycle into your teaching. It’s collaborative and empathetic and challenges the designer to listen carefully to another person’s needs. Listening with empathy is central to the process, and I strongly believe it’s a skill that is transferable to any situation.

You may want to use it with your students to redesign their homework experience or their seating arrangements, solve issues on the playground, or negotiate responsibilities in the classroom. Have a look at this Virtual Crash Course Playbook provided by the d.School to help guide you through the cycle. Design thinking is an inquiry cycle that can help students dive deeper into our relationships with each other, foster deep empathy in our classrooms, and, ideally, lead to real change in our lives and communities.

 [Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Common Sense Education.]

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