What is Design Thinking
Design thinking is a creative and collaborative process for identifying problems and coming up with innovative solutions. It is a strategy for teachers to engage students in an active, meaning-making method that encourages connecting core content to the ways that it can be applied in the real world. In the end, it’s a structured way to plan and facilitate project-based learning.
The process is adaptable enough to be used in a range of subject areas and is naturally interdisciplinary. In any design project, students have practical and relevant opportunities to improve verbal, written, and visual communication skills. Beyond these considerations, utilizing the design thinking process is an applied way to give students a running start for the jobs and challenges of tomorrow.
Design Thinking & The Classroom
Design thinking can augment and expand your classroom teaching practice. It’s a way to approach instruction that fosters core conceptual understanding and critical 21st century competencies, including collaboration and creativity, and dispositions such as perseverance and curiosity. These are all vital capacities that are increasingly in demand in the workplace and promoted by the Common Core State Standards.
Design is Collaborative
The design process often requires that we work with others as part of a creative team. Working with others and weighing different viewpoints builds students’ ability to empathize, ultimately building and refining their social-emotional intelligence.
Engaging in design requires that students consider the needs, ideas, and input of other team members, clients, or stakeholders. While these multiple perspectives can be initially intimidating, the friction among these contrasting viewpoints is often where the most innovative problem solving occurs. By combining and refining ideas, solutions appear that we never could have developed on our own. Moreover, throughout the various stages of the project, effective communication is essential to the creative process. As we collaborate with our team members and communicate our ideas to others, design offers practical and relevant opportunities to develop better verbal, written, and visual communication skills.
Design is Inquisitive
Being a designer means having a set of creative skills and looking at the world in a new way. Curiosity is key. Applied critical thinking and flexibility are required throughout the creative process. Often there are multiple solutions to the same design challenge. Getting and giving constructive feedback helps turn good ideas into better ones. Learning the process of design benefits participants beyond the scope of an individual lesson or project. It’s a mindset that sets a foundation for lifelong learning and meaningful action.
Design is Perseverance
Design provides a relevant, hands-on approach to solving problems. Real-world problem solving demands resourcefulness and perseverance as students grapple with frustrations and failures along the way. From the initial spark of an idea, to the refinement of a concept and the deployment of an appropriate response, the design process is about bringing exciting new ideas to life. The best projects are those that encourage participants to leverage their intrinsic interests and motivations and to think of challenges as opportunities to create work that impacts their life and the world around them. However, the design process very rarely happens as easily or quickly as we think or hope it will. Being flexible and unafraid of small failures along the way is an essential part of being a creative person.
Design is Civically Charged
Design thinking encourages people to look inward and outward at the same time. Looking inward, they discover their intrinsic interests and passions. Looking outward, they align these interests and skills with (and deploy them in) the world around them by responding to local needs or issues that matter to their community. Sometimes the issue is small, like trash on campus. Sometimes it’s bigger or more complex, like bullying. Design thinking challenges students to look both within and beyond themselves, offering opportunities for creative civic participation and personal agency to young people who might otherwise feel disconnected or powerless.
The Design Thinking Process
The D3 Lab is a design thinking program developed by COMMONstudio that has been integrated into schools and other educational settings throughout the United States. The D3 method and toolset offers a structured way to plan and facilitate design-focused learning with students. It can help to frame challenges, content, and concepts in a new way, tap into student interest, and create engaging experiences with outcomes that directly address community needs. Working in this way not only makes projects more real but it empowers participants to express their unique voices, talents, and points of view in ways that open new possibilities for civic engagement. D3 also models many of the same design thinking principles that are used in the creative professional world today.
The Dream It phase of the process is about seeking out local needs or opportunities, and attempting to understand them on a deep level. This often requires empathizing with others through research, observation, and interviews. Understanding context and the complexity of a problem allows students to frame the challenge in a way that invites creative responses and helps students to focus their efforts. In the Dream It phase participants will a) Discover, and b) Dig Deeper.
Identify a problem, challenge, or issue that is in need of a creative response.
If you examine what you teach, you’ll find issues and problems needing solutions at every turn. Whether or not you begin with a designated content area, ask students to choose an interest, or challenge students to explore a physical space within the school or community. Encourage students to look around to find a problem or issue that they care about. Note that this is also the point at which a teacher or facilitator could introduce a predefined challenge based on a particular subject or need that they choose.
Research and learn more about the context and details of the problem or challenge. Carefully frame opportunities.
By Digging Deeper you will gather insights and achieve a deep level of understanding about the challenge. This is often accomplished through research, observation, conversations, and ethnography. At the end of this process, the information that has been unearthed can then be compacted into a “Design Statement” which clearly frames the team’s challenge and the opportunities they’ve discovered.
This phase of the process is about generating multiple potential approaches and responses to the challenge, and refining those approaches through feedback and iteration. This is the point where students’ creativity is most active. Although they start off with multiple ideas, they’re in search of the single most effective idea to move forward with. In the Design It phase, participants will a) Brainstorm, and b) Define.
Consider a wide range of possible solutions to the problem.
Now that the students know exactly what they need to solve, it’s time for them to think about possible solutions. Students actively discuss the challenge to get as many ideas out as possible. Keep things loose. Help them understand that in brainstorming, even crazy ideas are okay – it’s all part of the creative process. Encourage them to think creatively and expansively for a broad range of options without forgetting their Design Statement.
Determine the best solution to focus on.
With a number of ideas generated, it’s time to choose the best option for moving forward. This can be approached in a number of ways. The Define step involves a lot of feedback, discussion, and (eventually) consensus. Getting feedback from peers and discussing each idea in terms of “pros vs. cons” are both important. Sometimes, multiple ideas from the brainstorm are fused together into a single concept. Other times, the right idea is obvious.
This phase in the design thinking process is the most hands-on. Refined ideas become prototypes, and refined prototypes reveal the underlying challenges of constructability, feasibility, materiality, user experience, and the myriad other considerations that must be addressed. Students work together to create a plan of action and follow through with it to bring their ideas to life, they will a) Plan It Out, and b) Get it Done!
Plan It Out
Work out the details and develop a detailed plan of action.
At this point, it’s time for students to put their heads together and come up with a plan of action. The “what” and “why” of the project may be clear but what about the “how”? They know what they want to do, but how will they do it? What do they need in order to make their ideas real? What role will each group and each individual play to make sure it happens? Collaboratively, they need to work out the details that will turn their vision into reality.
Get It Done
Execute and share!
This is perhaps the most straightforward step of the process, but it’s often the most demanding as students take their ideas off paper and put them into the world. Effective management and teamwork are needed to make sure that progress is made and that plans are being followed. Each team’s set of deliverables is unique. And remember, no design project is truly finished until it’s being used or viewed by other people!
Design Thinking & The Common Core
Educators who have integrated design thinking into their instructional practice find there’s a natural connection between this approach and the Common Core State Standards.
The Common Core State Standards provide a framework for teaching and learning that prepares students to be successful in our global 21st century society. The Standards emphasize developing the skills and knowledge to address real-world problems, to collaborate with others, to use media and technology as tools to communicate and mobilize, and to apply content understandings in a variety of relevant contexts and situations.
Design thinking is an approach to learning that facilitates the development of these skills and habits of mind. When students engage in the design thinking process, they are applying, developing, and refining the reasoning and problem-solving skills that are at the heart of the Common Core State Standards.
The design thinking process is not limited to facilitating math skills. As students engage with their projects, they encounter a variety of opportunities to develop and refine the literacy skills and understandings included in the English Language Arts Standards:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Throughout the design thinking process, students are engaged in interactive research. Students do consistently access information from a variety of sources: people in the community, web-based articles, library books, brochures, videos, and podcasts, just to name a few. As they read, watch, or listen to this content, they must also make decisions about whether it is relevant or useful for their project. For example, is a particular YouTube video produced by a trusted, viable source? Is the web-based article outdated or too complex for the purposes of the project? The design thinking process gives students relevant and meaningful context to access, integrate, and evaluate diverse information formats.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
The majority of the design thinking process is shaped by the design or problem statement. This is a statement that clearly identifies a need and purpose for the project itself. Students write this statement early on because it is the foundation of their learning experience throughout the project. Students must continually question, test, and refine their problem statement throughout the implementation of the project.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
The design thinking process allows students to pick a topic of inquiry, in most cases a need in the community, and gives them the opportunity to do in-depth research on understanding the problem, brainstorming and selecting a possible solution, and then doing the work necessary to execute this solution. This involves sustained, consistent research, reflection, and critical analysis. By the end of the process, students not only understand their issue better, they also apply content knowledge and skills in a real way and develop a project that positively impacts the community.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Collaboration with peers is an integral part of the design thinking experience. From the writing of the problem statement to the execution of the solution, students are working together as a team to brainstorm, plan, actualize, and present their project. They gain the firsthand experience of what it means and feels like to communicate effectively (and sometimes ineffectively) with others in the effort to achieve a sequence of tasks. In many instances, students also have the experience of collaborating with adult mentors or experts who are supporting their projects in some way, which provides yet another audience with whom students need to express their ideas clearly.
Through the various stages of the design process, students engage in the same dispositions encouraged by the Standards for Mathematical Practice:
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Design thinking asks students to play the role of both problem identifier and problem solver. When they identify a problem – for example, a prevalence of trash on the school campus of vacant lots in the community – they “make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution pathway” instead of just naming a simple solution. The process itself encourages students to dig deeper, to employ research methods, and to understand the problem better so that they may propose an informed, innovative solution. This is not a linear process. In fact, it gets quite messy as students encounter mistakes and failures and become familiar with how to turn these experiences into learning triumphs.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
One of the first steps of the design thinking process is the construction of a problem statement. Students are constantly interacting with this problem statement to understand whether the solution they propose, the project itself in most cases, is solid.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics
At its simplest, design thinking provides an opportunity to apply content knowledge and skills. Students apply concepts of measurement, proportional relationships, and geometry when they’re creating a school garden or mural. As they develop budgets for their projects, students use complex operations and numerical expressions to figure out how they will raise enough money to fund their project. As students gather data from their research methods, they use statistical analysis to conclude how their problem affects the community and whether their solution is a viable one. Because design thinking engages in real work, it’s inevitable for students to have countless opportunities to apply content knowledge and skills.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP5 Use appropriate tools strategically.
According to the Common Core Math Practices standard, “proficient students consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem. These tools might include pencil and paper, concrete models, a ruler, a protractor, a calculator, a spreadsheet, a computer algebra system, a statistical package, or dynamic geometry software.” The design thinking process extends this practice by encouraging students to think about the set of 21st century technology tools they have at their fingertips. In addition to providing opportunities to use pencil and paper, concrete models, and spreadsheets, design thinking encourages students to make decisions that might include, for example, using Facebook and Twitter as a tool to mobilize people, Google Applications as a way to collaborate with peers, and YouTube as a way to broadcast their messages.
Project Example: Trashketball
Trashketball: Reducing Campus Trash
School | Nightingale MS
Location | Los Angeles
Total Time | 5 weeks
Subjects | Language Arts, Leadership
Grade Level | 7-8
Number of Participants | 25 students
Students turned the act of throwing away trash into gameplay, thereby redefining how students keep their campus clean
Students used iPhones to look at the Nightingale campus with a curious and critical eye. They took notes, photos, and conducted interviews. The question was: What can be improved on the Nightingale campus? This team ultimately identified trash on campus as the problem they were most interested in.
Despite having enough trash cans readily available on campus, the group wanted to understand why students were not throwing trash away, where the most trash was, and when the most trash was produced. They continued their investigation with observation, creating hand drawn maps, and collecting more photos and video.
They analyzed their information and decided that trash was not being thrown away because there weren’t enough incentives to throw it in the proper places. Using this understanding as a starting point, the group generated three different ideas about how to solve the trash problem in a creative way. They built three small scale models and shared their ideas with the class.
The group and their classmates discussed the pros and cons of each potential solution and gave constructive feedback. The group determined that the Trashketball concept was the strongest as it was a system for turning trash throwing into a fun and challenging game. They then built a full scale model to test during lunch time on campus.
Plan it Out
After receiving a positive response by other students on campus, the group decided to improve the construction methods and build three more Trashketball games. They spoke to campus and teachers to consult about placement and ensure they had the proper permissions to install more. A material list was compiled and a budget and schedule was created.
Get it Done
With all materials acquired and permissions granted, the group got together during lunch over the course of one week to build and place three more Trashketball games for the campus.
Project Example: Night Hawks Nest
Night Hawks Nest
School | Nightingale MS
Location | Los Angeles
Total Time | 1 semester
Subjects | Language Arts, Art, Science
Grade Level | 6
Number of Participants | 20 students
Students transformed a vacant, forgotten space at school into a community garden that could be used by students, parents, and other school community members.
Students were introduced to the Nighthawk Nest, an underutilized space tucked in a forgotten corner of the campus. They took a tour of the space and created an inventory of sensory information that identified colors, textures, smells, and other general impressions of the space. They paid attention to the good, the bad, and the ugly and shared their personal findings as a class.
Students measured the space and created a site plan that allowed them to break down the large area into more manageable chunks to focus on. D3 facilitators then formed the students into groups of 3-4 students and allowed them to choose which section they wanted to focus on. These groups were in charge of initial cleanup of their assigned areas and were encouraged to understand the opportunities for improving the spaces in a creative way.
Groups were asked to find inspiring imagery online that would help them generate ideas for possible solutions in their spaces. Each member of the group discussed their imagery and shared how and why they made their choices.
Groups were encouraged to take the inspirations they found online and apply them to their spaces. This allowed them to prioritize which ideas were most appropriate. Solutions varied among the groups and included birdhouses for a large tree in the space, a large plot for growing food, a “scratch and sniff” garden for fragrant plants, and an area for sitting and hanging out.
Plan it out
With a general idea about what the various areas of the space needed, it was time to reach out to an outside partner for help. Enrich LA (a local non-profit that works to build gardens on school campuses) expressed interest and offered to donate materials and time to get the desired design built. School administrators, D3 facilitators, and students met with members of Enrich LA to determine a schedule and coordinate what each was offering to the project.
Get it done
The final design was built with dozens of volunteers, students, and their parents, who worked together to finish the construction on a single Saturday. The Nighthawk Nest garden is now a permanent amenity for the Nightingale community, with areas for growing food, sitting and relaxing, and even holding class sessions in a beautiful outdoor setting.
Project Example: Spoken Walls
School | Nightingale MS
Location | Los Angeles
Total Time | 6 weeks
Subjects | Language Arts
Grade Level | 6-8
Number of Participants | 25-30 students
Students treated a series of walls in high-traffic areas as blank canvasses and converted them into areas of self-expression and collaborative poetry.
After a short project introduction in which students analyzed a photo exhibit of barren areas around the school campus and sample walls with poetry painted on them, they were able to make connections between the power of words and art and the transformation of physical spaces.
In order to dig deeper into the language arts side of the project, students spent three to four days on a Poetry Scavenger Hunt. This activity has two parts: (1) students conduct online research to find a poem that speaks to them, and (2) students analyze this poem of interest for literary devices. To jumpstart the activity, the facilitator led students through a discussion on effective ways to conduct online research. To segue to the second part of the activity, the facilitator and students brainstormed a list of possible literary devices. The facilitator then modeled how to analyze a poem for literary devices. Students worked with their partners to find literary devices in the short poem they selected. After 10 to 15 minutes, students volunteered to share their findings with the rest of the class.
Once the students had some grounding in the poetry genre and spatial analysis, they were ready to start thinking more concretely about the project need. Before they got too far along in the process, they needed to conduct some ethnographic research, such as interviews and surveys, to make sure that the need to redesign a physical space at the school was shared by other students, teachers, and staff. They then created a short survey that focused on gathering ideas for how to transform physical spaces at the school. The survey included questions about specific locations and the types of themes that students, teachers, and staff were interested in.
Brainstorm and Define
When the students had gathered and summarized their data, they used it to brainstorm and define a theme for their poem and a location for their Spoken Wall. Once they had a theme to work with, students began to compose their collaborative poem. Staff from the local 826 chapter (a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization) worked with students on the initial part of the writing process in order to get them started, a messy process at times. Once students had their short poem (or at least a few good lines to work with), the class convened as a group to start the process of (1) sharing their favorite lines from their own poem, (2) synthesizing similar lines, (3) doing away with the lines they did not like or that did not fit, and (4) synthesizing some more. It was neither a linear nor a neat progression, but this was the point where a shift occurred and students started to drive the process because they felt an authentic sense of collaboration and motivation to engage in the work. After one to two class periods and much negotiating, students arrived at a poem they all felt proud of.
Plan It Out and Get It Done
With the students feeling a deeper sense of ownership and engagement, it was time to divide the class into groups that could then function as a collaborative design team. Groups included: Graphics, Poem Design, Publicity, Materials, and Logistics. Each group was responsible for creating its own focused objectives and to-do list; the student coordinators and the facilitator helped to ensure each group’s accountability.
Once each group had accomplished its objectives and reconvened to make sure that everyone was on the same page, the students had to work together to create one prototype that could be shared with other school community members for feedback. Students received some very useful feedback from other students and staff, which they integrated into the next iteration of their design.
To produce their Spoken Wall, students participated in intervals so as not to take up too much class time. Main tasks included: cleaning the wall, painting the background, writing the poem, and adding any supplementary graphics. Students who were not contributing directly in the final stages of the Spoken Wall were working on some other classroom activity. Once the wall was done, students created a showcase event to formally offer the piece to the school.