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Design Thinking Could Be a Game Changer for Students

Once in a while, I hear something that stops me in my tracks. I recognize I’ve just heard a life-changing idea. One of them surfaced this year. During a recent Twitter chat I participated in, one of the educator participants asked a question:

“Have you heard of design thinking?”

The fact is, I had read about “design thinking” in a Stanford education article, but had not understood how much it could be a game changer for both K-12 and university education. It’s more than a new pedagogy. It’s a mindset.

“In recent years, hundreds of educators across the U.S., from kindergarten through college, have been inspired to upend their typical methods and dive into design thinking. Their classrooms work like Silicon Valley-style innovation labs with students asking questions and defining problems, and then brain-storming, prototyping, and testing solutions,” writes Mary Ellen Flannery, from NEA Today.

Four Phases

photo credit: Phil Roeder “Sign In” at High School via photopin (license)

Let me summarize the process, for any teacher, coach or parent who’s looking for a new model to engage students. “Design Thinking” involves these stages:

1. Empathy

This phase nudges students outside of their own personal lives and into the world around them. Instead of merely finding answers to a test question on Friday, they look around their world (or their community) and identify with problems people face there. This broadens their perspective and beckons them to think of others. School becomes a place for bigger problem solving. In fact, success is all based on how well the students serve the needs of others.

2. Engagement

This phase challenges them to interview the people involved with the challenge the students have identified and get a closer look at it. This is the “human” piece of “design thinking” that tends to make class time come alive, because it’s real. “The human-centered piece is probably the most profound and important thing we do as educators,” says Laura McBain, director of K12 community and implementation at the

3. Ideate.

By this phase, students are ready to act. In fact, they’re incentivized to take action. Students now follow a five-step approach popularized at Stanford’s d.school: “First, define the problem. Second, brainstorm or ‘ideate’ solutions—lots and lots of solutions. Third (and fourth), prototype and test those ideas. Lastly, reflect: What worked? What didn’t? Why?” The “ideate” phase is when innovation and collaboration happens among students, and engagement reaches its peak. It’s nothing short of stunning.

4. Report.

The final phase is to come up with a creative way to report the results so that others can see and feel the problem and perhaps play a role in joining students in solving it. This is where stakeholders get to see the results—including teachers, administrators, parents, even community leaders, like the mayor or city council. It becomes a source of pride for the students and maybe, just maybe, a solution for the world they live in.

Case Studies

When students engage in “design thinking” they can come up with some of the most amazing solutions to problems in their communities:

  • Elementary school students cleared out a wooded area near their campus, getting rid of dangerous brush and clearing the way for new paths.
  • Middle school students found creative solutions to repair a local nursing home’s roof that had water damage.
  • High school students solved a lighting problem in a museum in the town that needed upgrading and various repairs.
  • College students actually created devices to help disabled or visually impaired people to do everyday tasks again.

Because I believe the essence of leadership is about solving problems and serving people—I love how “design thinking” is turning everyday students into leaders. What could you do with your students?


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Design Thinking Could Be a Game Changer for Students