Design Thinking in the Classroom: Solving Problems 101

Guest Writer

The Leadership Program and BOOST Collaborative are partnering with a blog exchange with blogs focused on out-of-school time and education. This blog entry was originally published on BOOST Collaborative's Breakfast Club Blog. This entry is written by Jamaine Smith, Graduate Associate in the Diversity and Social Justice Department at Philadelphia University.

Our students have problems to solve. In school, it may be figuring out how many apples Susie has left after giving Jason four from her original ten. However, at home, it may be figuring out how to take care of younger sibling with a physical disability. Or, it may be figuring out how to transform their community from a "food desert" to one flourishing with fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. Our students are always solving problems-large and small, spoken and unspoken. With this in mind, I believe the best we can do for our students is provide them with tools and resources that can help them solve these problems without feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and helpless. This is where "Design Thinking" comes in.

What is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is a collaborative, creative, fun, human-centered method to define and solve problems. It can be applied to any subject, industry, or field of study. It is not a magic formula, however it is a process, so there are five steps to follow, albeit not strictly.

What are the steps?

1. Empathize.
Empathy is considered the centerpiece of design thinking. Since the design thinking is human-centered, this step is crucial to the entire process. This is where you work to really understand your user. A great tool for this an Empathy Map. Simply view the four quadrants (Think & Feel, Hear, See, Say & Do) and add information accordingly.

For example, if your students are attempting to solve a problem of their stressed out classmate Derek, who is charged with taking care of a younger sibling with a physical disability, then it would be best for them to converse with Derek (ask for stories, always ask "Why?") and closely observe Derek in the midst of caring for his younger sibling in various environments (home, playground, school). Simply put, they need to watch and listen closely. Implore them to notice the emotions that surface, any disconnects between what Derek says and what is shown, and ask questions (as deep as they can go). Remind them to take written or pictorial notes of their findings.

2. Define
This is time for students to review their notes. The Define stage helps them to synthesize all of their information into a meaningful, actionable problem statement. Have students ask themselves what reoccurring themes do they see? What did they learn about Derek-what type of person is he? What really stood out to them? Have them make a list of needs they find important to fulfill for Derek. This information allows them to go from a broad problem (Derek is stressed out because he is taking care of his younger sibling with a physical disability) to more defined statement (Derek needs to gain creative, visual time management skills so he can feel less stressed out and overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for his younger, physically disabled brother).

3. Ideate
Now that they have their meaningful, actionable problem statement, it is time to generate possible solutions. This step is purely idea generation. Encourage your students to let their imaginations soar! Ideas can be both rational and completely "out of the box" ("Derek should buy a planner with color coded sections" to "Let's build a robot that looks just like Derek! He can take care of Derek's younger brother so Derek has time to do more things!"). You may need to set some constraints to the process (e.g. Remember Derek is only 12 and will need parental permission for some ideas). It is important to implore your students to "suspend judgment". Again, the ideation step is about generating ideas, not evaluating them. Ask students to refrain from using phrases like "That's stupid!" or "That's great, but..." Instead, encourage them to utilize the phrase "Yes, and...". "Yes, and..." causes you to build upon an idea as opposed to shutting it down.


Student A: "We should build a robot that looks like Derek!"
Student B: "....Yes,....and it should be small enough to fit in his house, but strong enough to help left his brother from his wheelchair"
Student C: "...Yes, and we should interview Derek's mother to see if she would like a robot that looks like Derek. She can give us things to add to it!"

From my experience, excellent ideas are generated from the use of this phrase alone. It also encourages students to affirm each other's ideas.

4. Prototype
From the ideation step, encourage students to choose three or four ideas. Think of yearbook superlatives for this decision-making process. Form categories like "the most rational choice" or "the most imaginative". With these ideas in mind, it is time for students to actually bring these ideas to life! Yes, even the robot that looks just like Derek!

Give students as many materials as possible. Anything goes. Paper, found objects, glue, etc. The idea is to have a tangible object and or experience that the user (Derek) can interact with. The more interactive the better as students will be observing the emotional responses from the user.

5. Test
This is where students will gain feedback about the prototypes they have created from their users.

Derek: "I love the idea of having a robot that looks like me! Except maybe it's even smaller! Maybe it can be an app?"

Remind students their prototypes are not to be or will be perfect. Perfection is not the goal. The goal is to begin the process of observing a user with the idea, taking notes, and then improving upon the idea. This is called an iterative process. Some of the products we use daily went through the same prototype and testing process tens of thousands of times before they ended up in our possession. Another key point for students is that failure is okay! In fact, during the prototype and testing steps, we are encouraged to fail early, often, and inexpensively. This is another opportunity for them to empathize with the user. The question students should always ask themselves is "How can this meet my user's needs more effectively?"

Not just for solving problems
The Design Thinking process is not only a fun way to solve problems, but also a way to build community and collaboration in your program/classroom. Students learn to empathize, appreciate and affirm each other's ideas, to work together to piece these ideas together, and form a bond around a common goal which to meet their user's needs.

A fun activity:

Ask students to apply the Design Thinking process to solve the problem of a character in a book you are reading, a people group you are studying in History, or a environmental issue you are covering in Science. Who knows what innovative ideas they will come up with!

For breakfast I had a mushroom, green pepper, black olive, tomato, and onion omelet with bacon, grits, and glass of cranberry juice.

Jamaine Smith
Graduate Associate, Diversity and Social Justice Department
Philadelphia University
Philadelphia, PA



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