Thinking About Design Thinking

Thinking About Design Thinking

How do you define “design thinking”? What does it look like when a student is engaged in design thinking?
Merita: Design thinking is a powerful learning tool that teaches students empathy and critical thinking while solving problems from a human point of view. This step-by-step process encourages students to look at their community and identify the problems that exist. This empowers them to think of themselves as problem solvers, and, as soon as you get them to think that way, they will own the work and become responsible for their thinking and their product outcome. This method encourages a lot of collaboration among students, critical thinking, problem solving, team building, and communication skills. The steps of design thinking are the same as the engineering design process: We identify problems in our community; we define these problems based on research; we formulate questions that will lead us to a solution; we come up with ideas; we build models based on our ideas for solutions; and we test our ideas and communicate our answers.

Marcia: Design thinking is one model-type used globally (not just in schools, but in the "real world") that puts problem solving at its center, and makes for a constant circle-back-to-the-original-idea-to-improve-it that is found in many of the problem-solving models used today. Design thinking looks for the engineer (or the computer scientist, or the writer) to use empathy in the process. In our Techxplorations class, we used a slightly different visual model, called the problem-solving process. It is also circular in structure so that students learn to persist, collaborate, analyze, communicate, and, most importantly, revise their thinking (or their design) to make improvements and find solutions. Both models share the importance of the iterative process—testing and failing and revision—to come up with something that works. Students who are engaged in any design model like this are seen working with each other, relying on feedback and suggestions, learning to think critically about the work of someone else rather than who that someone else is (i.e., I find an issue with the work, not with you), and learning to take critical feedback and suggestions to make the design stronger. There is a level of creativity and freedom within this design space, too.

How do you facilitate design thinking in your classes? Before remote learning? During remote learning?
Marcia: In computer science, which our 5th graders are studying right now, students on campus would use the pair-programming model—one child is a driver, one a navigator—by physically moving to another's space and laptop to collaborate. Remotely, however, we will collaborate using break-out rooms or channels to keep that same tight line of communication going.

Merita: This year’s challenge is building a futuristic lunar city using at least two resources from the moon. Students are really engaged and invested, as they see this as something that might happen in their lifetime. In engineering arts, facilitating design thinking is an easy task. As soon as you ask the “big question” or introduce students to a challenge, they naturally engage in brainstorming and come up with immediate answers. This is great, but it is not our goal. This is the first step towards learning. So, I ask more questions, which are more like: Why do you think that? What about…? Can you tell me more about your thinking? During virtual learning, we have figured out ways to complete all these tasks remotely. We meet twice a week for 1.5 hours. We have discussions; we collaborate on research using the OneNote app; we share ideas through chat rooms; we screen-share; we use the whiteboard on Teams; and, at times, we divide in groups/channels and come back together to share what we learned. We have our mentor engineer and guest speakers joining us on Teams. This has been a very convenient feature this year, as our scientist guest speakers can join us from anywhere in the world, and we get to ask questions and learn from them. Remote learning has given us an opportunity to master technological tools and increase the efficiency of our work. Now that we have learned these tools, I am sure we will find them helpful when we are back in the classroom.

In what ways do you think Green Acres is uniquely poised to nurture design thinking?
Marcia: Our school is set up to offer rich opportunities across classes for students to engage in design thinking and the problem-solving process. The main thing I think that separates us is that our curriculum is not prescribed and packaged in such a way that we are rushed to "cover material" and move quickly from one lesson to the next. If students are working to authentically move through, understand, and solve a problem, we have the time to give our students the space to think, back up, return to an idea, tweak it, and move on. We don't have to push kids out the door after a 42-minute class and hope that they understood everything for a quiz the next day. We give our students the gift of time to internalize these process skills deeply. That helps them develop into deep thinkers who can approach local and global problems in much the same way.

Merita: Green Acres is the right place to be for this kind of learning, as design thinking comes naturally in a progressive-education environment. It’s all about explorations, asking questions, finding answers, and learning how our work impacts our community. Also, the opportunity that teachers have to work on our own curriculum, as well as make improvements and adjustments according to student interests, is a great asset at our school. Design thinking becomes a natural process for our students, as they are introduced early on to explorations of the world around them. The sense of wonder, the ability to ask questions, the opportunities that teachers create in the classroom for collaboration, and the space for different ways of learning and exploration are cultivated early on and are all part of design thinking—without being labeled as such.

How would you describe the relationship between design thinking and global citizenship?
Merita: As you can see from the engineering arts project, building a lunar city solves a global problem. With climate change, we are trying to find ways beyond Earth to secure the continuity of life. Through the challenge of exploration, we address new problems and create new technologies and more connections between nations for the common good. Last year, the challenge was based on creating efficient and reliable water systems during natural disasters. Students researched what areas in the world suffered from damages to water systems after hurricanes or earthquakes. They located areas in different parts of the world and did extensive research on the problems before coming up with solutions and models representing those solutions. Their solutions were global solutions, since they solved problems in global communities.

Marcia: Design thinking and other problem-solving design models offer students and teachers opportunities to strengthen interdisciplinary skills, such as research, questioning techniques, effective communication skills, finding empathy, and giving and receiving feedback—all characteristics of a true global citizen. ❖


Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Middle School Beat Vol. II No. I in October 2020.