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Design Thinking

A New Way to Solve Problems

Courtesy of The Wyndcroft School
















Imagine a group of students from kindergarten through 8th grade working to solve the problem of recycling. The youngest kids focus on the best way to recycle items from the dining hall, middle grades tackle recycling throughout the school and the older kids plan a community-wide recycling project. These students are using design thinking, a new people-centered approach in education.

“Instead of looking at a problem from a data piece alone, we always try to put a person at the center of whatever it is we’re solving, and we call that person the user,” says Jim Tiffin, Jr., member of the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation in Atlanta. “Empathy is arguably the most important component of design thinking.”

Design thinking teaches students the skill of observation through empathy, and that approach changes the way students see the world. They actively notice the world around them to make it a better place.

Design thinking urges students to think outside the box

“It extends to everything we do,” says Lisa Dunn, assistant head of school at The Wyndcroft School in Pottstown, PA, where educators implemented design thinking last year. “It’s not only about trying to think outside the box but also working together to brainstorm something that’s going to meet a person’s specific challenge.”

In social studies, that might mean getting into the mindset of travelers heading West in the 1800s. What were their options? Could they have used other resources? Students then compare the pioneers’ choices to ones they would make today.

“Projects like the one about the travelers help students build empathy muscles that will enable these kids to take on much bigger problems later on,” says Tiffin.

Beyond day-to-day use in the classroom, the school devotes three days a year to design-thinking challenges that call for brainstorming, problem solving and collaboration. Whether students decide how to improve spring break or create a pencil holder from a handful of household objects, they work together to find solutions.

Problem solvers to problem seekers

“Design thinking encourages students to recognize that not everyone is a carbon copy of themselves,” says Kristen Haugen, upper-school science teacher at Wyndcroft. “It also lets them hear feedback, accept it and use it to resolve the problem with a different approach.”

Instead of students viewing a challenge primarily from their own perspective, they learn to consider whom the problem affects and what the best solution would be for the affected parties. For example, one student noticed how afraid her cat was of the vacuum cleaner, so she did a project to measure a vacuum’s decibel levels.

“Noticing the cat’s reaction was evidence of how students are strengthening their observation and discovery muscles in the context of school,” notes Tiffin.

Since the implementation of design thinking, Haugen has seen a difference in her students. “I’ve seen an improvement in their willingness to use feedback to help them create something better,” she says. “Design thinking also has helped improve their creativity by allowing students to redesign their initial idea.”

Design thinking in practice

Rocco Bressi, a 6th grader at Wyndcroft, got the assignment to convert a Chinese food box into a habitat for a pet rock.  The lesson’s goals were to review the use of different pieces of equipment in the science lab, including rulers, graduated cylinders and triple-beam balances.

Using design thinking, he needed to think like the rock. What would make it comfortable, what might its needs be and how could the lab equipment be used to create the right design? Rocco named his new charge “Rocko” and quickly realized a bathroom was a must. A bottle cap with shiny blue foil made a perfect toilet.

“Not only was Rocco learning the scientific method within the process, but he also used his creative mind,” says his mom, Katy. “This approach seems easier for him. He gets it.”

“In the end,” says Tiffin, “you have a solution that shines because you identified your user’s needs and made it work for them. Design thinking in schools is helping better prepare children for the innovation economy of the very near future.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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