Design thinking: in & out of the box

creative design center

ASIJ opened a new Creative Design Center this year. The new space provides a focus for students to develop a maker mindset, and it provides an opportunity to distinguish between design thinking and design technology. We chose to adopt design thinking because it is human-centered and action oriented. As David Kelley points out, “Being human-centered is at the core of our innovation process. Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration” (Creative Confidence, Chapter 1, para 1). Over the past two years, we have started to develop a common language to support students to think and work like this. Design thinkers approach and respond to situations in a particular way. They switch between different phases or parts of the cycle. These phases include discovery (immersion), making meaning (synthesis), brainstorming (ideation), and try it (prototyping). Collaboration with others and feedback loops are also essential elements of design thinking.

CAD buildingTeachers have been designing learning experiences that allow students to practice all or part of the design thinking process in different subjects and at all grade levels. This approach to learning is not new. For example, there are many similarities between this approach and project-based learning. We chose design thinking because of the focus on generating empathy for others. The intention is to introduce new strategies to students throughout their educational experience to help expand their capacity in think and act with creative confidence in each of the phases. Learning new tactics and having time and opportunity to practice the art of, “Noticing that something is broken is an essential prerequisite for coming up with a creative solution to fix it” (Creative Confidence, Chapter 4, para 1). Which bring me back to the new design center. Although design thinking is often associated with tangible design solutions (products and systems), ASIJ sees that it has wider applications and that it is complementary to other learning approaches, e.g. the research process, the writing process, scientific inquiry. For this reason, it is important that our focus is on the dispositions and mindset that all students will develop by working this way rather than limiting design thinking to our maker courses or spaces.

The art of empathy

ASIJ has been working with the NoTosh team this year on gaining and understanding of the design thinking process and trying it out in aspects of our teaching practice. I have been really interested in learning about how to develop in students a mindset of a ‘problem finder’ and how empathy fits into that.

In the Graphic design course I’m teaching for GOA I’ve tried to intentionally focus student on using a few phase of the design cycle with some success. So I thought I’d share my learning from a recent unit on ergonomics.

I usually frame a new unit with learning intentions and success criteria. In this case it was:

Learning Intention
we are learning about identifying and defining problems

Criteria for Success
we can say what we observe a situation and describe gaps
we can say what people in a situation are experiencing (developed empathy)
we can write a need statement

The Hook I gave them a scenario for conducting independent research into the situation I called Learn Safe: Ergonomics

“…investigate a growing concern about habits relating to posture. Many more schools now have 1-1 programs, and students spend long hours in front of screens, hunched over text books and may sit for long periods of time at desks. Your job is to research and investigate this situation, identify gaps, define a need and come up with possible solutions.”

I shared articles to stimulate thought and discussion before sending them off to observe and interview people in their own local environments. We talked about who to interview: an expert is very different from a ‘user’ or subject (I modeled this in a video); and suggested how to combine observation with interviewing to develop empathy for ‘users’. e.g Actively intervene during an observation & use open ended questions: ‘Show me…’Why did you choose…? What do you like…? What don’t you like…? What suggestions…? What issues do you consider when xxx…?

Activities–Students observed and recorded their local context with a partner and then compared and synthesize their observations. Artifacts they generated included video interviews with experts (doctors, coaches), friends, siblings, photos of people sitting, wearing backpacks, slouching on buses, leaning over computers. Their notes and sketches fill in the details and made the situation ‘visible’ to the whole class. It was great!

From all these observations partners then had to find and define a problem worth tackling. They crafted a needs statement that identified the user, their need and the underlying problem. I introduced them to the hybrid brainstorming model and pairs practiced that as part of generating 100 ideas to tackle the problem they defined. Every pair made the target number! Some were sure wild and crazy ideas but they were mixed in with some insightful ways to impact the situation.

100 ideas 1

It’s a design class so students presented their work as a graphic representation for peer review. We stopped at that point but students can choose this work as the basis for their major project which starts in about a weeks time.

Slouch_1 Learn Safe 1

Did they develop empathy for others in this assignment and see how observation and interviewing can lead to greater understand of a situation? I’m not sure, but I am trying to intentionally build these things–practice and applying things in different contexts help me ‘work stuff out’ so my hunch is that will be true for some students too.

How much time did we spend on this? Remember that this was an online course. We did this assignment over two weeks while another individual practical project was going at the same time. I was really impressed with what students achieved in that time.