Our country’s recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how important it is to be adaptable, collaborative, flexible, and critical thinkers. When faced with a rapidly evolving reality where day-to-day unknowns are the norm, people quickly came to rely on those who possess such 21st century skills. It is predicted that the youth of the future will require such skills as our society moves towards a knowledge-based economy (Alberta Education, 2010). It will be essential to become adept in analyzing and synthesizing information and using higher-level thinking in multifaceted ways. In response, many school jurisdictions across Canada have placed emphasis on developing these skillsets in their K to 12 learners. Recently, teachers have begun to consider the design thinking approach as a means of developing learners’ 21st century competencies, however, many still lack understanding of how to effectively implement the approach in their own classrooms. This article aims to help inform teachers of the benefits of design thinking as well as to provide practical suggestions for those teachers who would like to begin to embed design thinking in their own practices.
BENEFITS OF DESIGN THINKING
Design thinking, an inherently human centred approach, promotes four key 21st century competencies—empathy, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity—through its five stages (Hynes, 2020). Alberta Education (2011) defines competency as “an interrelated set of attitudes, skills and knowledge that is drawn upon and applied to a particular context for successful learning and living developed over time” (p. 3). The iterative and interwoven nature of the approach requires ample time for students to reflect on a problem, understand it from multiple perspectives, and gain insights to better provide solutions.
Empathy is a competence that involves recognizing “feelings, thoughts, intentions and characteristics of others” (Scheer, Noweski & Meinel, 2012, p. 12). Human centredness is a unique and foundational aspect of design thinking that underlies the development of empathy. Where other instructional methods ask students to solve problems based on their own understanding of the problem and perceived needs of others, design thinking asks for students to become partners with those for whom they are solving the problem (known as “users”). Students approach problems together with their users in an attempt to build understanding and gain insights while seeking to provide tailored and innovative solutions (IDEO, 2020). Through empathetic interactions, meaningful connections are made with users that result in feelings of personal investment and in students striving to find effective solutions to the users’ problems instead of arriving at just any acceptable answer (Cook & Bush, 2018). Students continually employ empathetic skills while observing users engaging with and testing prototypes to determine how to further refine the solution.
The human centred nature of design thinking supports collaboration. The very first collaborative opportunity students are presented with when engaging in the design thinking approach is that of working together with the users themselves. This endeavour requires constant communication and cooperation between the designer and user as they work to uncover insights through active observation and analysis when defining their problem. It is rare that students work independently during the multiple phases of the design thinking approach. Students typically work in design teams where multiple perspectives and disciplines are called upon to create solutions through “opening up the mind, being imaginative and build[ing] on the ideas of others” (p. 12, Scheer, Noweski & Meinel, 2012).
Metacognitive processes that enable critical thinking and analysis are the heart of the design thinking approach (Soleas, 2015). Metacognition “informs how to infer, interpolate and extrapolate, develop a culture of asking questions, cultivates drive, and retention of knowledge; information is internalized and transferred, strategizing occurs for communication” (p.3). Critical thinking is advanced as students are tasked with “problem finding” and they arrive at choices for their solutions by interviewing, analyzing, and interpreting their users’ needs as they relate findings to the problem at hand (Gross & Gross, 2018; Scheer, Noweski & Meinel, 2012). Students continually apply critical thinking skills by evaluating and condensing information to generate a myriad of actionable solutions as they create and test prototypes (Scheer, Noweski & Meinel, 2012). Evaluation continues as multiple iterations of designs are refined and assessed for viability.
Inter- and multidisciplinary opportunities provided through the design thinking approach not only hone critical thinking skills but also make way for the development of creativity. Many hold the misconception that creativity is void of critical thinking and instead is an innate ability that only a lucky few possess. Paul and Elder (2007) argue that these two competencies are “inseparable, integrated and unitary” (p. 36); that is, one cannot creatively solve problems without thinking critically. The competency of creativity is frequently developed as students are tasked with exploring diverse pathways and entertaining multiple solutions from multiple perspectives, no matter how wild or unrealistic (Aflatoony & Wakkary, 2015; IDEO, 2020; Rauth, Koppen, Jobst, & Meinel, 2010). New solutions arise through cycles of convergent and divergent thinking, which are critical to creative invention, and by physically creating and refining prototypes.
Once equipped with an understanding of the design thinking approach, teachers often question best practices for implementation. Many realize its complex and recursive nature, and struggle to find a starting point. Below are some practical suggestions one may consider when implementing the design thinking approach in the classroom.
Develop a Culture of Trust
Ineffective collaboration between student designers is a common observation in K to 12 classrooms (Aflatoony, Wakkary & Neustaedter, 2017; Carroll et al, 2010; Kelly, 2016). Building a culture of openness, trust, belonging, and acceptance early on allows teachers to circumvent issues related to learners’ lacking self-awareness and confidence. Teachers must be explicit in stating and modelling expectations to foster belonging and acceptance of ideas. We live by three rules in my classroom: 1) everyone’s abilities are unique and enhance the team, 2) accept all ideas, no matter how unrealistic, 3) build on the ideas of others by improving, not rejecting (termed “plussing”) (Kelly, 2016). Open-ended challenges for which students hold little prior experience tend to level the playing field and force everyone to build reliance on the collective skills of the group. “Speed dating” is also used to build communication, listening skills, and confidence and acceptance via plussing. Here, students rapidly pitch ideas to partners, listen to feedback on how to improve their ideas, and then move to new partners where the process is repeated. Students become comfortable expressing ideas to multiple people and come to the realization that group members are there to enrich their ideas, not to criticize.
It is natural to feel overwhelmed when embarking on a new pedagogical journey, especially one that may seem rigorous and complex. Though design thinking is most often applied in interdisciplinary contexts, one does not have to reach far beyond a single discipline to find an entry point for a first foray with the process. Exploring real world problems through the lens of a discipline in which one has experience allows for concentration on the implementation of the approach itself and observation of successes and challenges instead of being inundated with managing new curricular content and a new method of teaching. Working in a single domain also allows students to develop subject-specific knowledge and understanding that allows for more effective application of the process (Gross & Gross, 2016).
Authentic problems arise in the simplest of places. Speaking to students, other teachers, or the parent community about their frustrations and wishes is an excellent place to find engaging and worthwhile tasks to undertake. One year, our design thinking journey arose out of a simple conversation with my colleagues in the staffroom. Rather than attempt to solve the problem on my own (my attempts had been fruitless up until that point anyway), I posed the challenge to my grade seven students and used this problem as the first opportunity to engage with design thinking. Working in the single discipline of mathematics, design teams were created and assigned to a number of teachers in the school who held the same problem. Students jumped at the challenge to learn more about the teachers and their needs while incorporating the constraints of the problem itself. They were highly invested in working and learning for the betterment of their users while simultaneously unpacking the pieces of the design process. I was able to reflect on implementation and areas for improvement as I observed challenges and successes.
Find Like-Minded Colleagues
Structure and organization of schools are two constraints when planning for design thinking opportunities (Gross and Gross, 2016). The siloed nature of some schools where subjects are independent of each other causing timetable limitations are common hurdles that teachers are required to navigate. However, these aspects do not have to be as limiting as one might think. It is often stated that when one person has a question others do as well. The same can hold true for teachers and the desire to improve practice. If you are looking to make change in your classroom, it is likely that others in your building are as well. Reaching out to colleagues about your interest in the design process can bring like-minded colleagues to the forefront. For myself, after speaking with the members of my grade team about a desire to create more collaborative and interdisciplinary experiences with our grade eight students, we found innovative ways to restructure our timetables and thematically address curriculum in order to approach our work through the lens of design thinking. In other classrooms this might look like collaborating with teachers from other grades to find a common area of interest to tackle together, splitting up investigations in order to address different parts of the process within your siloed classes (e.g., empathize with and interview users in English class and create prototypes in Art or Science), or finding opportunities in your timetable and a colleague’s timetable for a month or two while you attempt to incorporate elements together. Reaching out to other like-minded colleagues is a catalyst for change.
Finally, design thinking is a thorough and iterative process that teachers report to be time-consuming (Cook & Bush, 2018). Firsthand experience demonstrates that some instructors hold the misconception that the process is fluid, resulting in the implementation of just some stages rather than all. Research cautions against being selective and recommends spending adequate time on teaching the entire process to students. Complete participation in problem finding and solving is essential to ensuring that users’ perspectives and problems are fully understood and that solutions are appropriate for the users and their context. If teachers feel uncomfortable carving large dedicated blocks of time from their schedules, slowly engaging in the process stage-by-stage over a longer period of time is another way to begin to work with the process and also give it due time and attention
Aflatoony, L. & Wakkary, R. (2015). Thoughtful Thinkers: Secondary Schooler’s Learning about Design Thinking. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278027751_Thoughtful_Thinkers_ Secondary_Schoolers%27_Learning_about_Design_Thinking
Aflatoony, L., Wakkary, R., & Neustaedter, C. (2017). Becoming a Design Thinker: Assessing the Learning Process of Students in a Secondary Level Design Thinking Course. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 37(3), 438–453. doi: 10.1111/jade.12139
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Asha Hynes, a former geologist turned teacher, has been working with middle years learners since 2008. Asha ignites passion for science and discovery by creating interdisciplinary learning experiences that make use of the design thinking approach in the math and science classroom. Over the last three years, Asha has further concentrated her interests by pursuing a Master of Education in learning sciences centring on STEM, design thinking, and collaboration for innovation in attempt to assist her own students and others in becoming 21st century thinkers.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2021 issue.