Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. These are
the building blocks of the design thinking process, a
process that has been accessed time and time again by
successful start-ups and other businesses worldwide.
According to David Kelly, founder of IDEO Design
Thinking and partner, Tom Kelly, design thinking is a methodology that can be used to address a variety of
personal, social, and business challenges in creative
ways. As middle school
educators, it is our responsibility to prepare our
students for their future careers and to provide them
with a toolkit of skills that address the challenges Kelly and Kelly speak of when they enter the competitive
workplace as leaders and future changemakers.
Consider the following scenario: A start-up
company is operating out of the home of its 24-year-old
founder. Seven others are sitting or standing,
coffee in hand, around two whiteboards, crammed in
a small living room space. The whiteboards are
covered with sticky notes and the sticky notes are
filled with questions scribbled on them in various
colors. Who are our customers? What are their needs
relative to our product? How do we improve our
customers’ lives? How do we improve our product?
Do we create a new one? What were the results of our interviews? What are the common themes from the
target demographic responses?
In no particular order each team member jumps
up and jots something on the board then returns to
their seat. What can be witnessed next are nods,
agreements, respectful disagreements, consideration
of ideas, and then…a “drop the mic” moment. All
team members see it: the vision on the board. It is the
inspiration that will kick the team off into the next
two stages of the design thinking process—building
their vision, or prototyping it, and then testing it
out. As quickly as the gathering began, it ends. The
founder remains while the others scatter in different
directions. There is no formal assessment of the team
members’ performance that morning. The proof is on
the board and will be in the development of the ideas
and data they bring to the next meeting.
Consider the design thinking process these eight
individuals just took part in and the skills required
to do so. Teamwork. Listening. Speaking. Critically
thinking. Analyzing. Empathizing. Questioning.
Creating. Arguably, these are skills all middle school
educators should be embracing, modeling, and actively
allowing their students to engage in throughout the
school year. What if more classrooms embraced this
model? What would learning look like? What would it
sound like? How would learning change? How would
our middle school learners change? Consider even,
what would assessment look like?
Let’s move the design thinking process from the
first scenario to our middle school classroom. It’s
a Thursday morning in January. There are 28 kids
and 1 teacher in an eighth grade science classroom.
The class has just reached the end of a unit covering
the environment, more specifically global warming.
Questions such as: “What is my individual role
as well as our whole group role in protecting the
environment?” have been common discussion points
throughout the unit. It’s time to assess the students’
knowledge. Enter the teacher and the design thinking
challenge for the class: Take a closer look at our
own school community. How can we improve the
environment by changing our practices in this one
building? Empathize: Who are we designing for?
What are their needs? Research: Survey and interview
friends, teachers, administration. Define the problem.
Ideate and brainstorm! Prototype: Bring your ideas to
life. And finally, test: Give the potential solutions a try!
What does a design thinking classroom model
look like? Four whiteboards, many different colored
markers, and sticky notes (small, large, different
colors) are stationed throughout the room. Seven
students make up a group and are assigned to each
board. Seven kids huddle around each whiteboard.
The teacher tasks the groups with assigning a leader
who will refocus their group throughout the process.
Words are quickly scribbled on the boards, circled,
and even more added. Kids are constantly jumping
up and down, moving to the board and sitting back
down, standing by it, heads are turning to look at
their competitors’ ideas.
What does a design thinking classroom model
sound like? Loud but with purpose. There is
excitement and energy in the air because 28 brains
are being inspired to offer their knowledge and creativity to a common challenge. Their voices are
being heard. How does the learning change in a
design thinking model? Design thinking moves
students beyond surface level “student-centered”
classroom work into a different mindset, that of the
workplace. Students no longer feel like just students;
they are leaders, competitors, changemakers. There
is opportunity to honor the various strengths of
students in the classroom. Budding journalists get to
interview school principals, students, and teachers.
Mathematicians get to recognize patterns in the data
and analyze it. Artists and engineers get to take the
lead on prototyping and building potential solutions.
And perhaps most important are the social-emotional
relationships. Kids learn to listen to their peers, value
what the other has offered, respectfully question,
consider various points of view as a result of the
process, and learn to work together as a team.
That’s great, you may be thinking, but how do we
assess and grade this work? In his article, "The Next
Revolution in Education: Design Thinking" (2019) Michael
Shein interviews Sam Seidel, the director of K12 strategy
and research at the Stanford d.school.
Seidel comments that, “On average, a quarter of school
days are spent on either test prep
or actual tests each year. I’m not
saying that assessments can’t be
meaningful and valuable when
done well, but… well, that brings
us to the second big problem.
These tests don't measure what
most everyone agrees matters.
It’s become a given that success
in life requires being able to
collaboratively solve problems. To
think critically and creatively. To
communicate effectively. That's
not what these assessments are
testing.” The skills Seidel suggests
are worth measuring can be
assessed in the scenario above.
Accountability measures can be
created for students throughout
the design thinking process to
both individually assess their
performance as well as peer
assess the members of their
team. Teachers also have much
more flexibility during design
thinking activities to move around
the room and informally assess groups. Presentations can be developed by each group
when they complete the process to serve as one final
assessment measure. And guess what, it’s OK if the
final prototypes fail. This is yet another important
lesson students learn by participating in design thinking
activities. Imagine the potential power of a discussion
about the great inventors and innovators of our time?
Where would we be as a society if they simply stopped
after their first try?
Introducing design thinking into our middle
school classrooms not only prepares our students for
the workplace and allows teachers to begin placing
focus on the important skills of building empathy,
developing critical thinking, and improving team
collaboration, but just as important it inspires our
students to develop the grit to keep trying despite
failure. The potential for success and change might
just pop up on the next sticky note that goes up on
Jamie Silverman is a lecturer in the Department
of Secondary and Middle School Education, Towson
University, Towson, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.