There’s Energy in the Air

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 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 that board.

Jamie Silverman is a lecturer in the Department of Secondary and Middle School Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.