Empowering Teachers and Students to Solve Authentic Problems Using Design

Last year Partnership for Change Fellows and Implementation Teams started researching best education practices in order to support the mission of the two school districts to create more innovative, rigorous, equitable and student-centered learning environments. Design Thinking was one of the strongest levers of change to carry forward this vision and mission identified by former Community Based Learning Fellow Dov Stucker, Steering Committee Member Rich Nadworny and the Community Based Learning Implementation Team. This is why I have dedicated part of my Community Based Learning Fellowship this year to continuing to support design thinking piloting in the two districts.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is the process of solving authentic problems using design concepts. The process starts with identifying a specific behavior or problem to address. Designers work together to find a solution using empathy, open ended brainstorming and ideation, rapid prototyping and implementing solutions. This process is not only used in the design world, but in many other fields, such as engineering, healthcare and education. Design Thinking is a powerful process that can be used across content areas in K-12 education.

What does design thinking look like in education?

Teachers and students work together to identify challenges in their classroom, school, local or global community. They then work as designers to solve these challenges and problems. According to the Innovation Design Engineering Organization (IDEO), the five phases of the design process include:

  • Discovery: I have a challenge. How do I approach it?
  • Interpretation: I learned something. How do I interpret it?
  • Ideation: I see an opportunity. What do I create?
  • Experimentation: I have an idea. How do I build it?
  • Evolution: I tried something. How do I evolve it?

Why use design thinking in education?

  • fosters empathy for others
  • builds relationships and increases more inclusive collaboration
  • encourages growth mindset and a YES AND approach
  • empowers students and emphasizes youth voice and leadership
  • offers relevance and rigor through community based learning
  • expands creativity and ideation
  • accepts failure as part of solution process; teaches perseverance
  • supports graduate expectations developed by our communities
  • deepens critical thinking and problem solving skills

How are we using design thinking in our two school districts?

Last year a group of teachers and community members participated in a one-day design thinking workshop organized by Dov Stucker and Rich Nadworny through Partnership for Change funds. This workshop was led by Innovation Strategist and Design Educator Jess Munro, an instructor at the D.School at Stanford and the Founder of Entrepreneurs by Design. Teachers then began experimenting with some design thinking tools and concepts in their classrooms.

This year we brought Jess Munro back for a two-day workshop in December. Forty teachers, students, administrators and community members participated in the workshop. We also invited 18 people to participate in a 90-minute design thinking experiment where students and teachers taught them some of the tools and concepts of design thinking. This group included both superintendents, an administrator from both high schools, school board members, Steering Committee members, District administrators, Partnership for Change Staff and parents.

Jess Munro will continue to work with our communities and offer professional development and design thinking coaching for the following projects over the next five months: Winooski High School community challenge on school climate, Burlington High School Community Challenge with physics students and energy efficiency unit, and support calls for ten BHS teachers across content areas and grade levels and two Youth Advisory Council students to implement design thinking in their curriculum.

Partnership for Change is empowering students to use design thinking and lead neighborhood learning conversations this spring to help stakeholders from our two communities provide input and ideas for designing better school systems to support all of our students.

What have design thinking workshop participants learned and taken away from the process?

“Using rapid “yes and” brainstorming helps increase creativity and creates a “can do” attitude. Love having a fresh approach to generating and trying new ideas.”

“Having students at the workshop helps teachers keep the focus on the students. Great energy with students at workshop. It’s important to include youth in such program development efforts. I enjoyed listening to the stories of the youth.

“What a natural fit this is for the way we WANT to teach.”

“I have a better understanding of myself and keeping an open mind. I learned how to put myself in someone else’s position and not assume I know what he or she needs.”

“Two (or more) minds are better than one. Great things can be achieved when you build on the ideas of others.”

“For teachers, open ended brainstorming and rapid prototyping will be the most difficult to accept – since we usually feel it has to be “just right” before we go public. For students, it’s a great opportunity to learn that failure is actually a learning opportunity, and shouldn’t be feared.”

How can you learn more about design thinking?

Design thinking is happening in schools across our country, although it is more common in private and charter schools and not as common in public education. I recommend starting with some of the following resources. I will share more resources and publish updates on our progress with design thinking in the two school districts over the next five months:

A VPR Commentary by Rich Nadworny (a Burlington resident)
A TED Talk about how Design-Thinking is Transforming Rural Schools
A TED Talk by Tim Brown on Creativity and Play
A 60-Minutes Interview with IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown
Brief Video Intro to Design-Thinking
Design-Thinking Video from a Teacher’s Perspective

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