Anatomy of a Design Thinking Lesson

I started off our design thinking exploration this school year with a Grade 2-8 introductory lesson.

I did the classic straw tower challenge that’s par for the course in any design thinking workshop. There are other variations out there – spaghetti, marshmallows (not recommended). It’s an easily set-up activity and thoroughly engaging for students from elementary school through to middle school.

I decided to film one of the lessons so I could reflect on the design thinking process going forward.

Lessons learned and moving forward

It was a little bit of a stretch to incorporate the “Empathy” stage of design thinking but imagining the poor life of a tennis ball got the students laughing and making sure the tennis ball could rest easy on their tower.

As I move forward I’ve become more aware of the time spent on brainstorming, designing and redesigning, and testing. As this was a time constrained one-off lesson those stages were definitely present (albeit fleetingly) but with larger projects (we are currently in a one month project with Grade 4) there is more time for students to figure out why and how these redesigns are taking place.

Design thinking is a framework. A lot of projects go through this process naturally. As an educator, using the design thinking framework is a way to structure design with an empathetic core (in this day and age taking into account the feelings and needs of other people is only a good thing). With our Grade 4 project, which I will write about when complete, we wanted our students to create outside sculptures for our school. We asked why is that important for our school? Why is it important for visitors? And why is it important for students and teachers? Getting the students to think about real purpose and creating for others (not for themselves) is key.

Mistakes are hard to learn from. Students automatically equate mistakes with failure, failure with sadness, sadness with defeat. We can try as we move forward to develop a positive approach to design failure. Allow time to redesign and remedy mistakes. A lot of student groups changed their design of the straw tower multiple times as the failure was easy to see (the tower was not strong enough to hold the tennis ball). I had a student come up to me in our Grade 4 project right before her presentation to ask if she could change her design. No problem. She won the vote for her class to build her design. So, firstly she felt she had to ask to change her design – we can work on that mentality. And secondly, from watching other presentations she came up with a new and completely different design than her original one.

Constraint is interesting and seems to urge creative solutions. Near the end of rotating through the Grade 2-8 classes I removed the scissors from the materials list and I felt that the design solutions were actually more innovative and effective. The students could not cut straws anymore and were left with one size, that changed the focus to structure rather than dimensions.

The design thinking process has been adopted by some of our classroom teachers in other ways. One of our grade 4 teachers used it in Math where students had to develop a time measuring device. It would be nice for that sort of thinking to develop and not to equate design thinking with…design. Teachers liked the framework when I presented it at the start of the year – even suggesting it could play a part in conflict resolultion. Not everything has to end with a physical product.

It’s early days, both for myself and our school, in exploring design thinking. But the initial suggestions are that it is a very useful framework to encourage creativity, resilience, failure as a positive experience, and reflection.

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