On a school visit with my daughter last October, we sat in a small lecture room to experience a high school classroom in action. Two teachers introduced themselves, a drama teacher and a math teacher. A class in dramatic mathematics? No—a team-based approach to using research, experimentation and prototyping to solve a real world problem. In short, design-based thinking in the classroom.

The project presented was the creation of a puppet theatre for kindergarten students. By defining the challenge and determining the criteria for success, students needed to think about how the kindergartners would use and react to the puppet theatre. Activating math skills such as measurement, numeration and geometric problem solving, the students planned for the approximate height and width of the performers, researched appropriate materials, considered cost, defined area and developed a process for construction. Here it is, I thought, an act of thinking and making that connects to our everyday lives.

My daughter, Wallis, is entering 9th grade this coming fall. I wonder how well she is prepared to solve the world’s complex problems. At her K–8, I observed her ability to present and assess her own work and also saw her experience the dynamics of collaborative teams—a process I was not exposed to until higher education. Are the skills of “design thinking,” such as creativity, adaptability, empathy and synthesis, now at the forefront of a new curriculum?

When I asked Wallis about design thinking in her classroom, she responded as most 14-year-olds would: “What’s that?”

I said, “You know, research, character maps, work groups, coming up with an idea, making stuff, presentations.”

Looking a bit perplexed, she said, “Yeah—is that what you do, too?”

Over the past decade, there has been momentum to create awareness about design thinking in its broader use outside of the traditional disciplines of graphic design, product design, interior design and architecture. The push to teach 21st-century skills has sparked vigorous debate in American schools, and investigative learning seems to be finding its way into the classroom. The d.school at Stanford has been working to spread design thinking amongst K-12 educators since 2008. Speaking to the benefits of critical thinking in primary and secondary education, IDEO’s Sandy Speicher, a strategic advisor for the K–12 Lab at the d.school, says, “Design thinking at its core is about asking ‘what if?’… and choosing to do something about it.”

This program and offshoots like Prototype Design Camp, which invites young creatives from cities all over the US to use the mindset and methodology of design to solve real world problems, or the Institute of Play, which promotes game design as a means for personal and social development in public schools in New York and Chicago, are just beginning to realize their potential for influence. The culture of design has become so pervasive in our society that teachers are naturally introducing new modes of design-based thinking and learning where students are empowered to shape knowledge rather than merely receive it.

Of particular interest is an impressive “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit that has recently been developed by a team of IDEO designers in collaboration with Riverdale Country School in New York City. The toolkit helps teachers create solutions for everyday challenges in the classroom and equips teachers with the process and methods of design.

“Teachers design every day; they structure all kinds of solutions,” says Speicher, who draws parallels between designers and teachers. When presented with ideas of design thinking, teachers realize the power of changing the situation in front of them. The toolkit helps teachers to build the design process into their lesson plans and engage the classroom environment in new and different ways. The teaching becomes energized, and it reinforces the connection with students.

Wallis and I are 14 and 46 respectively, but we do share a common ground, although we may not call it the same thing, or use it in the same way. We are both “design thinkers,” and these processes and values guide our behavior and our response to the world. As her teenage years present new challenges, I hope that the lessons of design thinking that are taking hold in schools gives her generation the skills to make our world a better place.


From Design Thinking for Educators: The Five Primary Steps of the Design Process

Discovery

I have a challenge. How do I approach it? Creating meaningful solutions for people begins with a deep understanding of their needs.

Interpretation

I learned something. How do I interpret it? It involves storytelling, sorting and condensing thoughts, until a compelling point of view and clear direction for ideation emerge.

Ideation

I see an opportunity. What do I create? With careful preparation and a set of rules to follow, a brainstorm session can yield hundreds of fresh ideas.

Experimentation

Building prototypes means making ideas tangible, learning while building them and sharing them with other people.

Evolution

This involves planning next steps, communicating the idea to people who can help realize it and documenting the process.