A teacher emailed me earlier this week asking a question about design thinking. “I don’t have much technology in my classroom but I want to have a maker space and I want to try design thinking. Any ideas?”

My first thought is that some of the best design thinking projects my students accomplished required technology. It’s impossible to create a Scratch video game with no devices. Similarly, you can’t film a documentary or create a podcast without multimedia creation tools.

And yet . . .

Even when I had one-to-one devices, there were times when I chose to go the low-tech route. We used design thinking when we did cardboard challenges, built solar ovens, painted murals, and organized service projects.

Creativity can’t be limited to a device.

Case in point, a few years back, my students spent two weeks designing and building model roller coasters. True, they used their devices for research (Understanding the Process or Problem phase of the LAUNCH Cycle) and they shared their work in their reflective blogs and on our class Twitter account.

Here’s the basic concept:

However, they built their roller coasters with random items we up-cycled from around the school. The results weren’t always pretty to look at but students had a deeper, profound understanding of forces and motion. For all the talk of hands-on learning, this was actually hands-on. Literally.

In some cases, technology actually gets in the way of the design process. For example, there are some amazing 3D modeling programs that engineers use. A student could work with the program and perhaps even find a way to print the roller coaster with a 3D printer. However, in many cases, duct tape and cardboard and card stock and straws all work better for students as they create their prototypes. There’s a power in tactile act of creating things by hand.

So, there are times when technology is vital for certain projects. These are the moments where the technology actually transforms the task. However, there are other times when the technology merely enhances the task at hand. Still, there are other times when a device gets in the way of a design project.

Ultimately, it’s a reminder that while technology is amazing and can open up doors previously closed to students, the best devices pale in comparison to a moment when a student is engaged in a creative task.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Hey John

    Great post as always. In our ES Makerspace, we intentionally limit the amount of digital devices – laptops and iPads. Kids have enough screen time as it is. We believe at this younger age if is far more valuable to have kids creating, designing, tinkering and making physically.

    In fact I have to say I find it worrying (though maybe not surprising) that some teachers think design thinking is about computers:(

    • John Spencer says:

      Agreed. There were times when we were fully device-free for a reason. I went one-to-one with old refurbished computers running on Linux. This was a decade ago. But we would actually unplug the computers and place them under the tables when we did maker projects.

  • I really enjoyed your post. I really like the idea of not relying too heavily on technology. It can be very helpful at times but being conscience of how much you rely on it is important. This post got me thinking about how this could be talked about in the classroom. Using your video game example I think it would be cool to discuss certain aspects of technology and doing projects or mini-projects based on that. For example just making regular games such as a board game, or making mazes to show level design or just making stories. This could get a good discussion going about how, or if, technology makes things better and what exactly it changes about certain things. Another discussion point could be discussing differences between books and movies. I think these could be good ways to discuss the pros and cons of technology.

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