10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Design Thinking

In a recent post, I wrote about why I want to see students become innovators:

Unfortunately, the system isn’t designed for innovation. For years, schools have been stuck in a one-size-fits-all factory model, where students passively consume content. Some people will point out that this model is outdated. However, I would argue that factory education was a bad idea from the start. Because here’s the thing: kids aren’t widgets.

While one-size-fits-all works great for socks, it’s not ideal for minds. Kids need to dream and wonder and imagine. They need to design and build and tinker. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that guides students through specific phases in the creative process.

What happens when kids become design thinkers?

The following are some of the benefits I have noticed when kids engage in design thinking.

  1. They move from engaged to empowered. Design thinking honors student agency, because they are the ones asking the questions, doing the research, generating ideas, and creating the final product. When they own the creative process, they own their learning.
  2. They become problem-solvers. Real problem-solvers. The kind of problem-solvers who actually create the solutions. It’s not always easy. It can take time. Sometimes they get frustrated by all the mistakes. But by the end, they view themselves as problem-solvers — and this is the kind of self-concept that continues outside of school.
  3. They grow more empathetic. Design thinking begins with a place of humility. You aren’t just making something. You are making something that serves an audience. This requires deep empathy. It might be a service project or a product or something you are publishing. Each approach requires a different kind of empathy. If this happens in a culturally responsive way, students can also learn cultural humility.
  4. They remain curious. Design thinking begins with this sense of wonder and curiosity. It honors this natural desire to explore and to ask tons of questions. Too often, students internalize the idea that learning is all about answering questions. However, design thinking reminds us that learning begins with inquiry.
  5. They learn how to work collaboratively. Traditional school work requires students to be dependent on their teacher as the source of all information. Individualized learning shifts to independence. But design thinking teaches students to work interdependently, balancing the needs of the group with the need for personal expression.
  6. They view themselves as makers. By sharing their product with the world, they participate in a global community of creativity. They can also share their creative journey in what Austin Kleon describes as “showing your work.” In the process, they are more likely to appreciate the creativity around them.
  7. They value the diversity of creative mindsets. Here students experience a bigger definition of creativity. In design thinking, students might be hacking a system, solving a problem, engineering a solution, tinkering, tweaking a process, testing ideas, gathering data or dreaming up new ideas. In the process, they learn to value the creative mindsets of everyone around them.
  8. They learn the power of creative constraint. For all the talk of “thinking outside the box,” this is a chance for students to learn how to “think inside the box,” working with specific limitations as they prototype. Here, they learn that limitations are often the very design features for their finished work.
  9. They see the value of iterations. Too often, students are punished for getting the wrong answer. They are stuck in grading systems where they get an average on their scores. With design thinking, they have an entire phase devoted to refining their work. This doesn’t mean they don’t need to have any deadlines, but it does mean they have the time and the permission to keep working on a product until they are ready to send it to an authentic audience.
  10. They become creative risk-takers. Design thinking encourages students to engage in creative risk-taking at every stage. In the research phase, students can engage in divergent thinking, learning that every question matters. In the ideation phase, they get over the fear that their ideas might be “dumb” as they generate and combine ideas. In the creating and revising phases, they realize that the only true failure is giving in to fear of failure.

In other words, when students embrace design thinking, they develop a maker mindset. They define themselves as problem-solvers.

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My Journey with Design Thinking

When I first began teaching, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. I wanted them to embrace the maker mindset. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn’t have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn’t translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).

That’s why I needed a framework. This is ultimately why I embraced design thinking. My students needed a different way to think about creative work. They needed something that would provide structure but also respect student agency and choice.

It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. My work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford d.school and IDEO).

But ultimately, I found that there were tweaks and iterations I needed to make to the existing design thinking frameworks. This  is ultimately why I worked with AJ Juliani on the LAUNCH Cycle, a student-friendly design thinking framework for K-12 classrooms. We added a few key elements, including a broader starting point, an explicit stage of inquiry, a media literacy component and a final phase where they launch their work to an authentic audience.

You can learn more about it in our book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students or you could check out the video below:

Design thinking prepares students for a creative life — whether that is in business, in the social or civic spaces, in the arts, or in engineering. But it does this by allowing them create things that matter to them right now. It’s not some far off “grown up” thing. It’s something they can engage in right now as they create things that matter to them.

So, while it’s easy to complain about standardized education, we can offer strategies like design thinking and project-based learning as alternatives that empower students to be the creative thinkers we know they can be.

Listen to the Podcast

Just click on the audio below to listen to this Creative Classroom podcast. You can also listen to it on the go by subscribing on iTunes (ideal for iPhone users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users):

Looking for more? Check this out.
Join my email list and get the weekly tips, tools, and insights all geared toward making design thinking a reality in your classroom. You’ll get members-only access to the exclusive design thinking toolkit  (complete with an eBook, suite of tools, and free maker project) that has helped thousands of teachers get started with design thinking and project-based learning in their classrooms.

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 John

13 responses

  1. […] “ Creativity and innovation have become buzzwords in education (though not as quite as trendy as hipster beards or skinny jeans). It’s easy to look at the maker movement and write it off as yet another trend in education. But what if it’s not just a trend? What if it’s an idea whose time has come? For years, schools have been stuck in a one-size-fits-all factory model, where students passively consume content. But here’s the thing: kids aren’t widgets. While one-size-fits-all works great for socks, it’s not ideal for minds. Kids need to dream and wonder and imagine. They need to design and build and tinker. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that guides students through specific phases in the creative process.”  […]

  2. […] What happens when kids become design thinkers?The following are some of the benefits I have noticed when kids engage in design thinking.They move from engaged to empowered. They become problem-solvers.They grow more empathetic. They remain curious. They learn how to work cooperatively.They view themselves as makers. They value the diversity of creative mindsets. They learn the power of creative constraint. They see the value of iterations. They become creative risk-takers.  […]

  3. […] Creativity and innovation have become buzzwords in education (though not as quite as trendy as hipster beards or skinny jeans). It’s easy to look at the maker movement and write it off as yet another trend in education. But what if it’s not just a trend? What if it’s an idea whose time has come? For years, schools have been stuck in a one-size-fits-all factory model, where students passively consume content. But here’s the thing: kids aren’t widgets. While one-size-fits-all works great for socks, it’s not ideal for minds. Kids need to dream and wonder and imagine. They need to design and build and tinker. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that guides students through specific phases in the creative process.  […]

  4. Thank you for so clearly articulating the ‘why’ behind what we are doing. Sometimes I find myself questioning, ‘Is this the right way?’ and then I read soemthing motivating and inspiring that makes sense and I find the answers!

  5. […] Ten Things That Happen When Kids Engage in Design Thinking – John Spencer […]

  6. […] Ten Things That Happen When Kids Engage in Design Thinking – John Spencer. […]

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  8. […] To learn more about John and his thoughts on innovation in education, empowering students, and how Design Thinking can unleash these things in your students and your classrooms, check out his post below, that was originally posted on his blog. […]

  9. […] To learn more about John and his thoughts on innovation in education, empowering students, and how Design Thinking can unleash these things in your students and your classrooms, check out his post below, that was originally posted on his blog. […]

  10. […] Source: 10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Design Thinking – John Spencer […]

  11. […] his blog for more information and ideas.  His recent post about what happens when kids become design thinkers highlights the benefits of working in this […]

  12. […] John, « 10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Design Thinking« , blogue de John Spencer, 8 novembre […]

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