Teaching Design Thinking in primary schools

Progress so far, some positive early signs and a plan for a pilot

Getting started

I recently gave a group of 10 and 11 year-olds a design project to start working on at an after school club* in west London. I provided printed workbooks to guide the kids through the project, following a Design Thinking process. There were 4 boys and 10 girls in the group, including my daughter.

It was only one session, lasting an hour, but it went really well, better than expected. Below is some more info, outlining what I did, and plan to do, along with a plan at the bottom of this post.

The project

The project title is intentionally broad: Design a helpful mobile app.

Early in the session, the kids defined their own design challenge. This is important, to ensure they care about the challenge. I’m anticipating this project will take four hours to complete. We can finish it after the Easter holiday, over the course of 3 more after school clubs.

The session

Here’s how it worked:

  1. I gave a 5 minute presentation to set some expectations, and tried to get the kids enthused about the idea of being a designer.
  2. The kids worked in pairs, with each pair sharing a workbook to work through. At certain points, I asked each pair in turn to share some progress with the rest of the group. For example, each pair read their design challenges aloud to the rest of the group.
  3. I used the projector in the class to control the pace of activity. The projector displayed the page of the workbook that the kids were working on; I gave extra instruction and guidance where needed.

The workbook

Design

The workbook is tactile, encouraging kids to interact with it. It feels special, so kids feel proud of their work, and want to make an effort.

Each page contains an activity, sparking creative action. Written instructions are minimal. This is partly to test what information kids need in order to make progress, and partly to see what information is missing. This also allowed me to test out verbal instructions on the fly.

The workbook is a prototype, and I’d like to make it better. The branding and illustrations need to be developed, most likely with the help of friends.

Structure

I’ve been assessing methods, guides and tools for doing human-centred design. The structure of the workbook is based on the d.school Design Thinking process: Empathise > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test.

I switched the first two, putting Define first, because I wanted the kids to define their own design challenges early on.

Curriculum and pedagogy

For a while now, I’ve had a hunch that Design Thinking education could be delivered in a similar way to Code Club. A modern curriculum, created by industry experts. A learning-by-doing pedagogy, delivered through a decentralised network of smart volunteers.

This thinking may change, but it feels like a good model to start with. As a working title, the pilot is called Design Club.

Early findings

Teaching Design Thinking presents a bunch of challenges and questions. One session is not enough to provide real answers, but there were some positive early signs.

General encouragement:

  • The kids were genuinely excited about the idea of designing things that helped people. I showed them Be Food Smart and Hoop as examples of useful apps.
  • They loved the examples of wireframe sketches. When I showed them what they looked like, to demonstrate some of the output, it dawned on me that wireframe sketches look a lot like kids drawings.
  • They quickly grasped the overall concept of Design Thinking, and the different phases and activities involved.
  • They don’t need any of the language to be simplified. When I spoke about “Design Thinking” they didn’t flinch. They were just keen to know what it was.

Using the workbooks:

  • They loved the workbooks. They were keen to get their hands on them and eagerly filled them out.
  • They thought hard about the user they wanted to design for, empathising with their needs and wants.
  • They enjoyed defining their design challenges, mixing and matching the person and challenge cards to create new design challenges.
  • They worked well together, discussing every activity, taking it in turns to fill out the workbook.
  • They didn’t want to stop working. The session ran over, and it was hard to take the workbooks away from them.

Pilot plan

I’m going to start offering Design Club at my daughter’s school from the end of April, after the Easter break. It’ll be interesting to see what the level of demand is like.

The plan is to finish the project we started. It’ll be a good test of the content and activities. I’m hoping to arrange for a couple of friends to help test and co-develop the material at other local schools.

We’ll iterate on the resources as we go, doing a proper review of the test in the summer. I’d love to scale this a little for the start of the new academic year, and set up Design Club as a nonprofit.

Help appreciated

If anyone fancies helping, advising, or supporting this initiative in any way, please do email me. Or share this with others who might be interested.

Thanks :)

Photography: Paul Donnellon.


* A confession

I used my Code Club group to test the workbook. This was a bit naughty of me, and I’ve apologised to Clare. I started doing Code Club in 2012, and it’s inspired me to start exploring the idea of Design Club.