Design Thinking: Students, Educators Become Fearless Problem-Solvers

Design thinking teaches students and educators to be fearless problem-solvers.

This is an excerpt of an article written by Julian Peeples. It appeared in California Educator Magazine’s 2018 Innovation issue. Read the original piece here.

Say hello to some of Vista Unified’s youngest designers. These kindergartners answer questions from fifth-graders about the new city they designed

Imagine a new planet similar to Earth has been discovered and you are asked to help build the first city there. What would you name the city? How would you ensure it meets the needs of people who live there? Where would you even start?

These were just a few of the questions that educator Tess Dickerson asked her kindergarten class in 2017 for a project using an innovative approach called “design thinking.” Assisted by a buddy class of fifth-graders, these kindergartners identified needs and developed idea before building prototypes of these ideas, like a slide for city residents to ride from their hotel to a nearby restaurant. After testing and refining their ideas, the students built their city out of recyclables.

“We spent the whole morning building,” says Dickerson, a teacher with Vista Unified School District and member of the Vista Teachers Association. “I don’t know how many times I heard the kids say, ‘This is the best day ever!’”

Vista educators take part in a Creative Leadership Institute in September to develop their design thinking skills.

Design thinking is an approach to creative problem-solving that focuses on professional design methods, like empathizing and experimentation, to develop innovative solutions to questions or problems. Birthed in the 1950s, it initially guided the creation of new products that solved consumer problems or fulfilled certain needs, before starting to appear in education a couple of decades later and more frequently in the 2000s.

In design thinking, students follow a six-step process that encourages the same kind of thinking process an inventor or engineer would use. But instead of inventing a better light bulb or designing a freeway interchange, students explore issues that are relevant to their lives. This year, Dickerson’s kindergartners are pondering “How do you stay safe at school?”

In the test stage of design thinking, students have built the cities they brainstormed.

“What does safe mean? It gets kids thinking about their part in the community. They become aware of their place in this world and how other people think about things,” Dickerson says. “When we give them this kind of foundation, it validates them as learners and individuals. Everybody can be a part of the process, have an idea or draw a picture.”

The design thinking program at Vista is a partnership between global design firm IDEO and The Teachers Guild, a professional community created to activate teachers’ creativity to solve major challenges in education. IDEO provides the design for learning techniques and foundation, while The Teachers Guild provides resources and support for implementation. Vista is one of three Teachers Guild chapters in California (along with Oakland and Fremont) and seven nationally.

Teachers Guild director Molly McMahon says that al l teachers are inherently designers, and design thinking serves the near-constant need for educators to creatively problem-solve from the lens of their students and communities.

“In the design thinking process, there is a strong focus on empathy in the work we do,” she says. “We tell teachers: ‘If you’re going to create change, you start with yourself, your own biases; start with questions and not answers; and believe that you can create change.’ So we create opportunities to understand yourself and others. Equity and innovation go side by side.”

Continue reading the full piece here.