education

Using Design Thinking for Project Based Learning

November 19, 2019

On my first day as a long-term sub, I instigated a project with inner city middle schoolers that when I look back on it now, I wish someone had talked me out of even attempting. Yes, it went off unbelievably well because I didn’t know that stringing wires across the playground on the first day of school and having kids break up into bands of silent “hunters” to catch wild pinata animals was probably a bit ambitious. But, after teaching for fifteen years, I don’t know if I would have had the ability or courage to pull that off again.

The question I wanted the students to work on was how did early, pre-lingual humans communicate in order to hunt. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone at it with a lot more planning and intentionality. I would have applied the steps of “design thinking” in order to organize spontaneity and creativity.

Project-based learning benefits from design thinking because it allows student to redefine problems in order to identify alternative strategies and come up with new solutions. The object is to get practical, sometimes unexpected, results, and to ask more questions based on those results.

There are many ways to go about planning inquiry-based projects using design thinking techniques. Here’s a beginning checklist:

1. Empathize. Understand the human side of the equation. Reflect on the particular problem, imagine the implications, what does it actually mean to real people—whether the question is historical, scientific, aesthetic, or practical—emphasize the empathy.

2. Define. Research and refine the question. How has this problem been looked at before? Redraft the problem to make it more relatable. For example, instead of “Why are teenagers not eating healthily?” a better way to pose the question might be, “How can teenagers eat more nutritious food in order to thrive, be healthy and grow?”

3. Ideate. This is the brainstorming session where any and all possibilities are considered. Creativity and collaboration can lead to a variety of imaginative solutions. Nothing is impractical at this point, and it’s important to keep in mind that the most out-there suggestions often lead to very positive applications.

4. Create prototypes. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. The most viable ideas are implemented, experiments are made, new questions arise, new ideas develop. Failure is not an option because each “failure” leads to a new way of thinking. This is the phase where the abstract meets the reality.

5. Test. The best prototype is tested in earnest in the real world. Does this solution make sense—does it work? If it doesn’t, the question can be reframed, again starting with an empathic approach to the problem. If it does work, other questions might arise. Either way, the process begins again. There really isn’t a solution to any problem, only a way of pulling answers apart to reveal more questions.

Design thinking is a very dynamic and interactive way to get students involved not only in the content of the curriculum, but in the cognitive process of problem-solving, communicating, experimenting, and developing resilience.

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