Teacher to Design Thinking

by | 03.1.16

Laura Dixon is an instructional technologist at The Langley School in McLean, VA, who teaches a Design, Engineering and Technology course to students in grades 6-8.

Design thinking is a formative problem-solving approach that engenders discovery, co-creativity and experimentation in students.

This is my first year at The Langley School, and my first opportunity working with eighth-grade students. Coming here, I knew I wanted to do something with design, and not just graphic design. I wanted to incorporate design as more of a process—more of a verb.

Laura Dixon

When I was at Engag(ED) Exchange D.C., an idea exchange event around design thinking for teachers, I was definitely looking for people who were already working with design thinking. For me, design thinking is a way to give my students a hands-on, interactive learning opportunity—a chance for them to really think critically. It’s about teaching them a process and giving them a tool that they can use to solve their problems. For example, if you ask eighth-graders how they solve a problem, they’ll most likely say, “Well, I Google it.” Design thinking is a way for them to reach out more collaboratively and to really think about defining the problem—it offers an entirely different approach to a learning task. I really think that gone are the days of “Open up your books to page 23…”

I definitely want the learning process to be an organic experience. And I wanted to start with empathy—how do you build it? The students in my Design, Engineering and Technology course just completed their first design thinking project, working with partners to redesign the backpack for another student. It’s interesting because some of these kids have been together since preschool and I’ll overhear them discovering new things about each other.

During the interview process, the students were very trusting and open as they shared personal stories and facts about themselves. They were very attentive, engaged and took detailed notes. Those newly discovered insights helped the students build empathy for one another. As they began to write their problem statements and sketch their prototypes, I thought, “Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that sensitive?” I know that they’re seeing the value in really taking 5-10 minutes to actually talk to a person.

Their prototypes evolve from ideas in their head, rough sketches, to eventually 3-D models. Students are learning what works and what doesn’t work as they build and test their design ideas.

Their prototypes evolve from ideas in their head, rough sketches, to eventually 3-D models. Students are learning what works and what doesn’t work as they build and test their design ideas.

Of course, the prototypes of their backpacks are rough—they only have so much time. But they talk to their “clients” to figure out their needs and then they hold mini presentations with one another about their designs. Next week, they’re going to share their solutions. They’ll be able to verbalize what they did and why they did it. That’s when I’ll be able to hear more about the thinking behind it all. And you know what? It’s not about a rubric. It’s the first time they’re not asking, “Is this graded?” Last week, when we were prototyping the backpacks, one girl said, “This is like having double art.” I said, “Exactly, you’re using both sides of your brain.”

Students enjoy being designers. Design thinking allows them to express their voices and build their creative confidence.

Next, we’re going to be redesigning the playground experience. I would say that design thinking draws the students out of their comfort zones a little bit because I don’t have the answers. They have to delve into the problem themselves and ask questions. Everybody is the expert here—there are no bad ideas.

The final project is going to be figuring out what experience here at Langley they would like to redesign. I think they’re going to be enthusiastic when picking the project. We’re preschool through eighth grade, so they’re the big kids on campus. They are our student leaders. I want them to know that we value their insight and I want to give them an opportunity to share their ideas to help our community here at Langley. I will still be acting as the facilitator as they learn the design thinking process, but the project will be driven by the students’ interest and concern for our community, which makes it very meaningful.

The students are very engaged and enthusiastic—they come early to class. I think they like that there’s not a right answer, that there isn’t just one answer—there are multiple answers and multiple solutions. I love that they’re building their creative confidence from this experience. That they’re working collaboratively with a willingness to hear others’ opinions and learn from each other. I think about how powerful that is when they go to college—I want them to reach out, take risks, and have a conversation with somebody, to get their thoughts and share ideas. These are skills that will help them beyond Langley, and that’s really my goal—to prepare them for whatever the future holds.

Laura’s tips for teachers who are looking for new ways to incorporate more design thinking into their classrooms:

  1. A good place to start, for me, was to find other people who are using design thinking outside of education and to see how they’re using it in their industry. The Stanford d.school (Institute of Design at Stanford) has a lot of resources and some sample lesson plans that you can modify (the backpack lesson plan was inspired by their wallet redesign).
  2. There are definitely places out there where you can get training. I go to meetups that are $10 in D.C., to the Engag(ED) Exchange—you kind of just have to search for opportunities and reach out.
  3. On Twitter, #DesignThinking will help a lot. I also follow the d.school, or I’ll watch videos on YouTube to learn more about the design thinking process.

Laura’s suggested resources to learn more about design thinking:

Twitter:

  1. @stanforddschool
  2. @LABopm
  3. @HFLI
  4. @DT_DC
  5. @teacher2teacher
  6. #EngagedExchange
  7. #designthinking
  8. #dtk12chat

Websites

  1. “Design & Thinking” documentary
  2. Design Thinking DC
  3. Institute of Design at Stanford
  4. Virtual Crash Course
  5. K12 Lab Network
  6. Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit
  7. Design Thinking Projects and Challenges

Videos:

  1. What is Design Thinking?
  2. What is Design Thinking (2015)
  3. How to Build Your Creative Confidence | David Kelley | TED Talks

Connect with Laura on Twitter @dixoneducator


About the Author


Laura Dixon
Laura Dixon

Laura Dixon is an instructional technologist at The Langley School in McLean, VA, who teaches a Design, Engineering and Technology course to students in grades 6-8. Connect with Laura on Twitter @dixoneducator.


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