Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Using Design Thinking to Solve Problems


Developing creative and critical thinkers in order to solve real-world problems is an essential component of a child’s educational experience. When students can look up the answer to any factual question on a smart device, the value of memorizing facts in order to regurgitate them for a test has diminished. We now understand that when we apply empathy, context and meaning to essential information in the form of a question, not only will students retain the information longer but the likelihood of transferring essential leanings to new challenges dramatically increases.

I am thankful that schools have incorporated instructional strategies such as project/problem based learning which require our students to critically think as they learn to solve real-life problems. Another favorite strategy or process is Design Thinking which is a methodology of collaborative, human-centered problem solving that has grown in popularity in recent years due to the efforts of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, IDEO, Henry Ford’s Learning Institutes and many others.

I am excited about our incorporation of design thinking at Woodward Academy because it develops our students’ ability to think creatively to collaboratively design solutions that incorporate the needs of the user. Thanks to our involvement with the regional work of Atlanta’s #ak12dc in partnership with Hasso Plattner’s Institute of Design at Stanford, Woodard Academy teachers have had access to training and support to increase their skills for several years. Our K-12 school team tackles school-wide challenges with direction from leadership. Our five school design thinking teams work with teachers to incorporate design thinking into units of study.

I was taught to work through challenges and problems by digging in with persistence, effort and grit to hopefully come up with the right answer. Design Thinking is much different in that you spend time with others to gain empathy for the people impacted by what you do. Insights, identified needs and empathy interviews are unpacked and synthesized into a meaningful, actionable challenge. Using phrases such as “How might we….”, “Design a way for….” , or “Redesign the ________ experience to be more________ can truly open up the possibilities for innovation.

Next, we collaboratively ideate to brainstorm a ton of varied ideas from which we will build prototypes to test with users. Prototyping involves quickly getting your ideas into some type of physical form that can be interacted with to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It may be a rough object, a storyboard or even a wall of post it notes. The idea is to have a propensity toward action. The testing phase involves getting feedback and refining the low res solutions. Throughout the challenge, we may need to back up, regroup and repeat one or more of the steps of the process. I have often heard this called “failing fast.” Sometimes we get stuck along the way but by going out and engaging others rather than trying to figure it out by ourselves…we always develop a better solution.

Our challenges have ranged from gaining empathy for turkeys who missed Thanksgiving in PreK, redesigning a wheelchair in 7th grade STEM class, or the challenge of reducing the amount of trash going to the landfill which resulted in a change to a cutlery dispenser in our Middle and Upper school cafeterias.

The world has many needs and design thinking has the power to create and unleash the innovator in us all.


Note: Originally Published in Southern Distinction Magazine, 2017