Design Thinking

During our most recent professional development day, my superstar NTIP mentor Jennifer King introduced us to the concept of design thinking and how it can be implemented and assessed in the classroom. Design thinking allows students to make an impact with design, and is rooted in empathy as we use design to create meaningful change for the user (Stanford, 2017). While there are many visual frameworks that could be used to explain the design thinking process, this process is by its very nature a fluid and dynamic process with no “one-size-fits-all” model to follow. The example below is from the Stanford and provides a good overview of the elements of the process. However, Jennifer did mention that, based on her experience in the classroom, she would add a “reflection” element that is woven throughout the process.

Design Thinking

Warm-up: The Visual Alphabet

As a warm up activity, we were asked to use a sharpie marker, an 8.5 x 11 paper, and the characters of the following visual alphabet (Sunni Brown, 2011) to doodle how we got to work in the morning.

Visual Alphabet

The 12 elements of the visual alphabet. ©

Next, we had to draw how we wished we had arrived at school that morning. We then Launch into Design Thinkingtraded papers with a partner and circled one element that we really liked about their design. The challenge then became to mash the best elements of our designs together to create the ultimate getting-to-work design. As you can see, our final design ended up looking like a jet-pack/kayak hybrid that almost resembles a fanboat. Now if only there were some waterways that led to our school…

Crazy 8’s

We were then introduced to the Crazy 8’s activity, a quick and dirty way to generate many different design ideas in a short period of time (here’s a video tutorial).

As a small group (5) of educators, we came up with a problem that we face in our classrooms everyday. We used “How might we…” as a guide for framing the question. Our group settled on the following sticky problem: “How might we overcome the challenges of a cramped learning environment?” (Note: If doing this task with a group of students, ensure that you help them to define a problem that is meaningful to them, as they will be much more willing to go through the ideate phase if they are excited about potential solutions!)

Once a “How might we…” question has been established, follow these directions:

  • Take one 8.5 x 14 piece of white paper and a Sharpie (we don’t want any erasing!)
  • Fold the paper into 8 sections
  • In 30 seconds, sketch a potential solution to your problem in one of the sections (set a timer!)
  • Take a 10 second break
  • Then, move onto the next section with a new idea!
  • Repeat until all 8 sections are filled with an idea

Crazy 8's

It is a very simple task that requires minimal materials. You can adjust the length of time given depending on your students’ needs, but giving longer than 1 minute per section would defeat the purpose – it is supposed to be uncomfortably fast! You can also choose whether or not to give the 10 seconds “rest” time between sections. Remind students that if they get stuck, it can be helpful to add a small change to a previous sketch in order to make a new design.

Storyboard and Pitch

"How might we..."After the initial Crazy 8’s, there are many different ways you could take the ideate phase.
During our workshop, we picked our favourite idea and had a couple minutes to sketch it out further on a large stickie.
We then placed our stickies on 8.5 x 14 blank pages. As we were a group of 5, this gave us 5 potential ideas to consider (streamlined from our original 40 Crazy 8’s ideas!).

We were then given time to individually pitch our idea to the rest of the group. It is very important to emphasize that while one person is pitching, the rest of the group listens only. This is not the time for questions or feedback. Make sure you share the highlights of your idea with enthusiasm!

Heat Map (Silent Critique)

Once everybody has completed their storyboard and pitch, display the storyboards so they can  be easily viewed. Give everyone dot stickers to put on the ideas that they like, and you will see a “heat map” developing as some ideas begin to stand out. And yes, you can put a sticker on your own idea!

Storyboards with Heat Map

Again, there are many ways that the heat map can be carried out. Since we were limited on time, we each used one small dot sticker to vote on our top pick. You could also:

  • Use 2-3 small dot stickers each so students can acknowledge things they like about a few key ideas
  • Use unlimited small dot stickers so that students can acknowledge all the parts of ideas that they like
  • Use one large dot sticker that represents a “super vote” for the best idea
  • Look at the small and large stickers together to decide on the strongest potential design (see example right)

All in all, it was a wonderful afternoon of learning and I can’t wait to implement the design thinking process in my classroom. I think it will help my students to formulate meaningful questions and potential solutions to sticky problems in a fun and collaborative manner. After the ideate phase, they could move on to the “prototype” and “test” phases in a variety of ways. As a teacher, the hardest part will be to accept that the process of designing and improving is never-ending! However, this design thinking process helps the students dig deeper in their learning, and encompasses all 6 C’s of education for the 21st century learner: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship, character and communication.

deep learning

Deep Learning and the 6 C’s (OCSB, 2018)

For an overview of the “design sprint” that we went through during this workshop, check out this post, which covers everything from Crazy 8’s to the Heat Map and more.

Interested in learning more about design thinking and how it can be integrated into your classroom? Check out the following resources:


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