5 Ways Design Thinking Can Empower Your Students

By AJ Juliani, 2 comments

This is the third post in the “Design Thinking in the Classroom” series. Read the first and second post here.

The LAUNCH Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

In David and Tom Kelley’s book, Creative Confidence, the authors make the case (which I completely agree with) that creativity is not for special people:

“It turns out that creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few—it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior. In too many of us it gets blocked. But it can be unblocked. And unblocking that creative spark can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.”

As a teacher, I saw this first hand. So many of my students were conditioned to play the game of school. They saw compliance as a way to better grades. They knew following the rules is what would get them better opportunities in school. As a father, I already see this in my daughter. She’s in first grade and already understands how school should be played and how she should act and behave.

On the other hand, I also had students who were not very good at playing the game of school. They struggled to stay on task, sit in a chair, and work quietly. They often reverted to rebellious behavior or withdrawn attitudes as they continued on through the system. My son is only in pre-school but I know he is going to have a tough time with the current structure of many schools.

When both set of students are given the opportunity to do creative work in school, they tend to shy away from the work. For some there is too much freedom and choice. For others they have already made up their mind about what “learning” looks like in school.

When I talk to teachers around the country (and around the world) I hear this same story. Students are sometimes hesitant to take on creative work inside of the classroom.

The first creative project I did with my students in 8th grade garnered the following questions from my class:

  • Mr. J, where’s the rubric?
  • Are these the steps we need to follow to complete the project?
  • How do I come up with an idea?
  • What are some good project ideas other people did?
  • What are you looking for? What’s going to get an A?
  • Do I have to do all the work in the classroom?

As I mentioned in the first post, I saw how choice, ownership, and inquiry-based projects and activities engaged and empowered my students. However, I received these types of questions every time we did creative work. While the student-agency was empowering, it was also overwhelming to many students, and often to me as a teacher trying to guide the work.

Enter design thinking.

Design thinking is a framework that has been used and adapted by all kinds of creative people doing innovative work (if you want to know more about it, check out “The Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom“). It allowed my students to attack the creative process with confidence as design thinkers, makers, builders, and problem-solvers.

Beyond that, design thinking empowered my students to share their work with the world. Here’s five ways that I saw that empowerment happen as a teacher, and now as an administrator.

1. A Flexible Framework

There is an old story that goes something like this:

A martial arts student went to a teacher and declared he wanted to learn the system, he was devoted and ready. How long would it take? The teacher replied: “Ten years.”

The student, a bit impatient and not satisfied with the answer went ahead and said: But I want to master it faster than that, I will work harder every day, practice 10 or more hours a day if necessary. How long would it THEN take? The teacher replied: “Twenty years.”

I’m a lot like the student. I tend to want to rush through things, getting to the end result/product/reward quicker and faster than is needed. I look for shortcuts, often cutting corners that I should have taken with care.

Design thinking, and The LAUNCH Cycle, gives students and teachers a flexible framework for creative work. It helps people like me, who want to rush through things, to take a step back and understand the benefits of a process. It also helps those students who are more reluctant to jump in, a starting point and path towards unlocking that creativity.

2. Share Throughout the Process

Although the last part of the LAUNCH Cycle is “launching it to an authentic audience” this does not mean the process should not be shared as it is happening. Watching our sixth-grade students blog, Instagram, and Tweet out their questions and progress in the 2030 Schools project not only keeps other groups informed of what’s happening but also reaches an audience before their final product/creation is put out into the world.

3. Make With an Audience in Mind

With that being said, the audience piece truly empowers students during the creative process. Instead of only looking to create for their peers, teachers, and parents—students go through the LAUNCH Cycle with an audience in mind.

In our new book LAUNCH (releasing soon) we tell the story of a 2nd-grade class that took on the issue of recycling in their school. The worked together to create an innovative solution (cardboard backboards that gamified recycling by adding a point total) that they shared and then launched to an authentic audience of peers and community. Knowing their invention was going to not only shared, but also used, by a real audience propelled these students through the creative process.

4. Connect Learning with Business and Product Design

One of the most empowering parts of Genius Hour and 20% Time Projects is showing the students how this type of work is being done at companies like Google, 3M, Facebook, and Yahoo!. As a teacher, it was also fascinating to see how the Montessori backgrounds of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page led to their beliefs and practices around 20% time. This connection empowers students to see how their process for creating, making, and designing is also used in product design and in companies around the world.

5. Iteration Leads to Innovation

My colleague likes to say, “You can’t eat the entire elephant in one bite!” It reminds me of the creative process. We can’t expect ourselves or our students to have creative success on the first try. The LAUNCH Cycle is filled with iterations. Small wins and losses through the entire process. It’s not only “ok” to fail, it’s expected to “struggle” along the way. This is how we learn.

It’s why we put an “Epic Failure Board” up in my classroom to share the losses as proudly as the wins. Iteration is a key element in design thinking and any creative work, but it is only by celebrating it do we see the empowerment.

Our new book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring out the Maker in Every Studentis being released this month. Sign-up below to get a free project for your class, and be notified when it is available!

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