What happens when students embrace design thinking?


The Global Day of Design just wrapped up on May 2nd. If you want to see what happens when 80,000+ students embrace design thinking, check out the Twitter stream and #GDD17 hashtag!

Students from six different continents (over 20 countries) participated and rocked this event in the second year in existence. Teachers and entire schools carved time out for students to not only beginning with empathy, not only brainstorm and navigate ideas, but to make, create, build, and design while in school.

This was only one day, and although the event was a success for our students, the real question is: What happens when students embrace design thinking beyond one day?

For this, I wanted so share a story that 2nd-grade teacher Carin Zecca wrote in her blog:

Today we decided to write cards to our school Nurse, as tomorrow is School Nurse Appreciation Day.  Their assignment was to write at least 3 sentences about the nurse and what she had done for us. Then create a card and decorate it. That’s it. Nothing fancy, no real design. Not a challenge, not a collaboration. Just write a card. The only thing similar to the #GDD17 was that they had a real audience and a real purpose.  Now for the miracle:

The students started working diligently on their cards. Writing complete sentences, using capitals and periods. Tapping out words and spelling as best as they could. As they began decorating, one child said, “Hey, I’m going to draw a Band-Aid because she always gives us Band-Aids.” Followed by another child saying, “Can we use real Band-Aids?” Followed by me saying, “Why not?” So we got a box of Band-aids. Then we pulled out the craft sticks and the glue.  Then the creativity and innovation started.  They began placing the crafts sticks in different ways to enhance the function of their cards.  One used it to make the card into a fan.  Another used it as a Band-Aid decoration. All different ideas using the same materials.

As the other classes came, we shared what others had done. The cards became even more innovative. By the last class I was amazed at what had happened.  The students started making pop-up cards! One student asked, “What can we use in this room to make this stand up?” Then the collaboration began and the whole room took on another look:

Students started helping each other with the cards, creating new ideas, sharing ideas, and changing their original ones. They had created their own design challenge without any instruction. Fully intrinsically motivated!  I couldn’t believe my own eyes! This is the goal, right? To teach students life long skills and hope and pray that they see their own way to generalize them into other areas?  My heart was bursting with pride and wonder.  How did this happen? A miracle, or exposure to the skills with the #GDD17?

But now we have to spread the word. We have to let teachers know how effective and powerful design challenges are and what they do for the future.  My goal is to get this story out to 100 people.  That’s how important I believe this message to be.  We have to teach students these skills and allow them to use them in all other areas.  My students had become critical thinkers, all the while using collaborating with each other to solve problems. What more can we ask for?

What More Can We Ask For?

As teachers, school leaders, and parents: What more could we ask for? This isn’t about getting kids engaged, it is about much more than that.

Our goals have to change.

When students are engaged they are attentive to our chosen content and objectives. They are giving their full focus to the resources, texts, and problems we are asking them to solve. They are being committed to completing our curriculum and assessments in ways we have asked them to demonstrate mastery.

What about the problems they want to solve? The topics they find interesting? The areas they want to dive deeper into and learn more about?

What about their future? The one where they will have to make their own path, decide what challenges to tackle, and what opportunities to take. The future where they will struggle, make mistakes, and not be sure what direction is best.

Our job is not to prepare students for something, our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

Design thinking helps lays the groundwork for making this shift. When we shift from preparing students for what’s next, to helping them prepare for anything, a world of possibilities open up in their learning.

How We Make the Shift as Teachers and Leaders

Engaged Environments Empowered Environments
Attentive and committed to our curriculum Attentive and committed to their interestes
“preparing for jobs” “preparing themselves for anything”
Teachers working to “making it interesting” Teachers working on “tapping into their interests”
You must learn _____ What do you want to learn?
Giving choice Inspired possibilities
Following the beaten path Making your own path
Taking an assessment Assessing your own learning
Consuming Creating
Differentiated instruction Personalized learning

Thanks to all who participated in this year’s Global Day of Design. But the work is just starting. Let’s not stop there. Let’s keep working towards an empowered learning environment for all our students, whether they are in or out of school.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Carin Zecca says:

    Thanks for helping me spread the word about how Design learning affects change in our students!

  • What you are describing is what Sugata Mistra refers to as self oriented learning and is best exemplified by his Hole in the wall experiment. Regardless of what you call it, it is beautiful to see.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Michael, I love Sugata’s work and especially the Hole in the wall experiment. I do, however, believe that teachers play an important role in helping fostering the problem-solving attitudes and growth in our students. They are guides along for the ride!

  • I love this article so much! As a first grade teacher, I have seen the amazing benefits of implementing Design thinking activities every Friday through “Full STEAM ahead Friday” with my partner, Jess Boston.
    The language our students speak at the end of the year compared to the beginning is astounding. By year’s end, they have lost their fear of failure, are persistent problem-solvers, and hungry for experiences. Thanks for sharing this!

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