How to Get Started Using Design Thinking in the Classroom

Thanks to everyone for making our new book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student, a #1 bestseller on Amazon this weekend! Truly humbled and honored to share this book with all of you.

When John and I began writing this book, we started with a manifesto about our creative beliefs. But, the true message of the book is a call to action. We both know how difficult it is to be creative as a teacher and support creativity in our students most of the time in school. We’ve lived the life as teachers swamped by paperwork, state mandated testing and reporting, and a pushed to teach everything “the same way” as the teacher down the hall.

If teaching was once considered an art, it’s now often compared to business terms…

We wrote this book because design thinking helped both of us structure creative work in our classrooms, while allowing the art of teaching to flourish in our own professional practice.

  • Did we hit standards? Yes!
  • Did our students learn and master new skills? Yes!
  • Did our students feel challenged by their work? Yes!
  • Did we have a lot of fun in the process? Of course!

Design thinking and our K-12 framework, The LAUNCH Cycle, empower both teachers and students to bring creativity back into the classroom, while also providing a way to make it work in today’s schools.

Design thinking is the Process

Design thinking provides a way to think about creative work. It starts with empathy, working to really understand the problems people are facing before attempting to come up with ideas and create solutions.

The LAUNCH Cycle is the Framework

The LAUNCH Cycle is not a formula. It is not a step-by-step guide to being creative. However, we’ve used the LAUNCH Cycle framework to make creativity an authentic experience time and time again in our classrooms.

The LAUNCH Cycle outlines creative work from start to finish. From listening and learning, to navigating ideas, to highlighting what works, the LAUNCH Cycle builds capacity and clarity for teachers and students who are making, building, tinkering, and creating. The final piece of the LAUNCH Cycle is what sets it apart: actually launching your creation out into the world!

Here is the LAUNCH Cycle, and then below I’ll share some common areas we can use design thinking in our schools and classrooms:

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L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

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A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions. They can share these questions with friends, teachers, mentors, and the world (especially online sites like Quora).

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U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data. During this phase they are constantly putting their work out for others to look at and give feedback.

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N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

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C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

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H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success. As they share what they’ve made, the feedback they receive will be key to the revision process.

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Launch to an Audience

Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They launch their work to the world!

Students can’t solve problems and create solutions only to share it with 20 other people. They’ve got to take the final step of launching it into the world to a real authentic audience.

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How to Start With Design Thinking

Design projects can seem daunting at first. Your best option might be to start out small, perhaps with a project that will last a week or two. You could keep the research section shorter and focus more on the creating portion. Or you might do a little less planning in the Navigating Ideas phase. Ultimately, you are the expert. You know your class better than anyone else. You know what your students need. We provided a flexible framework that you can modify to fit the needs of your classroom.

You might want to pilot your design project with a specific group. If you teach multiple classes, use it as an experiment and try it with just one group. Compare the engagement levels of the design thinking unit and the traditional unit. Pay attention to your students’ skill development. Is it better or worse than a traditional unit? What about student engagement? How has it changed?

You might also want to partner with another class in your building. Sometimes it helps to have a group that you can lean on. You are doing something bold and risky and different. This can be exhausting. But having a trusted colleague or, better yet, a trusted team can make all the difference.

Getting students, parents, and administration on board

John mentions in LAUNCH that he remembers feeling terrified the first time that my class launched a design project. The process seemed slower than a typical unit plan. Instead of a one-week project or a single assignment, students worked for weeks on their products. Rather than delivering the typical I do, we do, you do lesson, we mixed things up with students spending more time working while I met with small groups and individuals. It was more active, more chaotic, and at times more confusing than an orderly classroom. After all, we were exploring. We were heading to the moon. And doing so meant we had to take risks.

I was okay with these risks, but I had several days when I worried about what certain stakeholders would think. What would administrators think? Would they worry that our class would fall behind on standardized test scores? Would they see the chaos and think that I had failed in classroom management? What about parents? Would they say, “Back when I was a kid, we didn’t waste time with stuff like this”? Would they find this project bizarre? Would they understand that we were doing less work but deeper thinking?

You can be proactive by communicating with stakeholders ahead of time. This way, nobody is surprised that your class suddenly seems different. Instead, they understand the rationale for what you are doing, and they have a vision for where you are going. You might want to consider the following things before you begin a design thinking project with your class:

  • What concerns will stakeholders have? How do you answer their concerns?
  • What type of research can you find to back up the success of design thinking?
  • What skills will students gain as a result of this design project?
  • How is this aligned to the curriculum?
  • What rules will you have in place to guarantee success?
  • How is design thinking used outside of the school context?
  • What are some things that will remain the same? Parents and administrators should know what types of structures will remain the same.

As you think about communication, consider how you will convey the purpose, the research, and the process in a way that supports student learning. Focus on how this will benefit children and how it will lead to deeper learning. Convey this information in a way that is celebratory rather than cautionary.

It’s important to send out this communication ahead of time. It might be a series of phone calls, a conversation at Meet the Teacher Night, a newsletter, an e-mail, or a video you create and send out. Don’t stop there, though. As you progress through your design project, think of ways that you can share the great things that students are doing in class. Take pictures or videos of the projects and share them on social media. Invite decision-makers from the district office or the school board. Be a leader in a new way of learning within your school. When your design projects are done, share the experience. Show the student work along with reflections of what your class learned in the process.

This might seem like boasting. It might feel arrogant. We, as teachers, can be reluctant to share the great things that are happening in our classrooms. However, it’s something we should celebrate. Going to the moon was an accomplishment. And when a child does something wildly creative—even if it didn’t turn out perfectly—that is just as much of an accomplishment.

There is also a place to share what didn’t work. A celebration of learning is just that—a celebration. It’s a chance to say, “Yes, we failed. But we learned. We learned a ton even when this wasn’t perfect.” It’s a chance to tell the story realistically in a way that allows people to say, “I could do that. I could definitely do that.”

Design Thinking Within the Curriculum

You might be looking at the design thinking cycle and wondering how you are supposed to accomplish this given your curriculum map. However, design thinking isn’t meant to be something you squeeze in before or after a traditional unit. It’s not a culminating project. It is a different way of organizing the curriculum.

Design thinking is meant to be a flexible framework. You do not need to transform your entire classroom into a design classroom and abandon all other best practices. Nor do you need to take time out of the standards to create a separate space for design thinking. Design projects should work as an integrated part of the curriculum you already teach. Just as you would organize a typical unit with a specific framework and a set of strategies, you can use the design thinking cycle as a new framework with specific strategies that will support the standards you already use.

So how exactly do you do this?

The first thing to consider is the standards that fit best with the design thinking framework. For example, in a language arts class, you might want to connect it to the reading standards in research, the writing standards with functional, expository, and persuasive texts. Or if students are using design thinking for a NaNoWriMo novel project, you could focus on the narrative standards while also adding informational reading standards within the research process.

It helps to find standards that will allow students to actually make something. In math, you might tie in all of the standards in statistics and probability into a board game design project. However, you might find that integers simply don’t work as well with the concept of design. The idea here is to avoid standards where the work students are doing is loosely connected to the standards.

Sometimes it’s hard to justify spending a longer period of time on a project that seems to connect to just one standard. Here’s where the idea of chunking and connecting comes in. If a subject has a few specific concept standards that fit in nicely within a unit, chunk those together as the central focus of your design projects. Next, look at all of the skill standards that fit within the stages of design thinking. You might be surprised by just how many standards connect to it.

In some cases, you might run into rigid curriculum maps. A school might say, “You need to teach inferencing this week,” or “You need to teach persuasive texts these seven days.” While it’s important to follow the map, remember that maps are just that—guides to inspire possibilities, rather than routes to tell you exactly what to do. This is where you can add additional connecting standards while highlighting the focus standard for that particular week. Very few principals will say, “Only teach this standard and nothing else.”

Design Thinking and Assessment

When doing design projects, teachers will often ask, “Should I assess the finished product or the process?” The short answer is “both and neither.” See, there is value in having students self-assess their creative process in the design cycle. For example, they might look at brainstorming or researching and rate how well they were able to accomplish those tasks. Similarly, there is value in looking at the finished product and seeing if it is truly a viable product for the final audience.

That said, the goal is for students to master the standards that you are teaching. While we advocate for self-assessment in both the process and the product, the greater question is, “How does this work demonstrate mastery of standards?” We use a Standards-Based Grid as a way for students to know exactly what standards they are mastering.

The way this works is simple. The teacher takes the standards that are associated with the design project and lists all learning targets in student-friendly terms. As students progress through the project, teachers fill out formative feedback in the Mastery Level category while also listing corresponding evidence and teacher feedback. Then, during student conferences (described in the book), students are able to add their own feedback.

Interested in learning more about design thinking? Get our new book LAUNCH on Amazon right now (Paperback or Kindle), and be sure to download your free Design Thinking Project below!

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