Unpacking ALA – Design Thinking in the Classroom


When you’re a kid, the world around you is about tangible reality.  Concrete-operational stage (hat’s off to you Jean Piaget).  When you look at a shampoo bottle or a chair, you just see the thing.  You don’t really wonder where it came from, why it’s shaped the way it is.  It just is.

As your cognitive world expands, you start to realize that behind a physical product there is a vast world of human decision-making.  Design.  Countless invisible choices have already been made.  Choices about the shape, size, color, texture, and functionality.  There are choices about materials and sources and manufacturing processes.  Questions of liability and ethics and safety hide behind every decision.  You stumble upon a vast web of human messiness.

Too often in our classrooms, we present a world that is neat and orderly.  We hide the complexity.

That’s why I love the movement to bring design thinking into the classroom.  It is an invitation to students to consider themselves not as passive recipients of the world as it already is, but as agents who can and should have a say in what the world around us looks like.  Design is deeply empathetic to the human experience, and isn’t afraid (or at least shouldn’t be) to challenge convention in order to better anticipate and facilitate the needs of human users.  The tools of the designer are, in essence, a bridge into more complex and critical thinking.

I loved seeing students, during the first week of school at Advanced Learning Academy, engaged in design thinking.  In this case, their team of teachers presented a problem to the class – how to conveniently transport their transactional tools like money or credit cards.  In essence, the redesign of a wallet.  Now, most students could quickly sketch out a new wallet design if they were asked.  The key to upping the rigor and complexity is engaging a design process that meaningfully connects the practical features of the product to human needs.

In this case, students interviewed classmates, pushing to understand the user perspective around desired functionality.  After interviewing a pair of classmates, students had to distill what they heard into key findings.

“What is your partner trying to achieve?”

“What new learnings do you have about your partner’s feelings and motivations?”

With a clear statement of purpose, students set about to ideate and prototype possible solutions.  The idea is to capture a broader range of possibilities, pushing past convention in order to really imagine how a product could better attend to user needs and preferences.  Teams then built their most promising ideas into prototype designs, and shared them with their student colleagues to get further feedback and insight about their design choices.  The entire process assumes ongoing reflection and revision – students are not trying to discover THE right design.  Rather, they are iterating their way towards a highly responsive design outcome.

Part of the cognitive push of design thinking is helping students develop an awareness and vocabulary around the collaborative process itself.  In this case, the teachers asked teams to establish criteria for earning team points.  Each team displayed their team-generated criteria on a nearby poster, and the teachers referred to the team posters when engaging students in conversations about the quality of their collaboration.

We often talk in broad terms about collaboration as a key 21st Century Learning skill, without fleshing out the accompanying vocabulary and analytical skills necessary to talk about collaboration in any meaningful or measurable way.  Design thinking helps students recognize that the quality of outcomes is often dependent on the quality of process – and equips them with the vocabulary to reflect and analyze their own contributions to the team.

And let’s not forget that the project was fun.


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