Design thinking. What is it? A quick google gives an endless number of “design cycles”. But which one is correct? Which is the best for student learning? After looking through a few of them, it is clear that there are many similarities between them; however, there is still an overwhelming number of variations. 

Design Thinking in Action

We have just completed a unit in my Grade 5 community that leant itself nicely to the use of design thinking. In this How the world works unit, students work collaboratively as “engineers” to construct their understanding of simple machines and the ways in which we use creative thinking to solve problems.

Throughout this unit students work together to in a series of design tasks (described in greater detail below). We thought that this was a authentic way to introduce students to a design cycle. This was an opportunity for a natural connection to our previous unit where we explored the idea of a creative process.

As a team, we discussed using the MYP design cycle. We thought that it would be a good opportunity to expose them to what they would be using next year. However, after a quick discussion, we realized that this cycle was far more detailed than what we were looking for. So instead we decided that our design cycle would be co-constructed with students.

MYP Design Cycle by Jessica Nite

In our provocation, students took part in a series of design challenges. After completing each challenge, students reflected on the task and process they went through. Together we were able to discuss with students the steps they had gone through, and co-constructed our (very simple) design process – plan, act, reflect. 

ISD Grade 5 Design Challenges

As the unit went on, the focus was to engage students in a longer design thinking process. Students were given the task of creating a Fun Fair game targeted at the Reception, Prep and Grade 1 students at our school. Caine’s Arcade served as the inspiration for this task. The one catch was that they would need to learn about simple machines as they designed and built their games and explain their use within the game. 

I wish I had seen John Spencer’s LAUNCH Cycle sooner. Digging through the resources this week, I realized that students may have benefitted from a framework with a little more guidance as they worked through their own design process.

This framework could have been incredibly useful for the students had we worked together to identify what could have happened at each stage. This not only would have helped guide students through the process, but may have helped them document their journey as well. 

Look, listen, and learn: 
– Watch Caine’s Arcade for inspiration.
– Identify a target audience.
– Identify the task.

Ask a ton of questions:
– What is a Fun Fair game? What are some examples?
– What materials do I have available?
– What are the different simple machines? How will I use them?
– How will my target audience impact the game I make?

Understand the process or problem: 
– Research the different simple machines.
– Identify how these could be used in a game.
– Develop an understanding of what makes an engaging fun fair game. 

Navigate ideas:
– Design a fun fair game.
– Explain how simple machines will be used in this game. 
– Identify what materials/supplies will be needed to build this game.

Create a prototype:
– Seek out the needed materials. 
– Start building the game.
– Adjust the plan as necessary. 

Highlight and fix: 
– Identify what parts are working, and what needs adjusting. 
– Solve problems using ingenuity (creative thinking, cleverness, new ideas).

Launch to an audience: 
– Share game with the target audience at the Grade 5 Fun Fair. 

While it is incredibly detailed, the one drawback to this cycle in my opinion is that the cycle goes in one direction. This tells me that one step will always follow the previous. Design thinking can be messy. I appreciate that in the MYP Design Cycle and the cycle my team created that the arrows go both ways.

Design Thinking in the Classroom

As I read through the content for this week, I pulled out a book that’s been sitting on my coffee table (neglected) for a long time – Design Thinking in the Classroom, by David Lee. In this book, he identifies five phases of design thinking:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

In line with my previous comment, David Lee states that, “In this section [of the book] we go through the process in a linear fashion for clarity; however, there is no set progression in using these phases.” (Lee, 47)

Flipping through this book, I have quickly realized that a quick skim will not do it justice. There are a lot of great ideas within it that deserve a deeper read. One section that stood out to me was introduction to ideation. 

David Lee writes that for ideation to occur, students need to use creativity and their imagination. He states that this can be a scary thought for a lot of students and teachers as they believe that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. He goes on to counteract this belief. 

As I read through this section, I was reminded of this video. While we usually show this to our students during our How we express ourselves unit, I think it would be a nice link to this unit when asking our students to use ingenuity to solve problems. 

It’s easy to look back on this unit and think about all the things we could have done differently. Although the use of a more detailed framework may have benefited our students through the process; overall, this unit was a success. Students engaged in design thinking (whether or not they can label the stages of this) and created some engaging Fun Fair games for their target audience. 

And they had fun while they did it!