Better Education through Design

July 16, 2018 | | View Comments

by Trent Babington

What is design thinking, and why does it matter in education? Ahead of July’s Design Museum Mornings event, let’s take time to examine these questions.

We’ll start with a definition.

Many of us are familiar with the term, but the concept itself can be a bit nebulous. When we say “design thinking,” we mean the process, divided into discrete steps, that we use to create a product. For clarity’s sake, let’s use the version followed at IDEO, the Californian design firm that helped popularize design thinking: 1) Empathize 2) Generate ideas 3) prototype 4) test to learn 5) Share.

Design Thinking Design Museum

Design Thinking Cycle courtesy of Compucom

Why does design thinking matter in education?

Design for Change, provides several excellent examples of how design thinking can change education for the better. They are a global nonprofit that offers seminars for schools and children’s groups, meant to enable students to apply design thinking to issues in their communities.

Step by step, here’s what participants (in this case, middle schoolers at the Exploris School in Raleigh, North Carolina) learned from DfC’s design thinking curriculum:

1) Begin with empathy: ask yourself, what do people actually need? This step, aside from ensuring that the product will always have a market, carries even greater importance. It forces kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and to cultivate a mindset focused on change-making.

Design Thinking Design Museum



Application: Teachers showed students that the city government was under-serving local refugees. Problems discussed included language barriers and food accessibility.



2) Generate Ideas. Based on this fact, teachers helped students articulate a design question: “how do we better serve refugees in our community?” Students then gathered in a group and brainstormed  potential answers.



Application: Students learned to express their own ideas, while respecting their classmates and being receptive to criticism. Many adults still need to learn that skill!



3) Prototype. Knowing how to experiment and understand design flaws is incredibly valuable. Thomas Riddle, a writer with Edutopia, puts it best:

“Because of its reliance on rapid prototyping, [a design thinking curriculum] frees practitioners to embrace the notion of failing forward because it’s OK to make mistakes—that’s where breakthrough ideas are born.”



Application: Using the ideas developed in the previous phase, students began making interactive games for ESL learners.




4) Test to Learn: Prototypes don’t always work on the first attempt, and probably not the second, either. In an educational context, this step is perhaps the most crucial, because it teaches kids to deal with failure. According to the Journal of Education Culture and Society, “[within a design thinking curriculum,] students…learn to make their own mistakes and realize that there are no right or wrong solutions to various problems.”

More generally, it teaches critical thinking. Students must ask themselves, “why did this prototype not work? How can we make it work? What can I learn from this experience?



Application: At first, these games were simple and unbalanced, but the participants kept iterating them, and before anyone knew it, they had a usable product.



5) Share. This step is often overlooked, but few doubt that the ability to articulate a vision, whether in speech or writing, is an incredibly important skill—and one that few schools bother to teach. Design thinking fills this gap.



Application: Students were encouraged to take pride in their achievements, boosting self-esteem. They also learned to articulate their ideas through a video (watch it here).


The Bottom Line

Design thinking teaches kids many valuable lessons, from the importance of empathy to how to deal with failure. It is a concrete process, and, with care, it can be distilled into curricula applicable to students of any age.

We’ve only scratched the surface. Want to know more? Come to our next Design Museum Mornings event on July 20, 2018, from 8:30-10:00 am at 1 Design Center Pl #514, Boston. Tickets are available on our website.

Design Museum Mornings is a monthly event series brought to you by Design Museum Boston. Each event includes a short presentation by a local thought-leader, free breakfast, and great people to spend the morning with. Various businesses of the Greater Boston host and sponsor these events.