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Using Design Thinking in 3rd Grade

By Nassim Shandy

Last year, Melissa Hoang attended a two-day Design Thinking workshop at Stanford University's Design School (d.school) that made a dramatic impact on her teaching. "It was almost like a spiritual experience. It was a huge shift in my mindset in terms of sustainability in creativity and thought."

As a child, Melissa grew up in an environment where rather than having adults schedule summertime experiences, children were the ones who created their own version of summer camp. "We didn't have a whole lot of supervision, so we were responsible for being 'creative' and using our time well. I was forced to sew and learn multiple different things on my own. Before visiting the d.school, I didn't realize creativity could have a bigger purpose other than just being fun." Melissa learned that creativity is not reserved for artists, but for everyone in all walks of life. Furthermore, it wasn't something to be used in a vacuum or on solitary pursuits. Instead, it could be used to connect, to bridge gaps, to understand and empathize with others. "Design Thinking taught us how to practice creativity selflessly -- and I was immediately converted!"

In a nutshell, Design Thinking is an ongoing process in which we seek to understand the "user," challenge assumptions, and redefine problems that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. It revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we're designing the products or services. And most importantly, it helps us observe and develop empathy with our "user." At CEE, Melissa decided that she would expose her third grade students to Design Thinking by having them address the following prompt to launch a project:

How can innovative tools helps us learn more about our community?

"Starting off small is massive!" said Melissa with regards to how she approached the prompt. Starting small builds student confidence, and assures them that they can tackle a project that might ultimately reveal itself to be quite large. With this in mind, Melissa started with the fairly simple task of having the students make name-tags for one another. They adhered to the following guidelines:

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Students made a prototype with their own name for practice. Melissa then modeled an example of how one might approach creating a name-tag for another. Using her daughter, Lila, as her client, Melissa shared with the students how they must keep Lila's desires in mind. For example, Lila is a young child, and should stay away from sharp edges. So, bearing that in mind, one realized certain things might dictate the design of the name-tag. For example, Lila would most likely prefer a name-tag that was circular rather than one with points -- such as one in the shape of a star. Melissa told the students that satisfying one's client's wishes, and not one's own personal preferences, was key.


Melissa's third grade students set about interviewing their clients to elicit stories that revealed personal preferences. They then drew a blueprint for their designs based on the knowledge they gleaned. After receiving client feedback, the students generated prototypes. Then came yet another round of feedback. This close connection with the clients, and continued refinement of the project, was important in teaching the students that the process is fluid, ever evolving, and not complete after a "first draft."

This creative and empathetic approach to learning is something Melissa is excited to further develop the next time she uses Design Thinking with students. While she felt pleased with this first run at teaching Design Thinking, Melissa expressed that she learned a number of things that she would incorporate if teaching this same project again next year -- so she will continue to modify and evolve this project, much like the students working on their projects in her classroom.


Melissa's biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that social-emotional skills can easily be tied into technology skills. "Technology can reflect and impact feelings, and that's important to remember as we move through the 21st century." Many of the emerging fields are most definitely going to be technology-driven, but one must always remember that human beings are ultimately the target audience, and connecting with them is the most important thing one can do.