The concept of design thinking originated as a solution to business problems, user testing and has mostly existed and thrived in the commercial world.
In the last few years, however, a growing number of prominent education experts have been looking at ways to implement design thinking as an idea for early years of education, as well as in high school.
In this article, we are focussing on how design thinking can be effectively worked specifically into the world of early years of education for kids.
What is Design Thinking?
How Does it Work in Business?
As we touched on above, design thinking process has its roots in the world of business – UX design and user experience, rather than of education. It is defined both as a process of design and of innovation in which “we seek to understand the user, define the problem, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent…” (interaction-design.org).
The entire model when used in business was focused on looking at the user or the target audience; the people using certain product or service.
Instead of using a linear process of taking a problem and brainstorming possible solutions, design thinking process asks us to study the target audience using the product very closely, observe the user with empathy in a process and design possible solutions.
Steps of the Design Thinking:
Step 1: Empathize with your users
Step 2: Define the problem – what are your user’s needs & problems and what insights you have
Step 3: Ideate by creating ideas for innovative solutions that also challenge previous assumptions that were made about the product/service or the user experience
Step 4: Create a prototype solution
Step 5: Test the prototype
Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 until a fully working solution is ready
The other interesting aspect of design thinking is that it’s not just stages 4 and 5 that can be repeated — or reiterated as design thinkers would say — but any stage at any time if it means you are working towards that same goal of innovative solutions that challenge previous assumptions that have been proven wrong.
Who Has Discussed Its Use in Education?
It all sounds very business-like, so how does it translate into education? It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think.
In the case of education the problem solvers are teachers, school leadership and school governing bodies and organisations, and the “users” are the children themselves, and you might argue also the parents depending on the particular educational problem you’re trying to deal with.
That’s the simplest way of looking design process, but it should also be an idea in which the students themselves can also be the problem solvers, and their teachers mere facilitators to provide them the resources and opportunity to use their design thinking skills to solve problems, complete tasks and improve their knowledge and understanding.
In sum, therefore, we have two ways in which design thinking can be integrated into education:
● In terms of the teachers, school leaders and governing bodies using it to solve problems with the successful provision of public education to the students, their “users.”
● In terms of the kids learning the skills of design thinking as an integrated part of their overall learning experience.
We will be looking more closely at the latter moving forward into the next section where we focus on implementing and integrating design thinking into early years’ education.
How Can Design Thinking Be Included in Early Years of Education?
In education systems around the world, design education has become a firm fixture of secondary-level education, especially in the UK where design was introduced as part of technology education in the 1970s.
In the US, design thinking was integrated at the university level pioneered mostly by Stanford University in California from 2003, and in particular its Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka “the d.school”).
But what about in early years of education? If it more naturally fits as a component of learning in secondary and higher education, how can design thinking be then brought to the preschool and primary school levels? That is what we hope to demonstrate in this section.
For the early years’ classroom, there are 3 core teaching elements that are needed to lay the foundations of design thinking — in other words, teach design thinking without ever using the technical terminology behind it — and they are: teaching empathy; teaching “making” and teaching reflection
By teaching kids to empathize, early years’ educators are laying the foundation for their students to become competent and effective design thinkers.
Many experts have put forward ideas and frameworks on how this can be achieved, and below is an example:
Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell
Developmental Psychologist; Founder of Roots of Action; author of “Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation”
Price-Mitchell’s framework for teaching empathy is built on four simple stages: Feel, Imagine, Do, Share, or “FIDS” and has received particular attention for its ability to easily transfer from practice in the classroom to real life at home.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell-Price has challenged students to use FIDS to create content for the #DoGoodFromHome hashtag on social media. Here’s a quick summary of how FIDS works:
● Feel – kids connect with news, articles and social media posts to learn more about people who need help
● Imagine – kids brainstorm ideas for safe ways to interact with that community and make an impact
● Do – kids take action to put ideas into practice
● Share – kids report on what they’ve done and reflect on what it meant to them
A very simple example and how it connects to design thinking would be kids recognizing that local healthcare workers in a nearby hospital always look tired.
The hospital might have made the assumption that people having days off would ensure their staff were never tired.
Now kids learning empathy — and design thinking — might imagine that something to cheer them up and boost morale would help them overcome tiredness, like a nice plate of cookies.
So the kids progress to action to make cookies and then take them to the healthcare workers.
Through trying to imagine and feel how healthcare workers are feeling, the kids learn to empathize first and foremost, but then in addition how to act on that.
Empathy is the critical first step since the first stage of design thinking is being able to understand how your ‘target audience or users’ are thinking and feeling about something.
The next step is a deeper development of Price-Mitchell’s third stage, “Do.” One of the best current examples of how this can be implemented in early years’ education is the phenomenon known as “Maker Education:
Term coined by Dale Dougherty in 2013; The “father” of the Maker Movement; Founder of Maker Media, owner of “Make” magazine; founder of Maker Faires movement, and more.
Doughtery’s principles and ideas are used across the entire spectrum of K-12 and higher education systems, but we want to focus in particular on early years.
Maker education has a strong focus on STEM, which of course form the main practical abilities required within design thinking to help young people to take action and improve things around them.
Related: Try Building Straw Bridges – it is a great hands-on activity to put design thinking to use.
At the center of Dougherty’s education vision was the creation of makerspaces in schools of all levels.
In their words, it’s a “collaborative work space inside a school, library, or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.”
At the higher level they include 3D printers, laser cutters and other gear, but for early years students they don’t need all this.
In a makerspace, kids can do almost anything creative — there are a few, if any, limitations.
They could take things and deconstruct them to see individual parts, learn about different textures, colours and appearances of things in nature, they can do arts and crafts, and work together on group projects.
Exploring Value of Makerspaces
A team at the university of Sheffield led by Jackie Marsh worked to identify the value of so-called “Makerspaces” — a product of Dougherty’s Maker Education revolution — for early years learners as well as older learners.
Play was identified as “an important factor in the provision of makerspaces that foster engagement, creativity, and social participation.” Marsh’s paper reports on a number of case studies from the north of England, 2 from nursery schools and 2 from primary schools.
Marsh’s study found strong evidence that “makerspaces can foster children’s agency and provide them with opportunities to explore personal interests.”
It also pointed out the importance of children leading their own creative time in order to gain the most benefit.
Marsh also points to the great way that makerspaces teach “making” across a range of digital and non-digital platforms, giving children a broad range of experience and opportunity to foster their creative skills.
When it comes to teaching reflection, there’s perhaps no system better equipped to bring it to early education classrooms than the International Baccalaureate (IB).
Below we’ll look a bit more closely at the research and development IB organisations and schools have done to implement reflection, which is also a crucial part of the design process.
IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) expert; IB PYP educator; coach of PYP instructional practices; expert in “student-led inquiry”
At the heart of the IB PYP (as well as MYP and DP for middle and high school students respectively) is the notion of “inquiry.”
Students make inquiries into the world around them using a central prompt or question that comes from the IB PYP framework. After exploring and then taking action to understand these central ideas, students enter into a process of reflection.
The reflection stage is a critical part of personal, social and emotional education, but also a critical step in the design process.
As Powers writes, it’s all about creating what’s known as a “growth mindset.” Students “[evaluate] our progress of our goals, reflect on next steps and [take] action.”
Powers lists among the benefits of a reflective approach to learning the development of skills in: self-assessment, goal setting, critical thinking, observation, problem-solving, creative thinking and communication.
At the primary school level, kids can do this through the creation of their own reflection journal. For younger students, it’s mostly a notion of getting them thinking about things they have done and what they gain from it.
The reflection process contributes greatly to kids’ empathic power, which then feeds back into the design process when it comes time to take action and solve problems.
Conclusion: Could Design Thinking Change Education in the Future?
At the heart of design thinking are the core skills and abilities found in most STEM fields. The US Department of Commerce has identified that STEM occupations are growing at a much faster rate, compared to other professions.
STEM degree holders therefore have an advantage when it comes to income and career development.
Design thinking is a brilliant and simple way to promote the core STEM skills in learners of the youngest ages and up. It’s actually an entirely new culture; a language of development that we definitely want our kids to know for the future.
Rather than stalling along a limited linear system of progress, design thinking opens the process into an entire web of interconnected pathways that problem solvers explore to find alternative and innovative solutions to modern problems.
In a world where we can’t wait years for the next innovation to come along, we need design thinkers to be a dominant force in future generations.
When another global storm hits, we’ll need their collective power to generate solutions of control and prevention that conventional thinking simply cannot handle.