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Last week I was speaking to another parent on the playground about the Earth Day project I have been leading in Robotics Club. I used the phrase “design thinking” and she asked, “What does that even mean?” I had to pause for a moment to think of the most concise explanation. I finally explained that design thinking is, at it’s most simple definition, an active, creative, collaborative approach to solving problems. My friend replied, “But, that’s nothing new. That’s just how the kids at Magellan learn to solve problems.”

Indeed, at Magellan International School, problem solving is a way of life. It’s a way of learning new information, integrating with previous knowledge and then putting ideas into action. For some people “design thinking” feels a bit like the educational buzzword of the moment, but really it’s so much more.

In Robotics Club we have been using the Engineering Design Process developed by the Boston Museum of Science:

  • ASK: What is the problem? How have others approached it? What are your constraints?
  • IMAGINE: What are some solutions? Brainstorm ideas. Choose the best one.
  • PLAN: Draw a diagram. Make lists of materials you will need.
  • CREATE: Follow your plan and create something. Test it out!
  • IMPROVE: What works? What doesn’t? What could work better? Modify your designs to make it better. Test it out!

But, the specific program or words a teacher may use to describe the process is not the important part of the activity. The goal is rather to create an opportunity for kids to engage in real problems that involve multiple stages of asking and thinking about a problem, brainstorming possible solutions, creating a plan, building a prototype, testing and iterating on the design, and presenting the solution to others. This type of problem solving extends even beyond project based learning, which sometimes focuses on the end result and classroom discussion. I spoke with Patrick Benfield, STEAM and Makerspace director at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin, about how he uses and explains design thinking. He explained that he often refers to materials from the, Stanford University’s design thinking institute. The considers a “bias towards action” to be at the core of design thinking, which means leveraging the process for something useful. This goes beyond planning, beyond discussion, and creates something actionable. For Magellan, an IB school that encourages student led action, this is a huge first step in empowering students.

Will Richardson, veteran educator, author, and TEDTalk presenter says it beautifully: “In modern learning it’s all about producing and iterating, figuring out what’s working and not working, revising, trying again.”

In a world where kids can easily look up the answer to most questions via a quick Google search, the way we educate children in the 21st century becomes less about rote memorization, and the “3 R’s” and more about creating a new learning environment – one where kids are comfortable expressing their ideas, collaborating with others, and above all are willing to fail. Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” I’m thrilled that my child is part of a school that isn’t afraid to create a culture that considers mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth.

If you walk the halls at Magellan today, you’ll see the results of design thinking on display at every turn. In the kindergarten makerspace, for example, students have been actively creating collaborative solutions to challenges in their community.  The Robotics Club Earth Day presentations in the front hallway showcase the month long projects that second and third grade students completed; they created machines to clean plastic from lakes, oceans, and rivers. The MYP Reduce, Reuse, Recycle products are great examples of students’ creative approaches to solve the problem of excess waste.

These types of projects not only increase student engagement but also help students become adept at creative problem solving. It gives them the perfect outlet to practice IB Attributes as they collaborate with one another. Collaboration is probably one of the most difficult skills to learn, but in the past few weeks I’ve seen students as young as 5 years old express ideas, respectfully disagree with their peers, incorporate ideas of each person on the team in order to solve problems, and proudly present their results to peers and parents. That is the magic behind these motivating projects. They provide an opportunity for learning that goes well beyond lecture and worksheets. And though the end result of a 5 year old’s solution to a problem, built with cardboard, masking tape, and pipe cleaners may not look like much to some, it is the process, not the product, that is key.

The Stanford describes the initial phase of design thinking as empathy. There is truly no better way for kids to experience real-world problems than to approach them in terms of better understanding the end user. This caring, open-minded questioning, thinking, and problem solving in terms of the impact on other people, animals, the planet, etc., is what what makes design thinking such a great fit at Magellan. It helps students learn and practice the skills they will require in the future to figure things out and to come up with unique ideas to problems that we can’t yet imagine. To survive the future, we need people with original ideas. Through design thinking, students at Magellan are developing their creative confidence and learning that they have the power to change the world!

Also published on Medium.